Yesterday in France a sad milestone was reached. Probably sometime in the afternoon the 26th person fell victim to an avalanche this season. The number of accidents involving fatalities was reached earlier in the week with the death of three soldiers in an avalanche on the slopes of the Pic du Bure. We are only just in mid-season and have the whole holiday month of February ahead of us. I know some of you will be heading out to the slopes over the coming weeks, whether in France or elsewhere this should be a reminder to be careful.
We’ve been asked why the toll this season has been so high and where do we go from here?
Over the last 15 years in France, excluding very serious and somewhat unrepresentative accidents the average number of deaths per year is 24.6. However the percentage of off-piste skiers and snowboarders has been steadily increasing. Last year 56% of those killed were off piste as opposed to ski touring. In an interview Jean-Louis Tuaillon, director of piste security at Tignes gave to PisteHors he identified a real lack of experience amongst “freeriders”. At Tignes they are trying to increase awareness of the dangers through the Beacon Park and SPOT. All subjects we will return to shortly. To give some examples from this season – skiing off-piste alone on high risk days, skiing without an avalanche beacon, skiing routes known to be dangerous when the avalanche risk is considerable or higher, lack of awareness of the current conditions or even what the avalanche warning flags signify. It really seems that powder fever has overcome common sense in some instances.
The problem is not confined to off-piste skiers, 44% of fatalities this year have involved ski tourers. Maybe the “Internet effect” has contributed to the risks? Certainly we are seeing an ever increasing number of what would once have been “extreme” routes, skied just a few times a season, logged on websites, often immediately after fresh snowfall. There is a kind of auction of risk where contributors must absolutely ski a 5.1 (couloir with sections of 50 degrees). The French 35 hour week has also increased the number of trips during the week with the risk that skiers will find the wrong conditions.
To give some background to the conditions the autumn was very dry with little snow, even at altitude. If you have been following our snow conditions mini-blog you will remember that we took some nice pictures of facetted snow and depth hoar taken from a sample at 2400 meters in the Northern Alps on the 22nd of November.
These are quite normal early season when the snow pack is thin and if they are deeply buried by the first snowfalls often don’t cause too many problems until the spring. This year we have had a period of extreme cold lasting from mid-November until the end of January with four periods of relatively modest snowfall (except in the Pyrennees which saw a monster dump last week). This has caused a strong temperature gradient in the snowpack – in early January almost the whole snowpack in many areas was composed of facetted crystals. Each time these have been buried we’ve been left with snow slabs sitting on an extremely weak layer. Random factors have played a role, if the heavy snowfall on Saturday 31st of December had come a couple of days later there would probably have been less fatalities.
That a number of professionals, including guided groups, a member of the Mountain Police (PGM) and a pisteur, have been caught shows that the conditions have been hard to call even for experts and the death of Pierre Chapoutot reminds us that even routes supposed to be safe can avalanche. It doesn’t even need fresh snow to be dangerous, the strong south-east winds contributed to the slabs that killed eight skiers in avalanches over last weekend. The warm weather has now stabilized much of the snow below 1800 meters, at least in the morning, and higher up many ridges have been stripped bare. The risk is now in the mid-mountain areas, precisely where many off-piste runs can be found in the bigger ski resorts. Watch the conditions closely over the next few weeks.