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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Best Ski Resorts in Switzerland

I recently revisited my Swiss Winter Resorts web site to update it with what I have learned skiing and talking to people these last two months. I also revamped one of the landing pages, largely because I have come up with a few recommendations framed in terms of the ‘best five’ for various criteria. What do you think?

View over the Pennine Alps

Resorts you could spend a whole season in – good altitude, good attitude:
1. Zermatt, 2. Verbier, 3. St Moritz, 4. Davos, 5. Saas-Fee

Best for boarders and parkers:
1. LAAX, 2. Saas-Fee, 3. Adelboden, 4. Arosa/Lenzerheide, 5. Grindelwald

Intermediate heaven:
1. Champéry – Portes du Soleil, 2. Saas-Fee, 3. LAAX, 4. Samnaun, 5. Wengen

Cute car-free ski-in, ski-out resorts:
1. Wengen, 2. Mürren, 3. Aletsch Arena, 4. Stoos, 5. Lauchernalp

Resorts with a great hostel – good for budget breaks and singles:
1. St Moritz, 2. Scuol, 3. Saas-Fee, 4. Grindelwald, 5. LAAX

Villars is a family-friendly resort

Resorts young families and beginners like:
1. Saas-Fee, 2. Villars, 3. Wengen, 4. Thyon, 5. Grächen

Best for backcountry:
1. Verbier, 2. Val d’Anniviers – St-Luc/Chandolin, 3. Davos, 4. Arolla, 5. Disentis

Good snow record, long season:
1. Zermatt, 2. Saas-Fee, 3. St Moritz, 4. Verbier, 5. Andermatt

Good for spa and ski:
1. Leukerbad, 2. Arosa, 3. Scuol, 4. Lenk i.S., 5. Saas-Fee
Other resorts with spas include ValsSt MoritzBad RagazOvronnaz and Villars.

Eating out at the Olympique, Attelas, Verbier

Foodies delight:
1. Zermatt, 2. St Moritz, 3. Gstaad, 4. Arosa, 5. Crans-Montana

Most highly rated hotels:
1. Zermatt, 2. St Moritz, 3. Lenzerheide, 4. Pontresina, 5. Flims
If you include all the hotels in the Gstaad area, it would have been on the list.

Shier above Les Diablerets

Best resorts from Geneva, Geneva Airport and Lausanne for short or long breaks:
1. Champéry – Portes du Soleil, 2. Villars, 3. Verbier, 4. Leysin, 5. Zermatt
Geneva has an inter-regional railway station within the airport building.

Best resorts from Zürich or Zürich Airport for short or long breaks:
1. Engelberg, 2. Andermatt, 3. Arosa, 4. Davos/Klosters, 5. Jungfrau(Wengen/Grindelwald)
Zürich has an inter-regional railway station within the airport building.

Smaller resorts you can get to quickly from Zürich for day trips:
1. Hoch-Ybrig, 2. Flumserberg, 3. Braunwald, 4. Toggenberg, 5. Stoos

Best resorts from Basel for short or longer breaks:
1. Jungfrau(Wengen/Grindelwald), 2. Engelberg, 3. Adelboden, 4. Gstaad Mountain Rides, 5. Meiringen-Hasliberg

Smaller resorts you can get to quickly from Basel for day trips:
1. Feldberg (DE), 2. Engelberg, 3. Sörenberg 4. Klewenalp, 5. Melchsee-Frutt
With the exception of the first in the list, these are also the most convenient for Luzern.

Rhein Valley gems:
1. Flims/Laax/Falera, 2. Obersaxen, 3. Disentis, 4. Sedrun, 5. Brigels/Breil

Rhône Valley gems:
1. Crans-Montana, 2. Nendaz, 3. Aletsch Arena, 4. Anzère, 5. Belalp

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The only place in Europe you can ski

The main Medran gondola station in Verbier today

The Swiss federal authorities today imposed a new set of restrictions on the country, to run from Tuesday 22nd December for a month. The increasing pressure on hospitals and the unwillingness of some cantons to implement federal recommendations has resulted in the new lockdown, with restaurants and sport facilities due to close. However ski resorts will remain open, uniquely in Europe. The official wording from the federal communique today, 18th December, is as follows:

The cantons remain responsible for ski areas. Strict requirements must be met for ski areas to operate. Ski areas can only remain open if the epidemiological situation allows and there are sufficient capacities in hospitals and for contact tracing and testing. Strict precautionary measures must also be in place and their implementation must be guaranteed. If these requirements are not met, ski areas will not be granted an operating permit.  

Zurich had argued for ski resorts to close down, on the basis that injured skiers returning to their home cantons could put an unacceptable pressure on hospitals. Although they didn’t get their way, the federal authorities are clearly signalling that cantons with ski resorts have to have the local capacity to manage ski casualties.

Valais and Vaud notably introduced a lockdown in November and, as a result, seem to have kept the R rate below 1 – unlike many cantons in Schweizerdeutsch-speaking Switzerland. Despite some teething problems, the controls introduced in ski resorts to restrict Covid seem to be working. However I have some reservations as to whether the capacity restrictions are sufficient. I guess it is a trade-off of having longer queues or increased lift capacity. I believe some resorts are planning to restrict the number of ski passes they issue to help control the situation.

