Black Week for the French Alps

The discovery of a ski tourer, reported missing yesterday morning, brings the number of avalanche deaths to 11 since Monday, 9 of them in the Southern Alps alone. The ski resort of Pra-Loup has suffered four deaths off-piste, 3 of them due to avalanches.

Last night the body of the missing skier was found in an avalanche path. His hat had been spotted earlier in the day giving rescuers a clue to his location. The victim a was 36 years old man, a French national but living in Holland. Almost the typical profile of an avalanche victim. He was holidaying alone in a chalet in le Boréon to the north of Nice and had not been seen since Tuesday.

The last five days have been one of the worst in living memory. Yes the Montroc Avalanche in February 1999 killed 12 people in one swoop in their chalets and in 1970 39 people died in the UCPA chalet in Val d’Isere. But they were single events associated with some severe weather patterns. This season has been one of attrition, a steady drip drip of fatalities.

This week’s deaths are not unexpected. PisteHors issued a warning last Thursday to all our members and email subscribers. In our regular SnowBlog we noted the risk in the Southern Alps. This information was quite widely disseminated on forums and blogs. On a French website they were even betting on the total number of avalanches deaths for this week. Meteo France warnings were widely distributed on all national media channels.

Beyond information what can be done? The Mayor of Pra-Loup has passed a local bye-law banning off-piste activity in some sectors but in a recent interview with PisteHors, the director of piste security for Tignes noted the impossibility of policing such bans. The fact that the avalanche deaths at Pra-Loup occurred within the proscribed areas seems to prove his point. Some people have asked whether the small Southern resorts are able to cope with extreme conditions. The Pra-Loup deaths occurred very close to open runs in areas that might reasonably have been controlled for avalanches. Last week two ski patrollers were also caught and seriously injured by avalanches showing that conditions were difficult to call even for experts.

Why has this season been so bad? The total figure for avalanche deaths is currently 38. The autumn was very warm with little snow at altitude. The first major snowfall was in early November and then largely confined to the Southern Alps and this snow soon melted. In the Northern Alps the first snow was on the last weekend of November. This was followed by new snow every fortnight but relatively modest falls in most cases; just enough to unleash the powder hounds.

The thin snow pack has been accompanied by intense cold from mid-November to the end of January. This cold weather has created a strong temperature gradient in the snow between the air and the ground which is around 0C in mid-altitudes. The difference in temperature drives water vapour through the snow and by a process of sublimation changes snow crystals to pyramid shapes which bond poorly. It is this layer that has caused much of the problem when covered by new, especially wind blown, snow. In mid-January in the Savoie we were skiing about a meter depth composed almost entirely of these weak crystals.

The south has been badly hit because up until last weekend there was very little snow but the same intense cold. A weather front moving up from the Mediterranean then dumped 30-50cm of fresh snow on the mountains accompanied by winds gusting to 150km/h. The temptation to try this new snow proved to strong to some.

Further Information:
Current French Avalanche Statistics

Posted by davidof on Friday, 24 February, 2006 at 11:33 PM

A fifty year old man is in a critical condition after being caught in an avalanche close to the pic d’Anglas at 2000 meters altitude near the ski resort of Gourette. The man was on a ski tour with a friend who was also taken by the slide but escaped unhurt.

Posted by davidof on  Saturday, 25 February, 2006  at 09:34 PM

A ski instructor was also killed at les Arcs Saturday in an avalanche. Found in a critical condition he died during his transfer to hospital by helicopter

Posted by davidof on  Sunday, 26 February, 2006  at 09:19 AM

The ski instructor who died in les Arcs was the popular and much loved Aurélein Debrand. He was 27 years old. The accident occured in the couloir de l’Equipe at Arcs 2000. He taught both snowboard and ski and was a freeride enthusiast.

Posted by  on  Friday, 10 November, 2006  at 03:39 PM
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