The first major avalanches of this ski season have killed five and left five other injured.
In the most serious incident a group of nine ski tourists from the Montpellier section of the CAF (Club Alpin Français) were caught by an avalanche at 2,120 meters on the route de la Petite Buffe near la Grave.
The avalanche occurred at 11h00 on Sunday. The victims were aged between 40 and 60 and were named as Alain Aranda, Jean-Louis Denicourt, Danielle Charrasse and Robert Pisaneschi. They had set out from the village of Chazelet to climb to the Crête de la Buffe. All were experienced and qualified ski tourists. At the torrent de Thaud the group saw the avalanche, a 400 by 300 meter wind slab and some 40cm thick, break above them. Those in front tried to ski away while those behind retreated but to no avail, seven were caught. Two women, only partially buried, managed to free themselves. One of the survivors gave the alert at 11h17. Using two helicopters, 50 members of the PGHM (Peleton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne) from Briançon and the CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité) from Grenoble, along with the fire brigade in La Grave went to the scene of the accident.
According to the Alain Gueydan, a spokesman for the Préfet for the Hautes Alpes department the skiers were following a known route marked on the IGN maps of the area. It should be noted that route marking on IGN maps have no significance with regard to avalanche risk. Gueydan went on to say that two injured skiers were lightly hurt but suffering from shock. They were taken to hospital in Briançon.
No significant risk of avalanche had been posted in the area and the ambient temperature (less than -5 Celsius) did not suggest any increased risk of avalanche activity. Wind had also been light over the preceding days, around 25 - 30 km/h. However Gueydan reminded people venturing into the mountains that there is no such thing as zero risk.
Other mountaineers who were in the area have questioned Gueydan’s evaluation of the risks, claiming that winds of up to 100km/h were blowing from the east with lots of evidence of wind slab formation.
One of the survivors, Daniel Auclair, explained to a journalist from the Midi-Libre that “we all had avalanche transceivers, probe and shovel, we immediately went to search for the others, we were all well trained.” A third person was quickly found using the transceiver, then two bodies were recovered before the rescue services arrived. The remaining two were buried under some 3 meters of snow. The outing was supposed to be an avalanche safety lesson, on Saturday night the group had gone over safety procedures and studied the weather reports for the previous days. The snow bulletin from the French Weather service gave the state of the snow pack, how it fell, the quality, temperature and wind direction. “but the mountain kept its traps well hidden...”, concluded Daniel.
See the full Midi-Libre report on the CSAC website.
There has been significant early season snowfall at altitude, particularly in the Hautes Alpes with around four meters of snow falling at la Grave in recent weeks. The Col du Lauteret, a major road pass between Grenoble and Briançon has only been kept open with the aid of snow ploughs. The recent snowfall has also enabled many stations in the region to open.
On Sunday afternoon, in another incident, Emmanuel Héïgeaf, a 31 year old from Grenoble was killed by a large avalanche above Besse-en-Oisans. He was ski touring with his wife and her friend near the summit la Quarlie, at around 2,300 m when he was hit by a slide over 800 meters long. The two other members of the group escaped unhurt and gave the alert around 14h15 by mobile phone. The skier’s body was discovered by a rescue dog of the Isère CRS under 1.5 meters of snow 90 minutes later.
On Saturday, three ski tourists were injured in the Ecrins when they were caught by an avalanche they had triggered on a steep slope. The skiers, well known to members of the [url=http://www.skirando.ch]http://www.skirando.ch[/url] website were part of the BLMS group. Mathieu reported that “everything is relative, Vincent had an open fracture of the upper tibia and shattered the cartilage of his knee. We had a project to do the South East ridge of the Roche d’Alvau. A wind slab took us at 11h20 while we were climbing on foot around 3200 meters on a steep slope (around 50 degrees) oriented SSW. The slab was only a few meters squared but we fell 200 lively meters over rocks etc. Vincent less fortunate than Max and Me, his knee hit a rock.”
In the Alpes-Maritimes there was an avalanche in the afternoon in the Auron ski station. Two people were caught, one with a light injury of the clavicle.
There have already been reports of other incidents over the last fortnight. A skier suffered rib injuries while descending the popular Grand Vans ski tourist route in the Belledonne massive.