The Swiss approach represents a risk especially with high rates of infection in the community. The other Alpine nations are keeping their resorts closed and their governments probably hope the Swiss experiment fails. There has been a lot of opposition to the closures in the annual 34 billion euro winter sports industry, and some businesses may never recover.

However we are still learning about this disease. That ski resorts were epicentres of disease last season is well known – and I have reported on this extensively – but the finger of blame largely pointed towards apres ski activities. It will take a little of the shine off ski and snowboard holidays if you can only eat in your hotel or takeaway and all the bars and clubs are shut, but at least you can still ski and snowboard. And I have had some excellent winter sports holidays where the apres activities were conducted in a family or social unit setting.

I know some people would say I am stretching it, but isn’t there a possibility that winter sports reduce the risk of Covid? I spend a lot more time in the sun when I am skiing, and one of the early indications is that Vitamin D, generated by being in sunlight, protects against the disease.

My only gripe about the new arrangements is that the closure of restaurants last month meant that all the outdoor searing was removed. I hope this will not be the case this time round. People who order take-out pose little risk of spreading the virus if they are allowed to sit down outside to eat. In practice people have found a convenient rock or step or sunny spot to eat their picnic or take-out, but these old bones really appreciate a seat!

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Verbier in renewed Covid scare

Verbier seen from the gondola to Les Ruinettes 8th December 2020.
Verbier today.

Verbier, along with Ischgl, is widely cited as one of the super-spreader centres from the early stages of the Covid pandemic. And it is getting bad press again. Tages Anzeiger published this picture of a melee at the Le Châble valley station on Saturday.

Pandemonium at Le Châble, 5th December 2020.
Melee on Saturday. Photo: Twitter

Verbier has been open at the weekend for most of November but with very limited skiing. Half of the town was still closed when I visited a few weeks ago. Moving into December, a lot of terrain was opened up for the first weekend of the month, and the resort kept open 30km of piste on weekdays ahead of the full opening of the resort next weekend. I think the resort was simply unprepared for the demand, and I’m pleased to say that on my visit today, there was an orderly, fast-moving and relatively well social-distanced queue.

Much improved Covid control at Le Châble, 8th December 2020.
More orderly queues today with stewards reminding people of the 1.5m distance rule.

Normally I would expect mid-week skiing this time of the year to be relatively light, but I think two things are contributing to the high volumes, based on conversations I have had in the queues and on the lifts.

Firstly, French and Italian visitors are significantly up. There are a number of high altitude French and Italian resorts that would normally be open, so I guess that is part of why there is this increase. All trains between Italy and Switzerland are due to be cancelled indefinitely, but the people I spoke to had all driven.

The Tages Anzeiger article is in German and behind a paywall, but it says that there were over 20,000 tourists in town at the weekend with traffic jams normally only associated with high season. As many as half of the total of 50,000 guest beds in town are likely to have been occupied, an unheard of situation at this time of the year. The paper quotes Ami Oreiller from Hotel Les Chamois who says: “Last Thursday our hotel was still half empty, on Friday the phone rang non-stop , and on Saturday the house was full. It is mainly French who come.”

The second major reason for the uptick is that there is a fear that resorts will get closed down sooner or later, and some people are making the most of the opportunity to ski while they can. This is true of both locals from the Lake Geneva and Rhone valley regions, and foreigners, particularly those with chalets in Verbier.

The British make up a large proportion of the tourist trade in Verbier – at least one in five skiers is likely to be British in peak season. Tages Anzeiger estimates that the resident Brits have virtually doubled from the 8,000 who would normally be in Verbier at this time of year. Christmas and New Year bookings are as vibrant as ever. I spoke to some Brits over for a ski instructor training course and they were keen to get the training in while they could.

What hangs over everything is the uncertainty around how the season will develop. Germany, Italy and France had hoped Switzerland would fall in line with their approach and close their resorts until next year, but the Swiss resisted. In theory, the Swiss resorts are supposed to be open only to Swiss residents over the holiday season, but that is unlikely to be policed. Switzerland is also a federal republic and cantons are following different rules. Although Valais and Vaud have closed restaurants, the Bernese Oberland hasn’t. Graubünden is planning to perform mass testing of its residents to protect the ski industry in places like St Moritz and Davos, but to date other cantons only test people who show Covid symptoms.

The run from Attelas down to Les Ruinettes.
The run from Attelas down to Les Ruinettes.

As for the skiing at this time, it is pretty good. On the slopes there are no appreciable queues and the slopes are busy but not excessively so. Today is Immaculate Conception Day in Valais, a public holiday, so that certainly made it busier than it will be tomorrow. Runs were open below Chassure, Attelas and Fontalet down to Les Ruinettes, and although runs below Les Ruinettes to Verbier weren’t technically open, there was sufficient snow cover for people to ski back down to Verbier. The snow depth was good on piste and, following recent snowfall, off-piste wasn’t too tracked out. The Lac des Vaux runs are a lot nicer than they were when they were the only runs open a month ago. Being December, much of the skiing is in shadow. Some mountain restaurants and bars are open for take-away, including alcoholic beverages, but there is no seating. That is due to change next week when Valais relaxes its rules for bars and restaurants.

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