Blake's Story - Eleven Days
Blake Hartley went missing two days after his 25th birthday, during his first night in Chamonix, France, in the early hours of the 8th August, 2004. He disappeared without a trace.
Blake was on an adventure training expedition, he was the leader, the only one qualified in Mountain Leadership, and he had got extensive experience.
Nine Army officer cadets from Sandhurst Military Academy, set off from England in three cars travelling in convoy on the 6th August. They were Blake, Jeremy Quarrie, Ashley Edwards, James Ashelby, Dom Dias, Matt Walker, Mike Bysshe, Matt Baker and Mark Evans. They stopped the night in St Omer, Northern France, to celebrate Blake's birthday, the following day they continued their journey and arrived in Chamonix during the afternoon. They pitched their tents on the Ile des Barrats campsite, had a couple of beers, changed and set off for a meal in town.
As they walked the half mile into the town they walked over a bridge that crossed one of the many tributaries that empty into River L'Arve. Blake commented on the river, warning the other cadets about the dangers of it; how it always runs at a constant temperature of just 3-5 degrees Celsius, winter and summer, because it is melt water from the snow high up in the Mont Blanc range. It is a fearsome river giving off an icy blast of air and has a very strong current. It is a completely opaque pale, pale brown in colour because of the silt it carries down with it, which means you literally cannot see beneath the surface. On the map it is referred to "Torrent L'Arve!"
The previous year, Blake and three other lads had stayed in Chamonix for four months and had been white water rafting down the river. A part of the experience was to get out of the boat and go through the safety procedures of what to do if they fell into the river. So Blake was very aware of the dangers the river held. He had also been skiing there earlier that spring with John Barry the mountaineer and his two sons Jo and John who was at Sandhurst with Blake.
The boys had a meal in town and then went to 'Le Garage' night club where they had a few more drinks but not many as they were very expensive. At approximately 2.30 am, Blake was the one to decide it was time to go home, so they set off in twos and threes. Blake walked paired off with Ashley Edwards.
According to Ash they first of all stopped at the Pizzeria which they found was closed and then continued back to the campsite perfectly all right; they had been chatting as they walked the half mile back keeping up a reasonable pace and jesting with one another. On arriving at the campsite Blake apparently decided it was the wrong one, (they had lowered the barrier for the night which may of confused him,) but as he had already found his way back to that point without fault and the fact that it was next to the hospital and very well lit in that area, it is difficult to understand why. Blake was also very familiar with the layout of Chamonix, particularly that river road as it was one that Blake and his friends had used regularly the previous year when visiting the climbing wall, Les Guillands. Ash apparently insisted it was the correct campsite but even so decided to follow Blake as he marched off down the road keeping a few yards behind him. They turned into another road and Blake apparently disappeared into a garden, Ash decided not to follow him and went down onto the river road to wait for Blake to appear. Apparently he didn't. It was the last he saw of him. Ash ran to the roundabout further along the road which is downstream of where Blake disappeared, looked about and then decided to go back to the campsite to bed. On his return he told one or two others who were still awake what had happened but they decided Blake would probably be okay and to wait till morning to see if he appeared.
On examining the garden the following day, there was some evidence that Blake may have walked through some long grass and climbed over the fence and jumped down into the road as there was some broken vegetation there. After that point there is simply no sign of him. He had vanished.
At this point various different scenarios come into play. He may have wandered across the road and into the river, but why? He knew the dangers of it, and they were uppermost in his mind. There was no sign of anybody having fallen into the river, no slip marks or any disturbed vegetation. Obviously, if he had gone into the river he may have had a heart attack brought on by the coldness of the water or hit his head and then just drowned, but following extensive searches along the banks and in the river itself, there has been nothing found to support that theory.
He may have fallen as he jumped over the fence and hit his head, become concussed and then wandered off somewhere, but why has no one seen him? He had his credit cards and mobile phone on him so surely he could have figured out who he was. Was he hit by a car and knocked into the river? There was a truly massive, torrential thunder storm 30 minutes after he was last seen which would make driving conditions very difficult, if so, someone must know they hit something that night. Why haven’t they been found? Did someone spike his drink, is that why he didn't recognise the campsite? Endless questions but no answers.
After the rest of the boys went to bed they slept till about 10 or 11 the next morning. As they all gradually awoke, they realised that Blake was missing and started to search for him in the surrounding area, calling his name as they went. They went up to the house where he had stayed last April when he was there skiing, and to the apartment where he had stayed last year. At 6 o’clock they reported him as missing to the local Gendarmes who instantly sent their helicopters up to search the river.
