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Avalanche and other skiing risks

In January of 1954, Blons, Austria saw one of its worst avalanches to date. 118 people were buried. While rescue workers were trying to get them out, another unexpected avalanche came and wiped them out.
In January of 1954, Blons, Austria saw one of its worst avalanches to date. 118 people were buried. While rescue workers were trying to get them out, another unexpected avalanche came and wiped them out.

It’s always been difficult to predict what snow conditions are going to be like several months or weeks ahead. 30 years ago there were winters when even the highest French resorts such as Avoriaz were totally without snow. And that was in the days when snow cannons were few and far between. Large snow falls carry their own risk of avalanche.

Other times the snow just never stops falling. I remember one year in Cervinia when 3 metres of snow fell in one week.  Every day the high street had to be cleared before anyone could get through. Most of the runs were closed because of the high winds.  Those that were open were almost impossible to ski. Being Italy the on-piste bars were rammed.

Ideally you want a heavy dump the week before you go. All the pistes will be groomed for the weekend rush, and every run open. Come Monday conditions will be perfect.  A light dusting of loose snow on a firm base. This is the sort of snow that makes every skier an expert.  Long carved turns at speed with the satisfying shadow of the fantails coming off your skis when you dig the edges in that extra little bit. Bliss.

2017 was not a good year for snow. Many runs were closed because of lack of snow, and it’s always the nice reds and blacks that shut down first.  So more and more skiers get squeezed into fewer runs leading to over-crowding and long lift queues. Invariably the only runs open are the easy blues and greens so slow, unpredictable beginners get mixed up with frustrated intermediates and advance skiers.

These are dangerous times.  Beginners turn without warning – even unintentionally –  and have yet to learn to seek the safety of the edge of the piste if they want to stop. The result is a high risk of collision.  Inevitably one skier will suffer the more serious injury while the other will walk away.

2018 looks to be a good year with plenty of snow, provided you happen to choose a sunny week between weather fronts. It’s no fun skiing in a blizzard, with the snow sand-blasting any exposed skin. Even when the air is clear, heavy cloud cover will produce the dreaded white-out, when you can see clear across the valley but the ground ahead of you becomes invisible.  In those conditions the only way you can tell whether you are on flat or sloping ground is when you change your speed. Creepy.

Strike it lucky and you can have the best skiing of your life. The risk of collision is virtually eliminated, and the views across the mountains are glorious. But plenty of snow can give rise to other risks.

Most mornings you will hear the crack of explosives before the lifts open as the piste security team blast loose snow with 1.5 kilogramme charges to pre-empt uncontrolled avalanches.  This work used to be done on foot but now the ultra-stable Euronix cylinders are dropped from helicopters hovering just a few feet above the snow.  Fuses give the pilots 3 minutes to get clear before the mountain sides is shrouded in a cloud of billowing, swirling snow, rushing downhill with unstoppable acceleration.

Where the blasted snow falls across a marked run the piste-bashers will have cleared and groomed the surface long before the first early morning skiers put in an appearance. In the Three Valleys region the pisteurs keep over 200 kilogrammes in stock. The location is kept secret, but that’s enough to make a devastating explosion in the wrong hands.

The security services concentrate on making the marked runs safe.  You ski off-piste at your own risk, and the consequences can be devastating. The former Formula 1 racing champion Michael Schumacher, himself an expert skier, suffered life-threatening head injuries in 2013 when skiing off paste in the French Alps. Like many such incidents, he was the victim of a freak accident. A miniature video camera mounted on top of his helmet pierced the protective shell and damaged his skull when he fell.

Four years later and in spite of £20 million spent on home care his lawyers confirmed recently that Schummi’s rehabilitation from serious brain injury has made little progress. His family can only live in hope that his condition will eventually improve.

Freak accidents apart, off-piste skiing in deep fresh snow reaps a steady flow of fatalities. So far in the 2017/18 season 9 people have been killed skiing – mostly off-piste. In 1999 a series of catastrophic avalanches killed 62 people across three countries.

The highest danger of avalanche for most skiers is a heavy fresh fall of snow on an old hard base, particularly in the later weeks of the season. By day the sun heats the top layer of snow, causing the individual flakes to shrink, losing the hexagonal arms which bind the individual particles together.  Underneath, the snow partially melts as air temperatures rise, and freezes at night. So fresh snow falls on an unstable slippery surface, itself unable to grip the underlying deeper layer. This is a recipe for avalanche, especially when skiers seek clean snow away from worn, stony sections of piste.  To witness such an avalanche, no matter how small, is a frightening experience, especially if you are standing on it at the time, as happened to me many years ago at Mayrhofen.

You can now buy ABS avalanche safety systems. These can cost upwards of £400 and include GPS location transmitters and airbags to keep you on top of the mass of sliding snow. They won’t save you from injury from the rocks and trees often carried away within the avalanche, or suffocation from snow blocking lungs and airways. A dramatic video shows what it’s like to be carried away in an avalanche. The skier had to be airlifted to hospital where he was found to have a cracked vertebra. He recovered fully after 8 weeks’ rehabilitation. He was lucky.

The mountains hold other hazards as well. Winter holiday makers forget that the environment is anything but benign especially at night, when the temperature drops like a stone. Stumbling out of the bars at two o’clock after an evening’s revellery, it is too easy to lose one’s way in the dark. It’s not unknown for their bodies to be found  next morning, frozen and dead from hypothermia. Always go home with a group.

But in spite of all the risks, there’s nothing quite like a winter holiday on skis.  The mountains can be enchanting, the weather and company superb. Only do take extra care – above all for your own safety.


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