Fifteen Minutes

Winter sports accidents seem particularly tragic when they involve young people.  You take away everything they have and everything they are going to have. There is also the belief, often correct, in their innocence or naiveté regarding the risks they faced.

It has been a bad week for youth.  On the 17th an English teenager skied off a cliff in Méribel.  He was said to be a good skier, skiing in a well-tracked section of off-piste.  Was it a simple accident or had he been attempting a jump, perhaps fuelled by visions of incredible feats of seemingly indestructible heroes like Seth Morrison and Dominique Perret?

On Saturday it was Marie Gros-Perrin’s turn.  Just 18 years old, this Savoyard woman set off with a 28-year-old friend on a popular ski tour at the north of the Belledonne mountain range. Youth lead astray by experience?

At 16h00 on the evening before the accident Meteo France published its daily avalanche bulletin. Risk 2 [moderate].  “Human triggered avalanches possible. Unstable slabs possible on steep terrain.” The bulletin told backcountry travellers to take particular care at altitude, on ridges and passes and on north facing slopes.  A strong wind had been blowing from the southeast for the last 24 hours accompanied by light snowfalls.  The bulletin warned of a slight increase in risk overnight.  That evening, the 20h00 weather report warned of continuing snowfall and of strong winds.

As skiers gathered early next morning in the car park at Gleyzin, it was raining.  This was enough to make some reconsider.  The path from Gleyzin, gentle at first, becomes progressively more difficult; leading through thin forest, scrubby bushes, and crossed by a number of avalanche couloirs before reaching the Refuge de l’Oule.  After the refuge, the track steepens onto 35-degree, north-facing slopes before turning onto a small glacier that leads to the Puy Gris Mountain.  Around 1700 meters of vertical, not particularly tough but a long day out nevertheless.

Despite the warnings and the bad weather, a mixed group consisting of skiers and snowshoers set off up the track.  Perhaps they intended on climbing no further than the attractive little refuge.  At around 1800 meters, two skiers crossed a hidden, hard slab of snow.  The 250 by 60 meter slide, not big by any means, sprang like a trap; burying them both.  Time would now be critical.  If they had survived the slide, quite possible given the size, they would now have little more than 15 minutes before the enveloping snow started suffocating them.

The snowshoe party witnessed the events. and immediately called the Isère Mountain Police at their base in Grenoble, 45-minutes away from the scene by helicopter.  But the best chance would be if the snowshoers themselves could dig out the skiers. A transceiver search found a lone signal.  The man was located, dug out and taken by helicopter to hospital in Grenoble.  Three hours later, a team of probers and dog handlers found Marie’s body.

When we heard this news, we suspected: either her avalanche transceiver malfunctioned or she had no beacon at all.  Avalanche beacon faults are rare but do happen.  They can be due to: user error, a random fault, or damage occurring as the wearer gets carried over rocks and strained through trees.  A source close to the rescue confirmed our second theory; the young woman was simply not wearing an avalanche transceiver.

Some in the mountain community have focussed on the avalanche bulletin and the headline risk of 2.  In the search for someone to blame, surely Météo France has to take some responsibility? Looking back, the weather conditions of Friday night should have lead to a more conservative evaluation of the risks.  But at the time the bulletin was compiled it seemed like the winds and snow would drop.

There are a few important lessons we can learn from this accident:

* The avalanche bulletin is not infallible.

* Backcountry travellers have to take the evolution of conditions into account.  Particularly where this wasn’t foreseen in the original report.  The later weather forecast on Friday and the conditions on the ground on Saturday should have sounded some alarm bells even if it is hard to turn around once we are committed to a certain course of actions.

* It is essential for all backcountry users to carry search and rescue gear: an avalanche transceiver, shovel, and probe.  These may not have saved the young woman’s life but would have at least made the job of the rescue services quicker and less hazardous.

Returning to the fall at Méribel, do ski resorts and the media bear some responsibility?  Earlier in the season, an article in the Independent Newspaper written after a deadly week in Tignes questioned the adrenalin-charged nature of “extreme sports”. One of the friends of the Méribel skier called for obstacles, such as dangerous cliffs, to be marked; even where these were off-piste.  Although this is sometimes done, ski resorts have been reluctant to go to far down this path; fearful of becoming responsible for safety in their vast, off-piste areas.  The sports media, included, certainly promote the exciting nature of off-piste activities and rarely dwell on the downside.  Even information about the risks such as avalanches can seem to glamorize the sport.  We are an off-piste website focussed on France and felt that there was a dearth of information in English (the ANENA does a good job for the French) about the dangers.  As a result we have been collating information about backcountry accidents for the last four years. We know a lot of people read these, about 70,000 last month, and from the comments we receive we know that many people have thought more seriously before venturing off-piste.  However as the accidents this season have shown, the message still has further to travel.

A Summary of French avalanche incidents for 2003-2004

The ANENA maintains statistics on French avalanches from official investigations.

More comment on the incident above can be found at

Another fatal avalanche at la Rosière on the same day involved two people without avalanche transceivers.

Posted by davidof on Wednesday, 25 February, 2004 at 02:05 PM

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