An Analysis of French Avalanche Accidents for 2005-2006

The winter of 2005-2006 was the deadliest since 1970 term of French avalanche deaths. 55 people were killed in the five month period from December to April with a further two deaths in August on Mont-Blanc. Last winter the number of fatalities was double the long term average and the number of fatal accidents was nearly three times the average. In our fourth annual review of backcountry accidents we analyse the accidents and snow conditions that were behind this exceptional winter.

Avalanche at Piau, November 2005 - © Jerome Buc

Contrary to much press speculation the reason for these deaths was not a sudden change in behaviour of off-piste skiers and snowboarders but due to extremely unstable snow conditions. The cold autumn and early winter, with thin snow cover and many clear sunny days were ideal for the formation of a weak layer of depth hoar and facetted crystals. Unlike most previous winters these conditions were generalized across the Southern and Northern Alps. The Southern Alps added nineteen to the overall number of fatalities, 35%, nearly double the long term average for that area.

Further Information

An Analysis of French Avalanche Accidents for 2005-2006 (PDF Format 850kb) - French Translation by
News Items related to Avalanches
Accident Statistics

Posted by on Wednesday, 25 October, 2006 at 07:40 PM

Really great report David - very informative, concise and interesting & thank you for making it available. It’s certainly given me food for thought.

I must admit to having some concerns regarding availibility of avalanche incident information, in resorts and a niggling worry about possible conflicts of interest there. For example, I was in Tignes last December driving up from Bourg St. Maurice, prior to Paradiski opening. I remained blissfully ignorant about the ‘December Incident’ until much later & really only absorbed the full details & implications through your report. It appeared to be kept very quiet there.

I was based in Bourg St. Maurice for much of the season. The subsequent avalanche incidents & deaths, mentioned in Davids report really did not filter through in the ‘English language’ domain. My sources of information were French daily papers, conversations in French in a local bar in Bourg and with people in the know.

I find it worrying. It appears that the information is available only on a ‘need-to-know’ basis and tourists don’t need to know about avalanches, deaths & injuries.

This is my opinion and I might be completely wrong. I hope that I am wrong as it would seem counter-productive to education and prevention.

In your report you make reference to early conditions, “The autumn of 2005 was warm and dry in the Alps. In October temperatures were in the low 20s°C in the Alpine valleys with some record highs recorded:...” In the context of your report overall, this seems quite important. I wondered if and where, an early summary of this approaching seasons conditions may be found? Or where the pertinent information might be researched?

Posted by  on  Saturday, 28 October, 2006  at 10:43 AM

Ski resorts are very sensitive about what they perceive as negative publicity. There are some grounds for this as the media often dramatizes avalanche deaths whereas you are more likely to die on the roads or on your summer beach holiday. The general public often gets ideas of avalanches raining down on the ski runs or accommodation (and of course this does sometimes happen with some notable lapses in security and planning as was the case in Val d’Isere/Tignes in 1970, Montroc in 1999 and Val Thorens in 1992 to name but a few).

Information appears to be much less readily available or at least much less widely diffused compared to what we are used to in the anglo-saxon influenced world. I think there is an expectation that these things are best left to the experts to interpret. That is more a cultural difference.

Regarding snow conditions. We have a mini-blog of conditions here

This has move location from last year but if you check our Autumn bulletin for 2005

you will see that we commented on the very unstable base that was forming.

If you read reasonable French then the Meteo France “weekly summaries” can quickly get you up to speed on the conditions for a particular department. You can find them here:

Posted by  on  Thursday, 02 November, 2006  at 09:17 AM
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