It is a story that has set the keyboards of ski forum users’ clattering. The head of the Annecy PGHM, Captain Patrick Poirot, has threatened to prosecute two ski tourers his unit had to rescue on Sunday 1st February.
The rescue occurred in the West Couloir of the Tête du Parmelan. A rarely skied and extreme line rated 5.3 with sections of 55° frequently requiring an abseil. It is a “you fall, you die” line. With a maximum altitude of 1800 meters it is hard to find good snow conditions to ski the route although last Sunday was probably as ideal as they come in an average year, excepting perhaps the avalanche risk of ⅘ over the weekend.
Two skiers, known in the ski touring community for a having completed a number of steep lines in the Haute-Savoie got into difficulty in the couloir. The PGHM had to launch an operation lasting two hours with a continuous risk of avalanche in the couloir.
Poirot reminds backcountry travellers that “everywhere in the Alps there have been calls for vigilance because of the high avalanche risk The authorities have asked skiers not to go into the mountains, to not ski off piste and stay on open and secured runs. In Annecy that call was not well heeded. Despite all these warnings, which are not just done randomly, if we see they are not working there are always legal means that we can use against people who don’t follow advice.”
It is actually extremely rare for the PGHM to comment on the actions of the people they rescue and this has shocked some members of the ski touring community. It appears that the PGHM have taken particular exception to this incident. The captain comments that “If you call the rescue services you have to take responsibility for your actions. There is a section of the population who don’t want to listen. We are looking into what happened on Sunday, if there was deliberate risk taking. There doesn’t have to be injury or death for an inquiry to be opened.”
Captain Poirot says it is not the first time they have prosecuted skiers “if you ski above roads and habitations you can put other people in danger, not just yourself, you have to take this into account." The skiers risk 1 year in prison and a 15,000 euros fine although it is unlikely that such a sentence would be imposed by the courts even if a prosecution were successful.
The threat has left a number of backcountry skiers fuming. One complained about the slow creep of totalitarianism which is killing freedom to ski. Others are worried that the actions of some backcountry travellers could call into question mountain rescue financed by the state.