Longest Pedestrian Bridge Opens

The world’s first peak-to-peak suspension bridge opened in 2014 in Switzerland at the Glacier3000 ski area. The 107m long bridge, known as “Peak Walk by Tissot”, has been more than matched by a new suspension bridge in nearby Valais.

The 31km long Europaweg, a hiking trail between Zermatt and Grächen, lies along a route prone to rockfalls. A bridge was built along a section of the route in 2010, crossing the Dorfbach river, but was swept away in a rock avalanche two months later. The determined Swiss went about building a replacement, high enough to avoid the fate of its predecessor. The resulting Charles Kuonen Hängebrücke, or Europe Bridge, opened on 29th July 2017, and is 494 metres long, making it the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world. At its highest it is 84 metres above the valley.

The bridge has around 8 tons of cable, and employs a system that prevents it from swinging. It is named after the principal sponsor behinds its construction and is located just east of Randa at map co-ordinates 46° 6′ 6.5″, 7° 48′ 4.7″.

To walk the Europaweg usually takes two days, with an overnight stop in the Europahütte. It is rated T3, i.e. a challenging hike that requires good footwear, orientation skills and some basic Alpine experience (the rating associated with the most difficult hikes is T6). However it is possible to visit the bridge without taking the entire hike by taking the train to Randa – 2 stations from Zermatt – and hiking up from there. It is a steep 650m ascent, and takes around 2 hours each way.

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Fatalities in Swiss Alps

Pointes de Tsavolire: Traversée Eison - Saint MartinAgence France-Presse report that two employees of CERN, the lab famous for its particle accelerator and for Berners-Lee’s invention of the worldwide web, died in an avalanche over the weekend.

A 49 year old Frenchman and his 33 year old Swiss colleague were swept away at the 3000m Pointes de Tsavolire in Valais. They were amnongst five members of CERN’s ski club who set off from Eison in Val d’Herens. The area they were skiing is shown in the picture above, which I took when I was skiing in the valley a couple of weeks ago.

The two men were members of CERN’s ski club and were among five skiers who set off cross country Sunday from the village of Eison for the Pointes de Tsavolire.

This is a popular and relatively easy itinerary, just the other side of the Bec de Boisson from Grimentz. It is possible to make the ascent on skins and make the run back in a day, and there is a hut at the top for those who want to make a longer trip of it, but it sounds like this party set off Sunday morning for just a day’s outing.

It just goes to show how dangerous the late snow from a couple of weeks ago has made late season touring. The dry avalanche risk is very low, but by lunchtime the risk of wet, full-depth avalanches across Valais has been rated considerable for some days. Wet avalanches occur where snow has frozen overnight but starts to get heavy and wet as the temperatures rise and the sun starts to hit it.

Apparently two members of the party were dug out by a fifth, but the other two remained buried until rescue workers arrived and dug them out of three metres of snow.

They were taken by helicopter to hospitals in Sion and Lausanne, where they later died.

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Fresh snow, fresh dangers

SnowboarderOn Saturday a British expat living in Switzerland was killed by an avalanche on Mont Vélan south of Verbier near the Italian border. He was skiing the 3600m couloir d’Annibal with his brother, who survived. Both were apparently experienced freeriders with all the right equipment and the avalanche risk was 2/5. However the couloir is steep, upto 45°, and long.

A 60-year-old German was also killed in an avalanche on Saturday on the Pigne d’Arolla, again in the far south of Valais.

Across the Alps a number of skiing and snowboarding fatalities occurred this weekend, bringing the total in the Alps to over 100 for the season. A large dump of fresh snow, high winds and the height of the freeriding season have all contributed.

However the fatalities need to be put in perspective. The number who die off-piste makes headlines, as do stories of drunk Brits topping themselves in the Alps, but skiing is relatively safe. The stats for Europe are patchy, but it would seem like there is roughly one fatality per million skier/snowboarders days, and roughly one serious injury per million skier/snowboarders days, based on stats collected by the NSAA in the USA. The USA boasts about 10 million skiers and snowboarders, who put in an average of about 5 days on the slopes per year. So in the USA maybe something around 50 people a year die on the slopes.

