Avalanche Fatalities

WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF , 4.02.2021

Although most ski lifts have remained open in Switzerland during the Covid pandemic, more skiers and snowboarders than ever are choosing to go back-country skiing. Inevitably this has led to a record number of avalanche fatalities, with the number of fatal incidents this season to date more than any previous season this century. The season average is 22 fatalities, whereas this year there have been 17 already – and notably that also represents 17 separate incidents.

Fatalities by risk factor

A handful of fatalities were from skiing off-piste, i.e. using lift-served unmarked routes, but the majority of the deaths in Switzerland have been back-country skiers and snowboarders. One would generally expect these people to be better prepared than those killed off-piste. Four of the back-country fatalities occurred when the avalanche risk was moderate. These include one in the Jura, the first avalanche fatality in this area that I am aware of in over 20 years.

One off-piste fatality of a British skier occurred below les Attelas in Verbier on 18th January when the avalanche risk was moderate. This is generally considered a ‘safe’ off-piste area, bounded as it is by lifts and groomed runs. As is usually the case, the unfortunate skier was not alone, and other people were also caught by the avalanche but survived.

Interestingly very few avalanche fatalities (3%) historically occur when the avalanche risk is high and none when the risk is very high. The majority of deaths occur when the avalanche risk is considered considerable (65%). For people going off-piste an even higher proportion of fatalities occur when the risk is considerable.

Not surprisingly the majority of fatalities occur in Grabunden and Valais since these cantons are most popular for back-country touring and off-piste. However this does not mean other areas are safe. To add to the fatality in the Jura, there was also a fatality this season in Rochers de Naye amongst a group of young skiers – this in a pre-Alpine ski resort above Montreux.

The message to me seems clear. If the risk of an avalanche is considered anything more than moderate even well-prepared back-country outings would be well advised to abandon their plans. However 30% of fatalities occur when the avalanche risk is moderate (and 2% when it is low), so the advice is to thoroughly plan back-country expeditions and off-piste runs even in these conditions.

It is worth adding that every year there are also fatalities amongst other winter sports enthusiasts, typically a couple of snowshoe walkers a year die in avalanches. Additionally over 90% of avalanche fatalities are triggered by the victims and their companions.

Switzerland has the most sophisticated avalanche-warning system in the world, largely due to the sheer scale of the detection capabilities the SLF (Institute for Snow and Avalanche research) has at it’s disposal. However risk to an individual skier or snowboarder needs to be augmented by an assessment of the specific conditions the skier or snowboarder finds themselves in. It is the case that even pisted, patrolled runs can be hit by avalanches.

Many back-country skiers are well-prepared for the risk of avalanches, but I believe even resort skiers should be aware of what contributes to avalanche risk, and inspect the terrain they ski through, on or off-piste.

My golden rules are PRICK:

  1. Plan. Decide in advance where you are going and what risk factors may apply. Discuss with your party in advance in which circumstances you would change your plan, e.g. because of a perceived avalanche risk. Ensure you know where you are going and discuss rendez-vous points. Make a note of distinctive features on your route so you can accurately communicate where you are if you need to.
  2. Risk Assess. Check the current avalanche risk assessment for where you are going. Be aware conditions may deteriorate during the day.
  3. Inspect. Before you set out make an assessment of where you are going, visually and taking advantage of local knowledge. Whilst out, look above and around you throughout your day for higher risk features – rocky outcrops and corniches, broken branches on the uphill side of trees and other evidence of previous avalanches, particularly steep (30-45%) or convex slopes…
  4. Choose. Choose your route according to the above factors. If in doubt choose the safest option. Don’t get drawn into the ‘incident pit’.
  5. Kit up. Have the right kit with you. For off-piste, having a working phone on you and RECCO reflectors is a minimum, but equipment required for back-country may also be appropriate for more challenging off-piste conditions. For back-country, tranceivers, probes, shovels and appropriate training are considered essential, and airbags are recommended.

