After a long, dry autumn skiers and snowboarders were thirsty for fresh snow. Their prayers were answered when 40 to 70 cm fell over the course of Monday and Tuesday. Good news for ski resorts which had kept operating over the Christmas holiday period largely on man made snow but rescue workers, on alert since Monday, scrutinized the ski slopes with foreboding.
The conditions that have killed four men over the last couple of days were only too predictable. Considerable fresh snow, strong winds on a very variable base of icy crust or non-cohesive snow. The ideal recipe for avalanches.
The death toll could so easily have been far worse. At Méribel a 23 year old local man was deeply buried for over an hour. A member of an organized probe line finally touched something solid under 1m80 of snow. The man had survived thanks to a tiny air pocket, a miracle against the odds. At Tignes a 17 year old youth survived over half an hour under four meters of snow. He was found alive thanks to a team of three avalanche dogs and their handlers. The PGHM helicopter, which had only just returned from the Meribel incident took him to hospital with mild hypothermia. At Courchevel another man was pulled from under the snow when searchers spotted the tip of a ski breaking the surface. Finally a probe line of over 100 rescue workers found another man alive under 1m50 of snow on the Bellevarde at Val d’Isère.
The specialist police mountain rescue unit based at Bourg St Maurice attended six incidents in the Tarentaise resorts and were close to overload. The rescue helicopter flitting from one mountain to another. Wayne Watson, a Val d’Isère mountain guide said “people were everywhere attacking big slopes with huge reputations… I can’t tell you how sick of it I am”.
Statistically the four survivors mentioned above were extremely lucky to be found alive. None where equipped with avalanche beacons. Neither did the two off-piste fatalities Chamonix or les Arcs. Friends of the les Arcs victim said he didn’t habitually go off-piste and think he got disorientated by the snow storm. Statistics kept by the ANENA (French National Association for the Study of Snow and Avalanches – http://www.Anena.org) show that the chance of survival decreases rapidly when you are buried more than 50cm under snow and after 15 minutes burial time. It is extremely rare for organized probe lines to find avalanche victims alive. January 2007 looks set to be exceptional.
It is absolutely shocking that after a year when 57 people fell victim to avalanches we are once again seeing people are skiing slopes with dangerous reputations. Côte Brune, Meribel, death of a ski instructor in January 2003. Rocher de l’Ombre, Courchevel, 14 year old boy killed in February 2005. Bellevarde, Toviere and Grands Montets have similar reputations.
The avalanche risk was high (4/5) in all the areas mentioned. Natural and human triggered avalanches likely. Unstable slabs probable on a variety of aspects and slope angles. Under these conditions skiing should be restricted to low angle slopes which are not threatened from above. Instead skiers and boarders decided to venture onto steep, avalanche prone areas without even basic safety equipment. Of course the ski resorts must also bare some responsibility. Val d’Isère, Tignes, Chamonix all live off their reputations as big mountains where the powder is endless.