Avalanche of hyperbole buries Euroskiers

Backcountry travellers risk being buried in an avalanche of hyperbole this winter as journalists and law-makers turn their sights on off piste skiers. Writing from the comfort of some Parisien brassiere the Guardian’s intrepid Lizzy Davies alluded to a “Winter of Terror” similar to 1999 or 1950 with “alpine residents living in fear” of avalanches raining down on their chalets. 

Lizzy continues with the warning that with the current weather conditions “the season of 2009/10 could spell disaster”, although the expert she consulted equivocated with “it’s too early to tell”. She even managed to link the events to global warming and melting permafrost.

Le Temps has been hunting for scape goats on the ground in the freeride mecca of Verbier where, according to Jean Moulin, commercial director of Verbier Sport Plus “off piste skiing is their main product”. For local rider Alexandra the problem is “Parisians who see us going off piste somewhere and think they can follow”. The deputy director of piste security Jean-Sébastien Maret makes the same point “A young freerider with large skis, a beeper, shovel and airbag knows what he is doing. A dad with two kids who ducks ropes and skis a slope that I wouldn’t ski without a maximum of precautions, oblivious to dangers, that happens a lot. The article concludes with the line “the best weapon to clear a slope of avalanches is a Brit!”

However Montagnes Magazine (special Snow and Avalanche, Winter 2009) paints a different picture. The typical victim is probably a local and maybe even a pro, guide or ski instructor. “The images painted in the press of an unskilled novice is in complete contrast to the reality”. Last year 12 French guides died in the mountains in avalanches and falls.

In a more considered article Simon Petite writes of the “Scapegoats of the white death”. Two avalanches, at Anzère and Zermatt, hit piste skiers luckily without injury. The resorts said they had been triggered by off piste skiers without explaining why runs below unsecured slopes had been opened. Swiss public opinion appears firmly ranged against off piste skiers if comments from a vox-pop by Le Matin are typical:-

* I can’t understand why off piste skiing is still tolerated?
* Off piste skiers have no consideration for others.
* Stop the massacare
* They need to be taken to court

However Petite notes that all the deaths have occurred while ski touring, and as at les Arcs in France one group was lead by a guide. “We are a long way from the image of freerider outlaws drawn by the press”, he continues. He says the ski resorts share responsibility. Marketing at Zermatt, les Arcs and Val Thorens plays heavily on images of skiers and snowboarders off piste in deep powder. He concludes that we live in a society that craves freedom but is not prepared to pay the price, that is obsessed with control but on the mountain slopes control is an illusion.

The Dauphine Libere has been leading the charge in France repeating the line that the avalanche risk was 4/5 (High) over Christmas. This has been widely reported by the British press including our own Lizzie Davies who commented that the weather had led “Météo France, the national meteorological service, to raise the avalanche warning this week to level four out of five”. In fact at Orelle where an instructor lead group was avalanched the risk was 2, as was the case for the British man who died on Corsica on Christmas day. The incidents at Le Tour and les Arcs were at risk 3. Still considerable but not unmanageable by experienced skiers. Only one death occured at risk 4, that of a French hospital worker ski touring in the Hautes-Alpes.

Italy has also suffered over the Christmas period when six people, two ski tourers and the rescue workers who had gone out to look for them, died in avalanches. An off piste skier died in another incident. According to the BBC Guido Bertolaso, head of Italy’s civil protection unit said he “had enough of our emergency workers losing their lives because people go off on excursions without taking into account the risks”.

Lets look at the figures. To the first weekend of January, in other words the end of the Christmas/New Year holiday period Switzerland has seen 3 fatal avalanche incidents and 9 deaths. Since 2001 the average number of fatal incidents is 3.25 with 3.5 deaths. Looking in more detail, 2008/9, 2004/5, 2003/4 and 2001/2 all had more fatal incidents at the same date although the total number of fatalities this year is exceptional due to a major incident in the Diemtigtal which killed 6 ski tourers and a rescue worker (doctor) in a secondary avalanche. France has had five fatal incidents and seven deaths compared to an average of 4 and 4.9. 2008/9, 2005/6, 2003/4 had more or as many incidents and 2005/6 and 2001/2 had as many fatalities.