For those not familiar with the RECCO system, it is a very small battery-free transponder, frequently found in ski clothing and backpacks but which can also be purchased separately and attached to helmets, boots or ski jackets. In most resorts rescue teams can detect the presence of a RECCO reflector within around 200m.

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Glacier3000

Walkers Glacier3000

I checked out Glacier3000 at the weekend. It was not the best time to go, as it was busy. Not in a covid sense so much as in terms of queues for the two T-bars which service most of the open terrain on the glacier. From a covid perspective the situation was the same as in most resorts I’ve visited this season – restaurants closed; seating removed; masks inside, in queues and on all lifts.

Queues for a T-bar below Dôme
Weekend queues – Glacier3000 is the nearest open resort to the Lake Geneva region

It wasn’t only skiers that made it busy. There were quite a few cross-country skiers, winter walkers and day-trippers who had taken the cable cars upto Cabane and then Scex Rouge at 2971m. For the day trippers the highlight is the peak walk, a walk between two peaks on a suspension bridge to take in a quite stunning view north of Vaud, Valais, Fribourg and the Bernese Oberland as far as the Jungfrau. There are quite awesome views all over the glacier, with Mont Blanc, Matterhorn and other notable peaks on the southern skyline.

Peak Walk at Glacier3000 with view over Vaud
Peak Walk

Only the higher runs at the ski area are open, which means mostly cruisy blues served by T-bars and accessed by a long schuss which crosses – to my mind quite dangerously – a section which you have to schuss across to get back to the chairlift to Scex Rouge. In practice you normally end up having to walk across the intersection going to the chairlift, unless you have really gone for it in a big way.

Snow Park at Glacier 3000
Snow Park at Glacier 3000

When Glacier3000 is fully open there are 28km of piste down as far as Reusch and, if the snow is good, there is a flattish off piste run which can take you as far as Gstaad. I don’t generally like the lower pistes which are steep and often icy and in shadow. Beginners looking to stick to the blue runs might be put off by the steepish section at the start of the schuss over to the pistes on le Glacier des Diablerets, but the runs there are delightful and you can ski all day on about 14km of piste, a good amount of skiable, ungroomed snow, a great snow park and 9km of cross-country (classic and skating). Glacier3000 has some off-piste runs from Scex Rouge down to the valley, although I’ve never had the nerve to try them as it looks like there are some steep sections where, if you made a mistake, it could end up going pretty badly. As in brown bread.

Ski runs and cross-country on the glacier at Glacier3000

There’s probably a good reason for this, but one of the three surface lifts on the glacier is not operating currently, which means that the wonderful view and runs off Quille du Diable are not open. It’s a shame, and it would reduce the queues at the bottom of the two lifts off Dôme if it were open.

Ski de fond at Glacier3000

Glacier 3000 is situated on the 3209m Les Diablerets mountain, although the name is more often associated with the Les Diablerets ski runs across the valley which links to the connected runs at Villars-sur-Ollon. There used to be a gondola,  Isenau, that meant you could ski across from the village of Les Diablerets to Col du Pillon, the main valley station for Glacier3000. Sadly the lift was obsolete and is now retired, and along with it the Isenau ski area has been closed – although there are plans to redevelop the area and replace the gondola. The old cranky chairlift at Les Diablerets up to Les Mazots has, however, now been replaced by a gondola as of last season.

The starting point for getting to Glacier3000, Col du Pillon, is a mountain pass linking Aigle with Gstaad and, apart from the cable car and a huge (free) car park there is not much there. By road, it is about 15 minutes from Les Diablerets and 40 minutes from Montreux. Using public transport you can get to the cable car quite easily from Aigle by taking the narrow gauge railway to Les Diablerets and then taking the waiting bus, B180, which goes on to Gstaad. Gstaad is about 40 minutes by bus from Col du Pillon and about 30 minutes from Reusch, the other valley station that only operates in the main winter season. The buses are more frequent during the main winter season than at this time of the year and there is also a courtesy bus between Col du Pillon and the valley station for Les Diablerets once that resort opens.