However, according to the National Safety Council, in a typical year 36,000 Americans died in motor-vehicle accidents; 5,000 pedestrians were killed; 9,000 died from unintentional public falls; 4,500 died from unintentional public poisoning; 2,500 people drowned while swimming in public areas and 1000 died while bicycle riding;

Incidentally, on the question of how many people ski rather than snowboard, The National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) of the USA reports in 2011 there were 6.9 million skier and 5.1 million snowboarders. According to NSGA, 22.2 percent of snowboarders also ski, and conversely, 16.6 percent of skiers also snowboard.

Just thought you would be interested.

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Avalanche Risk

Eight people died in Switzerland over the weekend from avalanches, and several others have been hospitalised according to a report from SwissInfo. Seven of a party of nine on Piz Vilan in Graubünden (just North of Grüsch) were caught by an avalanche, of whom
five died. Avalanches also killed a 28yo snowboarder in Mürren, a 31yo skier in Adelboden and one of a party of three in Wildhaus, Toggenburg. Two lucky skiers in Verbier were rescued after being hit by an avalanche. However three other people died in avalanches last Thursday and Friday, bringing the total fatalities in just three days to 11 in the Swiss Alps alone. Needless to say the avalanche risk is very high, but the level of fatalities is concerning – especially as many of the victims appeared to have been well experienced winter sports enthusiasts well-prepared for off-piste conditions.

The Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) publishes avalanche information and the map from this morning indicates just how dangerous the Alps are after the recent heavy snowfalls.
SLF Avalanche Risk
Personally I would not go outside the boundaries of marked runs anywhere at this time, but – with sufficient planning and caution – it is possible to reduce the risks of being overcome by an avalanche to near zero, even if off-piste. Indeed, it is worth bearing in mind that fatalities do occasionally occur on piste from avalanches (and in 1999 31 people were killed when the ski resort of Galtür was hit by an avalanche); knowing the level of avalanche risk and the risk factors is worthwhile even for people who do not stray off-piste.

The first consideration concerns nearby slopes as well as those you want to ski on. The overwhelming majority of avalanches occur on slopes with a gradient of greater than 35% but they can occur on slopes with a gradient of as little as 30%. Even on-piste, I tend to stay on the side furthest away from such unprepared slopes if the avalanches risk in the area is rated considerable or higher. It is also worth watching out for skiers or snowboarders traversing high on such slopes – the line that the skiers and snowboarders take can weaken a slab and initiate an avalanche. Indeed, the very presence of others skiers or snowboarders above you and off-piste is more likely to indicate heightened risk rather than relative safety since many avalanches are triggered by freeriders.

The sun helps the snow on slopes to bond, so periods without sunshine or of little sunshine, such as mid-winter, or periods of heavy snowfall and north-facing slopes tend to be associated more often with avalanches. On the SLF charts, the more avalanche prone slopes are indicated black on the compasses on the SLF chart – as the chart above shows slopes facing all directions are currently prone to avalanches. In addition wind-blown snow can often create dangerous drifts and this is more likely to happen above the treeline and at higher altitudes in general – again the SLF chart indicates that avalanches are more likely above a given altitude. The SLF will also identify whether wind-blown slopes, gullies, bowls and areas adjacent to the ridge line are particularly risky over and above the general level of risk associated with an area.

Clearly skiers and snowboarders should be prepared for off-piste conditions, with transponders, probes, shovels, ABS and cellphones amongst the minimum for back country outings, but it is a false sense of security to believe that these will be of any help in many avalanche situations. The trick is to avoid putting yourself at danger, and the signs at this time are to proceed with extreme caution, avoiding off-piste in all but the most benign circumstances.

At least the latest snow redresses a situation which left many runs patchy and off-piste snow depths often too limited to cover obstacles such as rocks and tree stumps. In the Vaud Alps well over one metre of snow has fallen in the last few days, and most of the rest of the Swiss Alps and the Western Jura have experienced up to a metre.

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