Posted on: 16 December 2017 by davidof

Review of French Avalanche Incidents 2016/17

There were 22 deaths in the year to 30 september 2017 in France in 13 incidents. This is well below the long term average of approx 30 deaths per year in 21 incidents. However the gravity of accidents, 1.7 deaths per incident was above the average of 1.4. Over half the fatalities were due to 4 avalanches.

Once again the weather was a major factor behind the relatively good figures and the cause of some of the accidents. 10 of the 13 incidents involving fatalities were in the Savoie and Hautes-Alpes. Areas with relatively good ski conditions compared to the rest of the French mountain ranges. The winter was characterised by mild temperatures, the late arrival of snow; in some areas such as the Isere mountain ranges, it was only possible to ski off piste from mid-January, and by an early thaw although a return to winter at the end of April caused a spate of accidents. This helped to keep skiers out of the backcountry and so reduce the number of incidents. A similar situation to the 2015/16 season.

The first snows of winter brought the first avalanches. On the 13th November 2016 a couple of students from Lyon were climbing on touring skis at 2800 meters on the north face of the Aiguille Chardonnet above the ski resort of Tignes when they triggered an avalanche. Equipped with beacons the slide injured one of the skiers. A reminder that early snows, particularly at altitude on high north faces, can be just as dangerous as during the mid-winter.

This incident was followed by another in the same sector. This time an off piste skier, part of a group of 4, was carried 500 meters by a slide near the col des Vés while skiing down to Champagny-en-Vanoise. Fortunately his head was above the snow when the slide stopped which probably saved his life. No avalanche bulletin was available for either incident.

The apparent good start to the season was short lived. A foehn then high altitude rain meant that many ski areas lacked snow by the end of the month. Mild, sunny weather during December and early January formed a widespread and persistent weak layer in some areas due to a thin snowpack and strong temperature gradients. This lead to some surprisingly large avalanches later.

Three poorly equipped walkers had a lucky escape over Christmas. They had planned to spend the night in the Pilatte refuge (2572m) in the Oisans. At 8pm they were in sight of the hut when they were hit by a large avalanche that swept one of the group 80 meters over cliffs, injuring his head and legs. His two companions were able to free themselves from the snow and climb down to their stricken friend where they built a snow cave to shelter in the bitterly cold temperatures. They were rescued by helicopter the next day after one of the group climbed down to give the alert in a village. They had not even suffered from frostbite. A Christmas Miracle according to the rescue services, with no equipment “we would normally find their bodies in the spring”.
A group of ski tourers were not quite so lucky on the 27th December. Hit by an wind-slab avalanche on a north facing slope at 2500 meters on the Grand Peygu above Cervières in the Hautes-Alpes a guide and three clients suffered light injuries and finished their tour in hospital.

Snow returned to the French mountains from mid January and generated the first fatality on the 14th at Larans in the Pyrenees in the vallon de Gabardères. A group of three ski tourers were descending in poor visibility when they were taken by a slide which killed a 50 year old woman and injured another skier. The victim died from suffocation. They were unable to leave sufficient spacing due to the visibility and this also stopped the police helicopter from flying leading to further delays in rescue. A large ground rescue involving the fire service and mountain rescue was put in place. The avalanche risk was ⅗ increasing to ⅘ on the day.

On the 19th of January a ski instructor was buried by an avalanche on a north-east slope near the brèche Portetta close to Courchevel. He was rescued by his companions after spending 10 minutes under half a meter of snow. The risk was ⅗.

On the 20th a Canadian ski tourer, part of a group of three led by a guide, was killed after hitting a tree when he was caught by an avalanche near the ski resort of Ste Foy Tarentaise. The incident occurred in the early afternoon below the Col de l'Argentière near the pointe d'Archeboc at around 2100 meters altitude. The avalanche risk was 2/5. The group

The first half of February saw more unsettled, wintry conditions and another cluster of incidents. On the 5th a Russian off piste skier was killed in the 35° north facing Seuil couloir complex in the ski resort of Valfréjus. The slide was relatively small but it carried the victim 400 meters and he died as a result of his injuries. The avalanche risk was ⅗. He was equipped with a beacon but not his companion who had to alert the piste services.

On the 11th there were two incidents in the same sector in the Hautes-Alpes. A ski tourer was killed near the Ombilic summit close to Briançon at 2400 m. altitude. The victim, a local ski instructor, was carried 200 to 300 meters by the slide. The alert was giving around 16h00 by one of the victim's partners who was unable to locate him. The rescue operation was complicated by poor visibility. The victim was found after 2 hours by a dog, his beacon was not switched on.

In the same sector two men were caught in the Val des Prés. One of the skiers was buried by the slide but was rescued by his companion. He suffered multiple injuries in the slide but had managed to actuate his airbag. The avalanche risk was ⅗ with weak layers in the snowpack and snow transport under the influence of a strong south and east wind.

The following day (12/2/17) a ski tourer was caught by a large avalanche in the combe du rocher jaune close to the the ski resort of La Clusaz. The victim was carried 300 meters into trees. 3 other skiers were able to find using his beacon. He died in the early evening in hospital. The avalanche risk was ⅖. At Megève an experienced local skier triggered a wind slab that took most of the slope below the Aiguille Croche (2 487m). A slope reputed avalanche prone. He was swept 400 meters over cliffs. It took rescuers 2 hours to find his body despite his beacon. A walker suffered injuries at the Pas du Loup in the Chartreuse after a full depth slide. Again another avalanche prone slope that would claim the lives of two experienced ski tourers at the start of the 2017/18 winter.

