With a return to winter, fresh snow and high winds, at least at altitude, a French skier tourer was killed below the Col Pillonet in Valtournenche and an off-piste skier had a lucky escape at the ski resort of Val Thorens. Both incidents occurred on Saturday.
Skiers on the Boismint chair at Val Thorens witnessed a lone skier trigger a slab avalanche shortly before 14h00. Alerted by telephone pisteurs were quickly on the scene where they found a debris measuring 150cm.
A probe search located the back of the victim who was entirely buried by the slide. Recovered unconscious and given oxygen it seems the victim had suffered no serious injuries but was taken for a check up. The victim was not wearing an avalanche beacon and was fortunate to be recovered in time.
There has been fresh snow accompanied by storm force winds in the French Alps over the weekend. Visibility was poor at the time which meant the rescue helicopter was unable to fly. Ski tourers triggered an large avalanche in in the Ruitor sector close to the Italian border on Friday. The Data Avalanche website warned of "unstable structures in the snowpack have been observed over the previous days at altitude. Fresh snow will increase the danger. Care is needed on or below any slope over 30 degrees". Local authorities have warned skiers to remain on piste and have issued an avalanche alert for the French Alps warning of slabs at altitude with considerable fresh snow and high winds.
On the same day and just over the border in Italy a French ski tourer was not so lucky. Francois Lachere, a 53-year-old French ski mountaineer living in Alberville was caught by a slab avalanche at the Col Pillonet at 2400 meters altitude and buried under 200cm of very compact snow. His companion, Veronique Salle was able to save herself and located her friend with an avalanche beacon but due to the depth of burial was not able to recover Mr Lachere before rescue services arrived. Mrs Salle told rescuers that "Francois saw the avalanche first, he screamed to be careful, I was able to move while he was buried."
The couple had set out from Cheneil in Valtournenche on an easy route. The director of the Aosta rescue services said they were 150 meters below the col and the poor visibility meant they may not have seen the slide until it was too late. The avalanche risk was 3/5 for the area. "A considerable risk but one that does not exclude ski touring if you are careful. Above 2,300 meters new slabs formed by Northwest winds were anticipated and they would have added to existing slabs". Search and rescue operations were hampered by strong winds and low visibility.
Mrs Salle was suffering from mild hypothermia and severe shock and was receiving medical attention. The two ski mountaineers were described as "experts" and were "equipped with all the necessary technical material". They had arrived in Italy the same morning and expected to spend the weekend in the region.
Francois Lachere worked for les Allues council in the Three Valleys ski area and was known as a very experienced and prudent mountaineer. As avalanche expert Alain Duclos commented "Damn Francois, if even you were caught, there really is a problem"
Update Monday 11 Dec
There were a number of incidents in the French Alps today with the opening of ski resorts, fresh snow, and first sunny day. At Val-d’Isère three skiers were caught by an avalanche in the Bellevarde sector on the Banane off piste route. A British season worker was completely buried but her avalanche airbag was partly visible. She was rescued by witnesses but suffered a (apparently season ending) knee injury. There were already 50 tracks on the slope when the avalanche was released. The victim had a narrow escape given the amount of snow involved - 3 to 4 meters of debris. Her two friends were partly buried. Locals said there was a "powder frenzy" in the resort with all the classic routes skied in the morning. The pisteurs also had to intervene at another large avalanche on the Gendarmes route in the Tovière sector where three skiers were caught with one skier buried up to their shoulders. Fortunately no injuries but skis lost. Three skiers were also caught by an avalanche in Val Thorens. Conditions remain unstable at altitude.