The first my husband (Blake’s stepfather), and I heard of this was on the Sunday evening when we immediately decided to fly out to Chamonix as soon as possible. We arrived on the Monday afternoon and went straight to the Gendarmerie where I had to give a statement. We then went to meet the boys and the guy who was with him last and went through the previous day’s events. The following day Blake's friends started to arrive in Chamonix to help with the search, all four lads who stayed with him there last year arrived, Phil, Chris, Adam and James. Then his university friends turned up, Andy, Tom and Tim, two of his cousins flew out too, Henry and Tom. They all had just left their jobs, got on the first plane available and come to help, saying that if it were the other way round, Blake would have done the same for them.
Over the next few days we all helped to physically search up and down the river banks and the surrounding area with the Gendarmes, the expedition lads, and also the Cambridge OTC, and the RAF Search and Rescue team who just happened to staying in Chamonix. They were located due to someone in Britain hearing a news report and then phoning the team in Chamonix and asking them to get in touch.
We had offers of help from people staying on the campsites, but there were only so many Gendarmes to lead each search team. One of the really low points of the search was when they asked for my DNA in order for the Gendarmes to compare it with Blake’s DNA that had been taken from his toothbrush. That moment really brought home to me just what we may have to face.
The terrain was very difficult to search, very rocky, deep rough vegetation, very steep banks at times, through quarries along side one part of the river. We often put ourselves in danger, especially when we searched the river below the dam, where we had been told not go. The dam (about 4 miles down river from where Blake was last seen), could automatically lower its defences at any time. Whenever the pressure of the water got to a certain point it would trigger the dam to release a tidal wave of water down the river, but everyone was so desperate to find something, anything.
The lads who were in Chamonix last year searched all the routes and places they had visited the previous year.
Helicopters searched endlessly up and down the river, very low with the searchers sitting in the open doorway looking and looking, occasionally being lowered to something they thought may have been Blake. Watching that happen was a heart-stopping moment.
On two occasions divers were put into the river in all the likely places that they safely could go into, but they found nothing, which to them was strange and they commented on the fact that usually if someone goes into the river a shoe, or an item of clothing is sure to be torn form the body at some stage.
Sniffer dogs (specially trained to detect bodies), searched the area including the dam and still no trace of him was found.
Somehow the French Electricity Board were persuaded to empty some of the water out of the dam (it is a hydro-electric dam). This happened during one night where for three hours some of the lads stood in the pouring rain, watching, with the use of search lights, everything coming over the dam. They saw nothing.
The area surrounding the campsite was searched time and time again, the search teams knocking on people’s doors, asking anyone and everyone in the area. We looked in every lock up garage, every store room every log store and anywhere a human being could possibly get into. According to the RAF Mountain Rescue Leader, a missing person is generally found within a few miles from where they went missing.
The Special Investigation Branch (S.I.B. – Army “Red Caps”), arrived from Germany to look into any likely criminal aspect of the investigation, interrogating the expedition lads very thoroughly indeed, where his phone had been used last and who he made calls to on the Saturday. They went through Blake's room at Sandhurst looking into all his bank accounts, checking to see whether his credit/bank cards had been used after he disappeared. They checked not only his, but also the expedition lad’s laptops, computers, and cameras.
On the Thursday following his disappearance I had to go to Bonneville with the Chief of the Chamonix Gendarmes, the Commanding Officer from Sandhurst, the Military Attaché from the British Embassy in Lyon, and our brilliant translator (one of the Expedition lads), to meet the Regional representative of the President of France. It was to discuss how the search had gone so far and what was going to happen next. This I quickly realised was to be the day the intense part of the search was to be called off. I know no one was really giving up on finding Blake but it began to feel that way, even though I knew in my heart that all that could possibly be done, and more, had been done. There was no way we could go home tomorrow if that was not the case. But to leave, not having found him would be the hardest thing in the world to do, and it was.
Even 52 Kilometres away in Bonneville everyone had heard about Blake (the news campaign was clearly working), and when we arrived the mayor of the town came to meet us and offer us “Bon courage!” As many people throughout the area did all the time. The kindness and sympathy we experienced from all sorts of people was marvellous and extremely touching. If positive thinking could have found him, he would have been found by now.
We managed to get extensive media coverage, put leaflets everywhere in and around all of Chamonix, up and down the valley, so if he is wandering about with loss of memory, why no one has spotted him? There are thousands of people walking around the Chamonix area at this time of the year. It just doesn’t make sense.
Blake was never a depressed morose sort of person; he was always happy, never bore a grudge against anyone however badly or unfairly they treated him. He could always see the amusing, fun side of life, never angry. He loved life, loved the army and was doing so well at Sandhurst, took every opportunity he could, level headed he always had a considered and rational in his approach to life. He was so loved by so many people and he loved them too. He adored a good debate, always up for a party and never wasted a moment of his life saying “what if”. So there is no way he would have deliberately gone into the river or walked away from his life. If he had fallen in he stood a very good chance of getting out of the river, he was well able to take care of himself, a very fit strong swimmer, a survivor.
Whatever has happened it is a mystery, one we really need some help in solving, we desperately need to find him. It has been eleven days now.
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