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Valmeinier Avalanche , did the guide get it wrong?
Posted: 13 March 2009 04:12 PM  
Total Posts:  2234
Joined  2003-10-24

Ultimately you have to answer that as yes. He made the route choice and he and three of his charges paid a heavy price.

Francis Dumas had 25 years service as a mountain guide. Resident of Montalbert he knew the Maurienne like the back of his hand with a very long experience of ski touring. Mr Dumas was leading a group of high school students specializing in sports, their future lay as ski instructors and guides; that requires experience on the ground in a variety of conditions.

One can imagine the dilemma for a guide. If he doesn’t go out at risk 3 or even 4 he won’t earn a living. There are ski tours that can be done at all risk levels but it should still be remembered that risk 3 is Considerable, it is not an average risk but one where skier triggered avalanches are likely and requires careful route finding.

The avalanche bulletin mentioned a risk of slabs with weak layers from north-west to north-east but didn’t predict an avalanche of the scale of the one at Valmeinier. The police said the slab measured between 100-150cm and broke over a width of 270 meters running over 300 meters altitude and covering a considerable horizontal distance. In the police photos another slide has been triggered to the right of the group. This kind of slide is more consistent with a risk 4 and the bulletin didn’t predict such an avalanche as likely.

The slide was remotely triggered. The group was climbing a west facing slope when they were hit from above. The crown follows the whole length of a small summit, breaking on a convex rollover close to visible rocks.

The route choice of the col des Marches does not unreasonable but it is a reminder that you have to be careful of the slopes above. Ski touring groups are always vulnerable when climbing due to the difficulties of group spacing, escaping from the slide with climbing skins and the length of time they are exposed to risk.

Did they go out in poor visibility or did the cloud come down later? Poor visibility makes rescues complicated and also make route finding difficult. It is easy to stray onto slopes steeper than you think although this does not seem to be the case in this incident.

[ Edited: 13 March 2009 08:53 PM by davidof]
Posted: 13 March 2009 08:46 PM   [ # 1 ]  
Total Posts:  2234
Joined  2003-10-24



valable hors des pistes balisees et ouvertes

LE MERCREDI 11 MARS 2009 (redige le mardi 10 mars)


Pour tous les massifs de Savoie :

RISQUE MARQUE - niveau 3


La neige devient intermittente apres minuit. On attend pour mercredi matin de 15 a 40 cm a 2000 metres. Mercredi le beau temps revient malgre des bancs nuageux.

Isotherme 0 a °C : vers 1300 metres.

Vent 3000 m : nord-ouest puis nord 30 a 70 km/h.


Elles sont excellentes, souvent au dessus des moyennes en particulier en Haute Maurienne. La neige debute vers 800 e 1100 metres. L’epaisseur de neige a 1800 mEt
res va de 90 150 cm, elle approche localement 2 m en Bauges, Beaufortin et Haut
e Maurienne.  La neige de surface est sEche et lEgEre sur 10 30 cm mais
elle est souvent cartonnEe ou durcie par le vent.


La stabilitE du manteau neigeux reste prEcaire avec les chutes de neige de mardi soir et nouveau des rafales de vent de nord-ouest dans la nuit puis de nord en journEe de mercredi. De dimanche soir mardi matin, il est dEjà tombE 20 35 cm. Mardi soir jusqu’ la fin des prEcipitations on peut s’attendre quelques dEparts spontanEs d’avalanches en particulier dans le Beaufortin ou les chutes de neige sont les plus intenses. Ce risque diminue en journEe de mercredi mais des coulEes de surface restent possibles l’occasion des Eclaircies. D’autre part, le vent va transporter la neige rEcente et des plaques vont se former dans les couches superficielles du manteau ont les plus chargEes mais les sous-couches restent plus fragiles entre le Nord-Ouest et le Nord-Est. Toutes ces orientations sont donc aborder avec une trEs grande prudence. La surcharge constituEe par un seul skieur peut souvent suffire dEclencher une avalanche de plaque. 

Le risque accidentel liE aux plaques vent commence diminuer mais attention au redoux !

MEtEo France actualise ce bulletin chaque jour pour 16 heures.

Posted: 18 March 2009 10:51 PM   [ # 2 ]  
Total Posts:  2234
Joined  2003-10-24

This is the avalanche map of the sector. I think the slide we see to the right are avalanches 39 and 40. These maps are designed more for building/ski lift installation than planning backcountry tours but the route doesn’t look too bad.

According to the state prosecutor the guide strayed off the normal line onto steeper ground, probably due to the poor visibility. He had asked the group to leave 20 meters space. The investigators say this was insufficient under the circumstances (easy to say afterwards) and in any case it wasn’t respected by members of the group. The prosecutor believes that there may have been some poor choices made by the guide but it is not possible to say whether he committed a serious fault in the eyes of the law. This point is important as it will affect compensation claims which will be paid by the state.

Posted: 19 March 2009 10:28 AM   [ # 3 ]  
Total Posts:  3
Joined  2009-03-19

This is a very sad event indeed.

The fact that this happened to such an experienced guide reminds me of (avalanche safety expert) Henry Schniewind’s comment while on his avalanche awareness course in Val d’Isere:

“a generalised very low risk of avalanche with a localised risk of death”.

No one is totally safe out there!  However having done Henry’s course I learned a lot about what we can do to minimise the risk and stack the odds in our favour. (Henry’s site:

Posted: 19 March 2009 11:56 AM   [ # 4 ]  
Total Posts:  2234
Joined  2003-10-24

Yes Henry’s talks and courses are well worth attending if you are in the area.