No, I’m not going to start my A-Z with an in-depth article on our struggling ice hockey team – the Colorado Avalanche. In January 2001, during a brief spell in Europe, I wrote a three-part article on Ski Safety in the Alps. Part Two focused on Avalanches, and as this article was never made public at the time (blogging was still in its infancy), I choose today to reproduce it in part. Although the news itself is dated, it acts as a history lesson and the message and relevancy is still very much in the present.
February 1999 saw some of the worst avalanches on record in Europe. 38 people alone were killed at the neighboring resorts of Gaulter and Valzur in Austria which, until the funicular disaster in Kaprun which killed 155 people, was Austria’s worst ever alpine disaster. To the uninitiated, it might seem foolhardy even to contemplate a ski vacation either in areas prone to avalanches, or following these fatalities. However, despite warnings that they may strike again, thousands of Britons continued to hit the slopes on European alpine ski holidays. This may have been due to a reluctance to change venues or cancel outright, or due to a “it wouldn’t happen to me” feeling. Indeed, if all skiers followed a simple set of rules, it probably wouldn’t happen to them. However, it seems that the “invincibility factor” contributes more to ski fatalities than anything else. Let’s examine this.
- Avalanches in the Tyrol in November 2000 killed 4 skiers who were off-piste, and it was they who sparked the avalanche according to a rescue spokesman. The Avalanche Warning Service only the day before had issued a warning of avalanches due to 2 days of heavy snow.
- 13 people died in Kaprun, Austria in March 2000, and were part of an advanced training course skiing off-piste. This avalanche happened after rain in the morning was followed by sunshine.
- In December 1999, 9 members of a 10-strong group of German skiers skiing off-piste were killed – again in Galtuer, Austria. Apparently they had set out for a Millennium party in a mountain hut, despite warnings from locals to stay away from slope vulnerable to avalanches.
- And in January 1998, 9 children and 2 adults among a party of 32 snowshoers, lost their lives to an avalanche while traversing an unauthorized path at 2,300 meters. Repeated avalanche warnings had been issued, and many resorts were on the maximum avalanches alert of 5 out of 5.
Two common themes prevail it seems. Firstly, the avalanches causing the deaths were caused by the skiers of snowshoers themselves while off-piste. Secondly, these activities were undertaken in the face of avalanche warnings and, in some cases, also against the advice of locals.
There is of course a fascination for skiing off-piste which, if permitted, and if conducted in the company of others and with due consideration to conditions and warnings of avalanches, can be an exhilarating and enjoyable experience. Perhaps in this day and age where the slopes (in Europe) are often over-crowded and/or in the search of high adrenalin induce activity, it is understandable that there is this craving to go beyond the boundaries. And again, we are talking about a very small minority of people who have either the technical ability, or the nerve to indulge.
However, as three British skiers discovered, you run the risk of being taken to court if your actions cause avalanches and are thus deemed negligent. It seems though that the authorities cannot win, whatever stance they take. Off-piste skiing was banned for a 5-day period in the Haute-Savoie region of the French Alps from February 12,1999, but officials were forced to scale back the measure after mountaineers and skiers protested.
Either way, the responsibility for your own life and those with whom you ski rests in your own hands, and consequently a very high standard of safety should prevail. The National Snow and Ice Data Center has an excellent page on Avalanche Awareness, and should be required reading by anyone contemplating skiing in areas that are susceptible to avalanches. Wherever there is a warning of avalanches, skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers should avoid heading off-piste and listen to the advice given at individual resorts. Simple enough?