Avalanche starters get year ski ban

The 19th of January 2006 was a particularly bad day in what was a particularly bad year. Meteo France had issued avalanche warnings after 50cm of fresh snow, accompanied by moderate to strong winds, formed slabs on north to east facing slopes. The avalanche risk was high (4/5) over much of the French Alps but the temptation of so much fresh snow was too much for many off-piste skiers. The result, by the end of the day five had been killed in avalanches and there were many less serious incidents across the region.

avalanche 19 jan

One of those other accidents occurred at the Haute-Savoie resort of les Contamines-Montjoie and although reported by Pistehors.com at the time it passed almost without notice. Three skiers aged in their 20s, two from the Paris area and one local from St Gervais took the Croches chair and despite a local bye-law banning off piste skiing when the avalanche risk is high, posted at the bottom of the lift, launched onto the slopes of the Tierces where they triggered an avalanche. The slide caught two of the skiers and also hit a woman skiing on the open Tierces run. No-one was hurt but the lift company (the SECMH) who is responsible for piste safety chose to lodge a complaint with the prosecutor for reckless endangerment.

The three defendants, who claimed ignorance of the local regulations (in truth who reads the small print at the bottom of ski lifts?), were fined 500 euros each, ordered to pay for publication of the sentence in a local paper and, perhaps hardest of all given the good early season conditions, banned from skiing in France for a period of 12 months.

We’ve reported similar cases in the past. In 2004 two skiers were threatened with a 1 year ski ban after triggering an avalanche that hit a group of the local mountain police on a training exercise. One of the policemen was badly injured. The court in Digne rejected the complaint as both parties were off-piste at the time. The court decided it was a legal void with no legislation covering such events. The local police told PisteHors that they were unhappy with this decision. In January 1998, under similar circumstances to those of les Contamines, Raoul Surcouf, a Jersey resident was fined 10,000 Francs (around 2000 euros today allowing for inflation) and was banned from skiing in France for a year after passing ropes and danger signs on the 21st of January 1998 in the resort of Montgenèvre. Descending a steep couloir in the Chalvet sector he triggered a large avalanche that hit the piste below but without injuring any of the dozen skiers on the slope at the time.  However he successfully appealed the decision, the court said that he and a companion were not guilty of intentionally putting other people’s lives in danger and that no-one had been caught by the avalanche. Two boarders who triggered an avalanche that killed a young girl at la Clusaz in 2003 received suspended prison sentences in the autumn of 2006 from the Annecy criminal court.

Bye-laws banning off piste skiing are not unheard of in France. In la Mongie and Mongenevre there is legislation restricting off-piste skiing without a guide when the avalanche risk is Considerable or above. Although there is a general principal of freedom of movement enshrined in the French constitution experts in public law have told PisteHors that such bans appear to be legal so long as they are limited in duration and scope and respond to a clear danger. Experts have questioned whether such blanket bans based on an overall avalanche risk are sensible. Jean-Louis Tuaillon, director of ski lifts and piste safety at Tignes and former director of the ANENA (French National Association for the Study of Snow and Avalanches) told PisteHors that such bans are unenforceable and were not “how you educate and make people responsible enough to take their own decisions… in any case you can’t say that it is safe when the avalanche risk falls below a particular level”. We also spoke to the Ecole National d’Administration (ENA), which trains French civil servants and has specialists in public law. They didn’t believe that such bye-laws left local authorities open to court cases if avalanches occured outside of the scope of the ban. It remains to be seen if the decision by the Bonneville court will be appealed. Because the skiers were in direct contravention of a local bye-law the outcome may be different from the case of Eriksson-Surcouf. The decision by the first instance court will not create jurisprudence but does indicate that the authorities are getting tougher with off-piste skiers who they believe are acting without due care.

Further information

Five killed in alps avalanches
Avalanche kids risk year in jail
Prison sentence for snowboarders following fatal avalanche
Tignes ski piste director talks safety

Posted by davidof on Sunday, 11 November, 2007 at 03:35 PM

I’m broadly in agreement with the idea of pursuing dangerous actions by off-piste skiers, French law already recognizes that uphill climbers are liable for dislodging stones on people below them. However I can see the downside where skiers may be tempted to clear off after causing an avalanche rather than helping with the rescue – they may be the only immediate witnesses to the slide.

Posted by  on  Monday, 12 November, 2007  at 04:52 PM

You have to be careful skiing above open runs but it seems like the station is being a bit cheeky in this case. A slope above an open ski run that can be reached directly from a ski lift should be secured and if not the lift that accesses the slope closed.

Posted by davidof on  Tuesday, 13 November, 2007  at 04:19 PM

Very few skiers mean to set off avalanches and I would guess that none would want to put others at risk.  So at what point is skiing off piste safe or to put it another way when are someones actions considered ‘reckless’? 
Courts rely on the stated avalanche risk in an area.  3=considerable etc.  However, in my experience this is a cop out with resorts using level 3 as a matter of course for large chunks of the season.  The actual risk depends on a lot more factors and over a mountain range varies according to these.  Would a mountain guide still be skiing off piste at level 3 - definately.  Would he/she take extra precautions - probably not.  At level 4 would this answers change - the latter maybe?

What about a lay person?  95% not equipped (a statistic like that), a large percentage with no real knowledge.  Skiing above an open run.  I have to agree with davidof that skiing above an open run would be an indication that the off piste is ‘safe’ otherwise the piste should be closed.....

Posted by  on  Wednesday, 14 November, 2007  at 02:34 PM
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