I think the lift pass for Glacier3000 is quite pricey, but the glacier runs are open from September through May. It is part of the MagicPass scheme, albeit with a supplementary charge unique to the resorts in the scheme. It is also one of the options on the Gstaad Mountain Rides lift pass. One benefit, at least for me, is you get a small discount if you are a senior! Incidentally, if you have a SwissPass you can buy your lift pass online and use your SwissPass to give you access to the lifts.



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Aigle to have a direct train to the Leysin ski lifts

TPC Mountain railways out of Aigle.

Aigle is a small town at the heart of the Chablais, dominated by the towering Dentes du Midi. From the historic town centre you can see the Chablais Alps, the Mont-Blanc massif, the Pennine Alps and the Alpes Vaudois. From the vineyards around the castle you can also see Lake Geneva, Montreux, Vevey and the distant Jura. Above you, you can just make out the ski slopes of les Portes du Soleil, Villars-Gryon and Leysin.

I’m rather fond of Aigle, and it is a town I currently call home. It is easy to get to, with a frequent, direct train right from Geneva Airport. It is also possible, with only one connection, to ski Zermatt, Crans-Montana, Verbier and a host of other resorts.

However, even more conveniently, there is a network of narrow gauge railways operated by TPC (Transports Publics du Chablais) that fan out from the station at Aigle, trundling through the town and up the mountains to provide direct connections to the resorts of Champéry, Les Diablerets and Leysin. There is also a direct bus to Villars (or a train from nearby Bex, also operated by TPC – and of course you can always ski across from Les Diablerets).

These are the easiest substantial resorts to get to from Geneva and Lausanne by public transport or car. For all but the public transport connection at Leysin, the transfer is a doddle – more of that anon.

I have mixed feelings about Leysin. The village itself is charming, lying on a sunny plateau under the Tour d’Aï . Although the resort claims 100km of piste, that includes the low-lying, surface lift served section at les Mosses which is connected to the Leysin section by a navette – a courtesy bus. Still, from the excellent revolving restaurant at la Berneuse with its amazing views over Lake Geneva and across the Rhône valley there are a number of good, varied runs.

However the main reason for my mixed feelings about Leysin is the distance from the train stations in the village to the lifts that provide the only access to the ski area. There is a navette in Leysin, but the bus timetable isn’t co-ordinated with the train times – unusually for Switzerland – and the buses are too infrequent. Rather than wait, I have walked to and from the gondola many times from one or other station in Leysin, and it is long, hilly walk. The alternative is to drive up.

You may well ask why the good folk at TPC didn’t build the railway to connect to the gondola station, and the reason is that there was no skiing in this part of Switzerland when the railway was built in 1900. And there is a good reason why the railway takes the course it does.

In the 18th Century the people of Leysin had an unusually long life expectancy for the time. Swiss commentators attribute this observation to Thomas Malthus in an essay of 1789. However this is not exactly true, but is oft repeated. The reference exists in a subsequent edition of the essay, and it is with regard to the observations of Jean-Louis Muret in his 1766 “Le mémoire sur l’état de la population dans le Pays de Vaud“. This what Malthus wrote in 1826:

In the parish of Leyzin (sic), noticed by M. Muret, all these circumstances appear to have been combined in an unusual degree. Its situation in the Alps, but yet not too high, gave it probably the most pure and salubrious air; and the employment of the people, being all pastoral, were consequently of the most healthy nature. From the calculations of M. Muret, the accuracy of which there is no reason to doubt, the probability of life in this parish appeared to be so extraordinarily high as 61 years.

Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of
Population, vol. 1 [1826, 6th ed.]