On the 13th there was one of the most dramatic avalanches of the winter when an experienced ski instructor and his three clients were killed at Tignes in full view of holiday makers after being carried 500 meters and deeply buried behind avalanche protection. Despite a massive rescue operation involving heavy machinery it still took from 45 to 90 minutes to recover the four victims. The risk was ⅗ and the slope known to be avalanche prone.

On the 17th three Italian ski tourers including their experienced guide, Adriano Trombetta, were carried down a couloir and killed as a result of injuries sustained in the slide. The other victims were racer and ski instructor Margherita Beria D'Argentina and her boyfriend.

On the 1st of March a 53 year old guide was injured by an avalanche near hte Pas du Loup above Lanslevillard. He had been able to use his airbag during the slide.

The 7th of March saw 6 incidents, 2 of them fatal. The most serious was the death of three young Dutch snowboarders who were caught by a massive avalanche at Valfréjus and died as a result of injuries and prolonged burial. They were on steep, north east facing slopes and the risk was ⅘. A local skier was also killed Vars/Risoul area while skiing. His disappearance was only reported in the late afternoon. The rescue services eventually found his body under a “small avalanche that had never the less killed him”. The avalanche risk was ⅘, he was on a north-west facing valley with a terrain trap. Finally there was a lucky escape at Tignes when a powder avalanche on the rochers de la Grande Balme hit the busy Carline blue piste. One of the only runs open in the resort that day due to the avalanche risk. Over 30 skiers were hit by the slide, some completely buried. Fortunately the result was just two injured.

On the 12 March a snowshow group guided by a International mountain leader were taken by a slide on the north face of the Arpenin near Cervières in the Hautes-Alpes. It was probably a wind slab that broken on a persistent weak layer formed at the start of the season. One of the group was injured. The risk was ⅖.

This weak layer in the Hautes Alpes was also probably the cause of a large slab avalanche on the 17th April on the Pic de Gros Ferrant that took 2 local ski tourers 400 meters, one of the pair suffered severe injuries to the legs and hips. Conditions were described as “stable” but with the risk of persistent, rare instabilities on the approach ridges and summits on north facing slopes, at altitude.”

The season ended with a “little winter” which led to 6 incidents along the French/Italian border from the 28th April with 5 fatalities and 3 injuries. On the 28th April a young female ski tourer was buried by an avalanche at Avoriaz, she was located thanks to a hand that was visible on the surface.

On the 8th May Olivier Salésiani, a local steep skiing personality was killed by a purge in a NE facing couloir above the vallon de la Selette in the Hautes-Alpes. He was climbing the route at the time. He died due to injuries sustained in the fall. The avalanche bulletin for the sector has had warned of high altitude rain with wet snow avalanches on north sector slopes and medium size purges with the return of sunny weather.

On the 9th of May a guide and two ski instructors were hit by a small slide while climbing through rock bands below the col du Greffier near Bonneval-sur-Arc in the Haute-Maurienne The guide, Simon Paris was a specialist in steep snowboarding routes.

The final fatal incident occurred on the 20th involved a member of the rescue services and a former member of the Tignes ski patrol Grégory Mistral who was died ski mountaineering with a friend in the Vallon du Clou near Ste Foy Tarentaise. Mr Mistral was taken 400 meters over cliffs by a slide.

According to the French National Association of Snow and Avalanche Studies (ANENA) skiers are still ignoring “orange” and “red” lights that should have given them pause for thought. In all the fatal incidents the starting point of the avalanche was over 35°. The avalanche risk was ⅗ (Considerable) or ⅘ (High) in 7 of the 13 incidents. In 9 of the incidents the characteristics of the start zone in terms of orientation and or altitude was mentioned in the avalanche bulletin. In 11 incidents the avalanche was following fresh snowfall or wind. In 8 cases the attitude of participants was noteworthy, 3 were alone and in 5 other incidents there was no or little group spacing. In 8 incidents terrain traps (no run out, cliffs) were critical.

While ski tourers almost always have avalanche rescue gear: beacons, shovels and probes this is far from the case for off-piste skiers. For example the three Dutch snowboarders buried at Valfréjus which necessitated a huge search and rescue operation over several days. In 4 cases out of 9 where the victim was completely buried the lack of avalanche beacon resulted in an extended recovery time. The majority of victims were local and experienced. Five of the fatal incidents were off piste skiing, 8 ski touring continuing the trend towards ski touring as the major cause of fatal avalanche fatalities. A number of the accidents were climbing (either on skis or on foot) and ski tourers are particularly vulnerable due to the length of exposure. Route choice is primordial to ensure safety.

Of particular note are the number of mountain professionals involved. 10 of the 45 incidents reported to the ANENA involved mountain professionals and 6 out of the 13 incidents where there were fatalities involved professionals. In total five ski instructors and two high mountain guides were killed (out of 22 fatalities). Three of the four major incidents involved guides and/or ski instructors.

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