Tignes piste director Jean-Louis Tuaillon was adamant, just a bit off-piste is like being just a bit pregnant. “I want to make this clear, you stray over the piste markers and you are off piste”, with all the dangers that entails. On the 18th of December students Rafe and his brother Max learned this the hard way when snowboarding just meters from the runs.
Checkered flag: Skier triggered avalanches likely off piste
The picture below, taken immediately after the accident, shows the open runs at the top of the Grand Huit chair. The dotted blue line is the path taken by the Ancolie red, closed due to lack of snow and for this reason the slopes above would not have been blasted by the piste patrol. The young boarder, in his fourth year of medical school, traversed across the slope, possibly looking for better conditions. What he did not appreciate was that the 20cm of new overnight snow had been accompanied by strong westerly winds (shown by the green arrow). Enough for the yellow and black checkerboard flags to be raised by the piste patrol – considerable risk – skier triggered avalanches likely.
The wind had blown around the col and had cross-loaded the dips with about a meter of fresh snow on top of an unstable base formed during the intense cold weather early in December. A deadly trap had been set.
The first thing that strikes you is how small the slide is, the crown is just one meter at its deepest, the slide ran approximately 150 meters before coming to an abrupt halt in the valley. Mr. Hattaway’s body was located by an avalanche rescue dog towards the bottom right of the debris under a meter of snow. He had been buried under the avalanche for around 30 minutes.
The slopes today
Nearly a month later and the Ancolie is now open. The slopes above look benign and are heavily tracked. The point where Rafe was found is crossed by dozens of skiers each day. As local avalanche expert Henry Schniewind comments “it is a slope that anyone going off piste could take”. There is a moment’s silence to reflect on that, I zip up my jacket against the cold winter breeze, it is a beautiful spot dominated by a rocky outcrop but not somewhere to leave the rest of your life. Henry continues “this is just the sort of accident, where if you survive the slide, having a beeper could make the difference, the search area is small, a rescuer would pick up a signal right away.” Without an avalanche transceiver it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Tributes to Rafe Hattaway - PisteHors.com
Although avalanches close to ski runs are rare there are an increasing number of accidents off-piste involving both snowboarders and skiers. Apart from open runs and the slopes directly above, the inbounds areas in French ski areas are not secured or patrolled.