They'd played it by the book. This French family holidaying in Tignes had hired Laurent Ruiz, one of the most experienced snowboard instructors in the resort. Mr Ruiz was known nationally, having won the Instructor's Challenge. On the programme, sun, powder and off-piste but today the mountain would decide differently.
A little before 10h40 the group engaged on a popular off piste route, the north west facing Pente du Lavachet in the Tovière sector. This slope, not extreme but steep, angled at 35 degrees is known for its avalanches. Also called the Pente a Simon, a reference to local Georges Simon who was killed by an avalanche at the spot in the 1980s. Barriers at the top stop slides from starting and a large earthwork at the bottom protects the ski village of Tignes le Lac from any avalanches that do reach the end of the slope. It was that avalanche protection that would seal the fate of the group today.
The avalanche risk was 3, Considerable. A risk that is considered in the upper part of the scale by snow professionals but manageable. The bulletin had warned of slab formation due to a Foehn (a strong, southerly wind) on West to North sector slopes in the area above 1900 to 2000 meters but with an emphasis on the high ridges that divide France from Italy. Slabs that could be triggered by the passage of a single skier There had been no significant snow for some days and the slope already had a number of tracks visible. Indeed the group had already skied the slope early in the day, this was to be their second descent.
It is likely that the group themselves triggered the large wind-slab type avalanche which started at around 2350 meters altitude to the right of the avalanche protection under the Pointe du Lavachet (2652 meters). They were traversing on foot and it is possible they punched through to a weak layer buried in the snowpack. The slide ran 350 vertical meters down to bare rock in places. It piled up against the earthwork burying members of the group, the debris was 8 meters deep in places. 200 people were involved in the search and rescue operations, pisteurs, ski instructors, dog handlers, members of specialized police units and even bystanders. Piste bashers were used to clear snow. The group were equipped with avalanche beacons but the depth of burial led to considerable delays in finding the victims. The length of the slide and the burial depth rather than the delay was probably fatal
This makes a total of 7 avalanche victims in 4 incidents in the French Alps since Saturday. This accident will no doubt restart debate about the training and organization of instructor led off piste groups. Local guide Didier Givois describes the slope as "one of the most dangerous in the Espace Killy... not somewhere to ski on a risk 3 day, the result of any slide being catastrophic due to the earthwork forming a terrain trap, too high a price to pay for powder."
The ESF had been in the spotlight of the state prosecutor following an incident in Orelle in 2009. The largest French ski school, it takes thousands of groups off piste each year without incident. Should instructor and guide led groups be equipped with airbags? This kind of open, alpine terrain is the ideal environment for this safety device which consists of gas filled bags that keep the skier on top of an avalanche and offer some protection from collision with objects. However the size of the slide and the terrain trap may have overwhelmed an airbag system.
Tonight a family will begin the long, painful process of grieving a father and two sons aged 19 and 15.