Explosion in number of ski touring fatalities in Switzerland

Three-quarters of avalanche fatalities this winter involved ski tourers according to figures from the Swiss Snow and Avalanche Research Institute (SLF). The average over the last decade has been 42%. In total 27 people have been killed in avalanches since the 21st of December 2009. The average since 1997/98 is 24 for the whole year.  After a late start to the winter season the snow pack was unstable over a long period and over an extended geographical area.

rega rescue helicopter

In total 20 of the victims were ski tourers. Out the 19 fatal incidents, 13 were ski touring parties, 2 out of bounds snowboarders, 1 out of bounds skier, 1 snowshoe group and 1 group on foot. Another snowboarder was killed while on foot recovering his board. There were 3 incidents involving multiple burials (where the victims were entirely covered by snow) inluding the Diemtigtal incident where 12 people were buried.

In five of the incidents the victim was not wearing an avalanche beacon which significantly delayed the rescue.  All of the fatal incidents occured at risk level 2 and 3..The long term average for these risk levels is 75%. The most serious avalanche was on January 3rd, 2010 in the Diemtigtal. It killed 7 people. A secondary avalanche hit a rescue party including a doctor dropped at the scene.

Obviously the data size is relatively small and there can be large variations from one year to another. The SLF says that the number of ski tourers and off piste skiers has doubled over the last decade and in that light the figures look quite good. However that should be set against improved search and rescue operations, a move to more advanced beacons and the adoption of airbags and avalungs, especially by off piste skiers and boarders.

There is an inexorable rise in the number of touring fatalities, both in Switzeraland and in especially in France (PisteHors warned of this five years ago when most people were still focussed on off piste skiing as the main area of risk). The trend in ski touring fatalities can be explained by the increase in popularity of the sport which has brought in a lot of inexperienced skiers looking for adventure. There is also a trend towards skiing steeper routes in often marginal conditions. This winter saw a late start to the ski season and poor weather conditions during the main winter holiday periods which may have discouraged less motivated off-piste skiers.

however there is an inexorable increase in the number of ski tour

Posted by davidof on Thursday, 15 April, 2010 at 08:19 PM

Sounds like you’ve pretty well explained the high number in backcountry accidents.

A different question is way the number off-piste skiing/riding deaths was lower.
One possibility is that Switzerland ski stations are getting better at managing their off-piste terrain (as USA ski resorts have been required to do for a long time).
Or better at managing the expectations + intentions of off-piste skiers/riders.

Another possibility is that there was something “lucky” about the tricky dangers this year that just worked better in the off-piste environment, where sometimes weak layers can get packed down rapidly by lots of skiers, and by the afternoon bumps have formed on popular off-piste slopes—and the irregular bumps help anchor the next snowfall better.

Note that the “out of bounds” term used on that Switz results table is not really an accurate conceptual translation of German “varianten”, French “hors-piste” (used for that same table).


Posted by  on  Sunday, 18 April, 2010  at 04:11 PM
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