AT LAST! After a piste-poor Christmas, the Alps are covered in a thick winter blanket. There’s 80cm of fresh snow underfoot – with a lot more promised in the days to come. You just can’t wait to click into those super-fat powder skis and cut first tracks.
BUT WAIT! Think avalanche. Recklessness combined with ignorance too often takes a fatal toll in the mountains and, already, this winter is no exception.
Of course, such enthusiasm for skiing or snowboarding is understandable. You’ve paid your money, here it is, and you want to get on with it. But take a cool, hard look before you leap.
At the time of writing, six days have passed since the first proper flakes of the winter made their tardy appearance in the Savoie and Haute Savoie. Already, in France alone, five people have died and two remain critically injured in hospital. Last season 45 lives were lost to avalanches in France.
With a warning of 3 or even 4 out of 5 on the recognised European Avalanche Danger Scale, no-one should be venturing off-piste at all until the pack has stabilized. Except perhaps on the very gentlest of slopes with a gradient of way below 30 degrees.
In Val d’Isere on Tuesday, two groups were buried in up to 150cm within an hour on different parts of the mountain, resulting in two deaths and two life-threatening injuries. Both parties had triggered giant slab avalanches created by the combination of deep fresh snow and high winds on a slippery frozen base.
Another skier died in the Maurienne Valley near St Sorlin/Les Sybelles, while two climbers were killed in Chamonix. On the same day in Courchevel, the rescue services rushed to no less than eight different avalanches triggered by skiers (fortunately with no serious consequences).
In Tignes, local freestyle star Theo Lange had a near miraculous escape – recorded on his head cam while skiing a couloir off the Col du Palet. He said afterwards: “I was scared. In a few minutes I saw all my life flash before me.” Here’s the video of his attempted descent.
The Savoie local government has called on everyone to take special care: “The recent and important snowfalls have landed on a very hard base and they are going to continue throughout the week, creating a raised risk of avalanche (level 4 out of 5) on the mountain ranges in the department.”
So what can you do to stay safe?
Learn the basics of snowcraft from a course such as those provided by Henry’s Avalanche Talk. Check the avalanche risk in your resort and get local advice.
Ski with a local qualified guide
But remember, while these bits of kit may help you and your party, the best way to survive an avalanche is not to get caught in one in the first place.