So is this the start of something big? Well as the expert told the Guardian it is too early to say. Certainly a layer of depth hoar has formed on high north faces after a thin layer of snow was deposited at the start of November. The poor weather during the Christmas period certainly reduced the number of ski tourers and off piste skiers in the mountains. A few sunny days could have seen a big increase in the figures. However the yoyo temperatures and high altitude rain will have a stabilizing effect after any overloaded slopes have had time to purge. Below 2000-2300 meters we may finally have a good base and excellent off piste skiing and touring conditions with moderate avalanche risk. However above that level snow depths are above average. Backcountry travellers should be aware that the avalanche risk can increase very rapidly by climbing just a couple of hundred meters, say taking a ski lift to access some untracked bowl or by passing close to the base of steep slopes.

Posted by davidof on Wednesday, 06 January, 2010 at 05:13 PM

thanks for the report. I noticed that in Italy there are discussions to enforce fines for off-piste skiing. To me the legal situation there appears totally chaotic - off-piste is supposedly illegal in most places since years and yet I have not seen a single signpost or anything saying that where I was skiing. Is it only illegal in some areas? What exactly are all the newly proposed laws changing?

The recent disaster where 2 tourist and 4 rescue workers died was in the Val Lasties, a well known and pleasant off-piste excursion. News in the Italian papers were rather scanty about useful details.. any pointer to some useful report? Weather conditions, exact place and such.

I know for sure that many people including me will completely stay away from Italy if they outlaw this off-piste area. People come from the whole world to go Canalo Holzer (which is the shortcut of Val Lasties) but if thats gone there is nothing.

I know the area pretty good, there is not a single marked run in the Dolomites that would come even close to interesting for an advanced skier. Its all idiotenwiesen. To make things worse they dont even appear to have a single advertised moguls run anywhere in the area.

Posted by  on  Friday, 08 January, 2010  at 01:20 AM

"Writing from the comfort of some Parisien brassiere the Guardian’s intrepid Lizzy Davies alluded to a “Winter of Terror” “

I hope that she is better seated at a brasserie, than only clad in a bra in these cold days ... grin

I do like the “locals” always fast to point out the “parisian/tourist/english/not from my valley” kind, the very kind that allow many locals to survive in remote valleys. The alpine cementeries are full of these moutain gods killed in the mountains ... grin

Posted by E. Delaperriere on  Saturday, 09 January, 2010  at 06:58 PM

Yup, Montagnes Magazine have it bang on the money - a quick analysis of 3 avalanche incidents (1 fatality) in the 3 Valleys this winter - 2 out of 3 involved groups led by a professional… Hardly a father from Paris taking his kids off under the ropes...or a ‘Brit avalanche poodle’.

Posted by offpisteskiing on  Saturday, 09 January, 2010  at 07:51 PM

The debate goes on in Switzerland where Stéphane Rossini, vice-president of the Swiss Socialist party seems to be suggesting leaving “imprudent off piste skiers” to their fate if they get into trouble.


In fact if you read the text more closes (rather than the headlines) M. Rossini, a ski tourer, says that rescue workers need to think before putting themselves in danger. However he does suggest fines for off-pisters who break “the rules”. Ducking ropes at higher avalanche dangers or skiing closed pistes.

Worth noting that the rescue worker (doctor) who died in Switzerland was going to the aid of ski tourers not off-pisters. If you read French the comments are interesting and varied. There are definitely a range of views.

Posted by davidof on  Sunday, 10 January, 2010  at 10:59 PM

Here is a graphic showing French avalanche incidents to-date which involved fatalities compared with the 2000-2007 average


We are about two weeks ahead of the curve at the moment. What is interesting is that things are pretty stable during the periods of fine calm weather but there are a lot of incidents with each fresh snowfall. Ok this is fairly normal but the number of incidents suggests an unstable snowpack this season compared to normal.

Posted by davidof on  Tuesday, 09 February, 2010  at 09:59 AM
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