Whether because of Malthus, or as a result of the emerging view that mountain air and sunshine had restorative properties for various maladies, Leysin soon became a destination for the sick. Numerous clinics and sanatoriums were built, largely on the most sunny terraces to the South-West of the village. In 1875 the first road from the valley of the Grande Eau was extended to Leysin, followed by a cog railway in 1900. The terminus of the railway was the Grand-Hôtel, a sanatorium built in 1892.

Leysin-Village - one of the narrow gauge cog railway stations in Leysin.
Leysin-Village Station.

Through the renowned Dr Auguste Rollier and his Institute of Heliotherapy (light therapy) Leysin became particularly famous in the treatment of lung diseases. Dr Rollier believed that exposure to the sun in fresh mountain air could restore a patient’s health – and he enjoyed a remarkably good recovery rate for tuberculosis patients at the time. The healthcare industry in Leysin boomed, and by the 1930s Leysin had as many as 80 sanatoriums with 3000 patients. Famous visitors included the Russian Czar, Igor Stravinsky and Mahatma Gandhi.

Then penicillin was invented and by the mid-1950s all the sanatoria were closed. Leysin promptly re-invented itself as a holiday resort, with the first gondolas running in 1956. Unfortunately, for reasons probably related to engineering and cost considerations as well as access to sheltered slopes, the gondolas ran from the North-East end of the village, nowhere near the four railways stations in Leysin.

So it is with great excitement that I discovered TPC are going to build a tunnel so that the train now connects to the gondola bottom station. The new underground rail route, from the bottom of the village to the gondola station, will include three new stops. The line will no longer run to the Grand-Hôtel (which since 2010 has been the Belle Époque Campus of Leysin American School). However a funicular project is being studied which would connect the Grand-Hôtel with the Feydey station and the village sports centre. The expectation is that the developments will take traffic off the roads and enhance Leysin’s reputation as an all-year destination.

The downside? Apart from the eye-watering cost, commissioning is not expected until 2030. If I’m still skiing, I will be 75 so I’ll probably enjoy the convenience of jumping off a train onto a gondola all the more.

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The Vaud Alps

My private paradise is in a little corner of Switzerland known as Chablais. It straddles the Swiss cantons of Vaud and Valais, and a part of France, at the point where the Alps meet Lake Geneva, a few miles from Montreux.

At the heart of this area is the sleepy town of Aigle, surrounded by vineyards that make some of the best wines in all of Switzerland. Aigle is also the home of the International Cycling Union (Union Cycliste Internationale), is a major stop on the trains that run from Geneva Airport to Brig and has a prominent castle, but for skiers and snowboarders Aigle is noteworthy because it lies at the nexus of a number of railways and roads that take you to some of the best winter sports resorts in the Alps and is the gateway to the Vaud Alps.

From Aigle direct trains run to the resorts of Leysin, Les Diablerets and Les Portes du Soleil. Villars and Torgon are only half an hour away by bus. With only one change of train, it is also an easy day trip to Verbier in the Four Valleys, Les Marécottes and several resorts in Gstaad Mountain Rides (including Rougemont and Château-d’Oex). From Les Diablerets a courtesy bus runs to Glacier 3000 (Glacier des Diablerets).

Les Diablerets was in the papers for all the wrong reasons this week, with news of a 21yo English skier dying when he hit a tree on the edge of the Vers-l’Eglise piste, a relatively straight-forward red run. I would count Les Diablerets and the connected resort of Villars as being amongst the safest resorts in the Alps, and I can only imagine that this was a freakish accident. It’s always tragic to hear of a skiing fatality, and this was a slope I was skiing on only last week when conditions seemed near perfect.

fanny smith racing skicross
Vilars was also in the news this week, when the Swiss skier, Fanny Smith, gained a bronze medal in Skicross. Fanny has won nearly everything there is to win in skicross, but an Olympic medal has eluded her until now. Despite her English-sounding name – she was born to an American father and English mother – Fanny skis for Switzerland, was born in Aigle and brought up in Villars where she no doubt honed her skicross skills.

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