Messages that were frozen in time

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TRAPPED beneath the icy wastes of Mont Blanc, their sentiments and secrets have been frozen in time.

• The letters that were discovered in the French Alps. Picture: Dundee University/Complimentary

But six decades after being lost in an air disaster, the poignant contents of a mailbag which played a key role in a hit film has been uncovered by a group of Scottish students.

The delegation from Dundee University was on a field trip to Europe's highest mountain last month when an undergraduate chanced upon a bundle of letters which had been on board an Air India flight when it crashed into the French Alps.

Now the university's conservationists are working to restore the correspondence, which includes family letters and birthday cards, before sending them on to the original authors or their relatives.

They have already traced the daughter of a late US pilot, whose colourful account of his time working in India will finally make its way home.

The mailbag was stored in the cargo of the ill-fated Malabar Princess, bound for Geneva from Cairo, when it crashed near the summit of 4,810 metre Mont Blanc on 3 November 1950. The search for survivors on the mountain's icy slopes was a major international story.

The elusive lost correspondence formed a vital plot device in the classic 2001 French film, Amelie, when Audrey Tautou's character is inspired to create a fictional letter - from a lover who had died in the Malabar Princess crash - for a lonely female concierge after hearing about mountaineers finding similar letters and sending them on to their destinations.

While the summer thaws have revealed numerous artefacts from the aircraft's wreckage over the years, the find by the team from Dundee is the most emotive yet. It was discovered around 2,500 metres from the crash site after it had been carried down the mountain by a flowing glacier in the last 60 years.

The nine-strong group, led by glaciologist Dr Ben Brock, were carrying out observations at a weather station in June, measuring weather patterns, temperature levels, and hydrology. Located some 2,300 metres up on the Miage glacier, they started to come across shards of metal littering the surface.

Freya Cowan, a third-year geography student on the trip, asked her lecturer what had happened. "There were bits of shrapnel all around us," she said. "When I found out about the crash, I thought it was awful."

As the light dimmed, the team resolved to descend the glacier. Before joining them, Cowan broke away from her colleagues for a toilet break.

"I had to walk quite a way before I was out of sight of the others behind a large boulder," she recalled. "When I was walking back, I noticed something behind another rock. I thought it was an old glaciology textbook left by another student, but when I started poking around, I couldn't believe it."

Inside a blue canvas mailbag, which had descended more than 2,500 metres over the years, the 22-year-old found bundles containing hundreds of items. A quick glance at the letter on top of the pile made clear their significance. The postmark read: ‘Bombay, 1950'. I thought it was a joke, given that only moments before I had been talking about the crash," she revealed.

Pressed for time, she and the team deposited the mail into plastic bags, before making their way down the Miage. That night, they carefully examined a sample of the letters.

"My favourite item is someone's birthday card to their mother who was 87. They wish her ‘God's blessings for the year ahead'," added Cowan, from North Berwick. "Some of the mail is better preserved than others, and there are some very touching personal letters."

Dr Tim Reid, a glaciologist and post-doctoral researcher who was also on the field trip, has already made contact with the daughter of Hank Smith, a US pilot who wrote an account of his time working in India.

He said: "Hank's letter tells a fantastic story about how he was working in Bombay and the Middle East. At one point, he writes about how he got stuck in the desert for three weeks, and had to get the help of the British Army to fend off Bedouin tribes looking to steal his equipment.

"I found the website of a company he worked for. It turns out that he died in 1999, but through some of his former colleagues I have been in contact with his daughter. She was absolutely astonished when I told her."

While the majority of the mail consists of invoices and business letters for the cotton trade, other letters provide a poignant reminder of that moment in history. One refers to the unveiling of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, while another, written in the early weeks of the Korean War, states: "It would appear at present there is nothing to worry about in the Korean situation."

Despite feeling "a bit awkward" about reading mail intended for strangers, Reid hopes other items can be preserved. "The Book and Paper Conservation Studio at the university is now hoping to rescue some of the more damaged fragments, although we will have to find some additional funding to cover that," he said. Two years ago, Daniel Roche, an aviation collector, discovered one of the engines from the Malabar Princess partly buried in the mountain ice while on a climbing exhibition.

The plane's cockpit was found by a French television team in 1992, while a bar at the foothills of the Bossons glacier near Chamonix has installed the aircraft's wheel as a feature.

Forty passengers and eight crew were killed in the crash, the reasons for which are still open to debate.

In a report in our sister title, The Scotsman, the scale of search party - and the treacherous conditions in which they were operating - was apparent.

"French, Swiss, American, and Italian military and civil planes have been scouring the French-Swiss Alps," stated the dispatch from 6 November 1950. "On the ground the searchers included guides, cable-railwaymen, ski troops, villagers, and Trappist monks with divining equipment."