147 die in European avalanches
13th May 2010
It’s in line with the annual average figure though Austria saw a significant increase and there was a rise in the number of mountain professionals getting caught out.
The bald statistics make grim reading.
Each year on average 26 people die in avalanches in Austria during the winter, but this season it was 37.
During the previous winter of 2008/09 a total of 32 people killed.
In neighbouring Switzerland 28 people died in the past winter. The same as the previous winter.
In Switzerland the figures break down to 21 off piste skiers, 2 off piste snowboarders, 2 people snowshoeing, 1 mountaineer, 1 rescue and 1 other person.
The figures come from the Swiss Avalanche Institute, which is based in Davos.
In Switzerland the average number of people that die annually is 24.
The figure though does fluctuate. In 20007/08 it was 11 while in 2000/01 it was 32.
So, why the rise in Austria this past winter?
There was no single large incident, but rather a higher number of individual instances and they were spread throughout the winter.
The main factor was not so much the behaviour of skiers and snowboarders or the amount of snow that falls, but rather the stability of the snowpack.Some people though continue to ignore signs and safery measures.
In many parts of the Austrian Alps the base was unstable and the boding between the various layers was unstable.
Interestingly despite the growing number of people that ski and snowboard off piste the average number of deaths has remained fairly constant over the past 2 decades.
However there was a sharp increase in the number of mountain professionals getting caught in avalanches.
One example was an off piste ski instructor who died in the Obertauern region of Austria in February. He was with 2 clients and skied a slope to check if it was safe when it slid.
He set off a massive avalanche 600m long and 300m wide. He was buried under 3m of snow.
A 60-year old Italian mountain guide was caught in Crans-Montana at the beginning of February. He survived.
Less fortunate was a 35 year old Fench mountain guide, Benjamin Gaimard, who was killed along with his clients near Les Arcs in France in January.
For a view of how quickly an avalanche can start see the video below.
The skier survived shaken but unharmed as he stayed on top of the slide and fortunately it didn’t develop into a bigger one or end up in a terrain trap or hollow.
The video below shows an extreme snowboarder getting caught in an avalanche at 1 minute and 20 seconds in.
It raises the question of whether this sort of activity should be set to music and glamourised. We leave you to make your own mind up.
“As the trend in skiing and snowboarding goes more and more to off piste so the pressure on pros to take their clients off piste grows. Especially the search for fresh powder which of course is the most unstable,” says the mountain guide and PlanetSKI off piste safety expert, Nick Parks.
Parks runs the specialist company, Mountain Tracks.
“30 years ago when I started off piste I remember we used to wait 3 days after a storm for conditions to settle down, sadly there are no fresh tracks to be had 3 hours, let alone 3 days, after a snow fall these days.”
In the worst incident in Switzerland last season a doctor was killed by a secondary avalanche while attending an acciden near the capital, Bern.
6 people died and it was the worst single incident in the country for a decade.
An avalanche hit a group of ski tourers in the Diemtig Valley to the south of Bern in Switzerland and then as rescuers tried to reach them another avalanche hit killing one of the doctors at the scene.
It is the first time that a member of the Swiss Air Service rescue, REGA, has died while trying to rescue people.
In January in the area of Bagnes near Verbier, the base resort of PlanetSKI, a man died while skiing off piste with a mountain guide.The 2 were caught near the Tête de la Payanne.
The guide managed to free himself after being partially buried, but the client was found dead under almost 1m of snow when the rescue services arrived.
If you want to see how people are rescued take a look at the video in this related PlanetsKI story.
Italy also saw a rise in deaths and it became a national media story when a government minister criticised people that put the rescue services at risk.
4 members of the mountain patrol died in December when carrying out a rescue operation after 2 people out snow-shoeing got into difficulties. We reported in it here at the time.
In all 6 people died in the incident.
“Enough is enough of dying because of the mistakes of others and those who fail to pay attention to the alarms and appeals of the authorities,” said Guido Bertolaso, a junior minister for civil protection.
Some called for people who get into difficulties simply to be left to their fate, but this move was not supported by the rescue services themselves.
Towards the end of the season in April there were a huge number of wet snow avalanches as the temperature warmed up and it rained heavily in places.
Many came down near, or on, the pistes.