Premiere Neige, First Fatal Avalanches

A woman has been killed and a member of the Mountain Police has been reported missing after heavy snowfall brought the first avalanches of the season to the French Alps today.

The 44 year old woman, a resident of Ecully near Lyon had just climbed the Col de la Rouannette near to the ski resort of Orcières-Merlettes in the Oisans mountain range.  She was descending at 2400 meters altitude with two friends towards the hamlet of d’Archinard when she was caught by a windslab avalanche.  Buried under 1.50 meters of snow she was rapidly found by her companions thanks to her avalanche transceiver but was in a state of pulmonary arrest.  The alert was given at 13h00 and the Mountain Police and a doctor arrived shortly afterwards.  Transported to hospital in Briançon by helicopter the victim died short afterwards.

In Avoriaz, a member of the Bourg St Maurice High Mountain Police (PGHM) is still missing after an intensive search.  50 rescue workers were looking for the man today, despite poor weather conditions.

In Vaujanay, close to the ski resort of l’Alpe d’Huez, three experienced ski mountaineers had a narrow escape when they were hit by an avalanche on the north side of the Côte Belle (Aiguillette de Vaujanay) at 2450 meters.  The skiers had come across unstable conditions on the face and were making for the safety of a ridge.  One of the team, Volodia ‘Volo’ Shashahani, a well known and extremely experienced ski mountaineer was at the back of the group.

The party of three had spread out for safety at 2450 meters altitude when the windslab avalanche caught Volo and Serge Maravel, a resident of the Hautes Alpes department.  Volo was carried 50 meters by the slide but managed to remain on the surface.  After calling the rescue services Volo and Lionel Tassan, the third member of the team, immediately mounted a search with their transceivers and probes.  They located Serge 150 meters further down buried under 1.60 meters of snow.  Serge was finally pulled to safety after 30 minutes under the slide.  He was suffering from mild hypothermia and the three companions descended to a point where a helicopter could evacuate them.  The lightness of the fresh snow probably helped him to survive such a long burial.

With improving weather conditions winter sports enthusiasts are warned to be extremely careful as there is no base for the fresh snow and high winds have formed numerous windslabs.

There is an account in French with photos of the day’s events on Volo’s site.

Jim Frankenfield has written a short article on early season avalanche risks.  It should be remembered that a thin snowpack is weak and often requires a small trigger such as the passage of a skier or boarder. Combined with warm ground the temperature gradient can rapidly form a weak layer in the snowpack.

Posted by davidof on Thursday, 30 October, 2003 at 05:26 PM

On Sunday (2-Nov-2003) a group of skiers and boarders triggered a windslab avalanche in the North East couloir of the Petit Reynaud (2606m) in the Ecrins range.  The group broke through a corniche to access the couloir.  One of the group triggered the windslab on his snowboard and was lucky not to be carried with the slide which finished 200 meters lower down.

Information in French about the incident has been posted to the camp2camp website.

Analysing the incident later members of the group decided that they’d been carried away with the thought of skiing the couloir which they had earlier judged as risky.

With a period of stable weather in the Alpes the slopes should stabalise over the coming days.

Posted by davidof on  Thursday, 06 November, 2003  at 01:51 PM
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