Cote Belle 2 Jan 2003

Avalanches > Cote Belle 2 Jan 2003

A Tragic Avalanche on the the Côte Belle

Sunday the 5th of January 2003. The sun has finally come out after many days of bad weather. We leave for Brunissard (Queyras) to do the western summit of the Côte Belle (2854 meters), a course reputed for not having any great difficulty. We six friends, Isa, Christine, her father, Claude, Guillaume and two brothers Jean Greg and Jérôme.

From the first few meters we make tracks in 30 to 40 cm of powder. During the climb we spot a couloir oriented south-east which seems ideal for a descent. 150 meters between 30 and 40 degrees. A short stop at the summit, it is very cold, -15C, the wind is blowing in gusts. We split into two groups. The girls and Claude ski the way we came up while Jean Greg, Jérôme and Guillaume make for the couloir.

Jérôme follows the ridge to reach the couloir while Guillaume and Jean Greg head for another entry lower down, near a shoulder. Before attacking the slope Jérôme tests the snow pack. He can’t break the surface layer with his pole, the snow is so hard. He continues to test the slope by making small jumps with his skis. Nothing happens. He then links a few jump turns, the slope is steep and the snow is still just as hard.

30 meters lower down Guillaume traverses the couloir. The snow is good, compact but friable on the surface. He stops beneath some rocks, here the snow becomes powdery on the surface.

Jérôme has skied around 50 meters when suddenly he feels the slope break beneath his skis. He looks up and sees the top of the couloir break into small blocks right across its width. At the start the slope seems to move very slowly but Jérôme is knocked onto his side by the force, then everything starts to accelerate. He is dragged under as he tries to rest on the surface making swimming movements. He doesn’t feel anything despite the force and violence of the slide.

Even though Jean Greg is off to the side the slide breaks beneath him too and drags him along. Protected somewhat beneath the rocks Guillaume is hit by blocks but digs his arms into the slope and the slide passes over his head.

The avalanche comes to a halt, Jérôme picks himself up slowly. He’s stopped on a flatter section 2/3rds of the way above the debris, in a state of shock. There is not trace of Jean-Greg on the surface, Guillaume digs himself out. On the slope, Claude sees the slide and calls the rescue services with his mobile phone.

Guillaume descends on skis to Jérôme and puts his avalanche transceiver into receive mode. When he reaches Jérôme there is no signal. He decides that the batteries are dead. He finds Jérôme sitting on his pack. His first impression is that his face is deformed, covered in blood. Jérôme cries « Guillaume, I think I’ve lost all my teeth ».

Claude organizes the search lower down. Guillaume asks Jérôme for his transceiver and then joins the others. It is 12h45 when Isa finally captures a signal. Jean Greg is then found quickly with a probe. The team sets about digging out Jean Greg who is buried under 1.5 meters of snow. He is in a state of cardio-vascular arrest. Christine administers first aid.

The mountain police arrive by helicopter and drop a dog handler. Jean Greg is on the surface. The helicopter quickly returns with a medical team who set about trying to save Jean Greg.

The first rotation takes Jérôme to hospital at Briancon. The reports are not good, multiple fractures to head and teeth. He is taken to the facial reconstruction unit at the Grenoble University Hospital where he rushed straight to theatre. Isa leaves with the last rotation with the rescue workers and some of our gear.

Guillaume, Christine and Claude descend scared to death, they don’t have their transceivers which are with Isa in the police helicopter. Jean Greg was taken out on the second rotation, he was in cardio-vascular arrest for one hour 15 minutes, he rests in a coma until his death on the 9th January.

This avalanche occurred due to a wind slab of consisting of friable snow. The fracture line was like steps on a staircase. The avalanche was 500 meters long over 300 meters drop. We counted four weak zones in the snow mantel. The first layer was at 40cm depth. The avalanche consisted of blocks or just less than this depth. The avalanche descended the couloir where the slope gradient flattened out, the energy was enough to carry it over this obstacle. It stopped in a bowl where snow banked up to 3 meters depth. The avalanche risk was 3 on a scale of 5.

- Guillaume and Jérôme

This report comes from the French Avalanche Association -


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