Avalanche Risk Mitigation

The Swiss Institute for Snow & Avalanche Research (SLF) recorded 27 deaths from Avalanches in the winter season 2021/22 up to the end of March, double the number for the previous year and the moving average over the last 20 years. All the victims were winter sports enthusiasts on unsecured terrain – 11 back country and 16 off-piste – and a quarter were in the Verbier area.

Why do skiers and snowboarders get killed by avalanches, I have often been asked. Can’t they just ski out of the path of the snow slide?

Simply put, it is almost impossible to out-run an avalanche. A skier normally travels around 30km/hr, whilst an avalanche can exceed 100km/hr, faster than all but the fastest skier can travel in perfect conditions. Additionally a skier may not be aware that an avalanche has formed until it is upon them, as they can begin with little warning and an almost imperceptible change in the condition of the snow. Then, very rapidly, the force of the product of the mass and acceleration of the slab of snow is capable of knocking over anything in its way.

Just like a flood of water, it is possible to “float” on an avalanche by wearing and deploying an avalanche airbag. Without one, however, you will almost certainly be swept under. It is sometimes possible to “swim” through an avalanche, but swimming in an avalanche is not a skill the average victim will have.

An avalanche typically contains many hundreds or thousands of cubic metres of snow, and the snow consistency is often heavy once it settles. One cubic metre can weigh 500kg, so if you are under an avalanche that has settled you cannot normally lift yourself out of the snow. You would need to dig your way out, and that could well be through a substantial layer of snow. It may not even be clear which way is up. Your best chance of survival is that someone else is able to dig you out – assuming they know where to dig.

Even if a skier is conscious and knows which way is up when they have found themselves under an avalanche, the snow will likely encase them such that they are unable to move. The air pocket around their face will be unable to sustain them for more than a short period, perhaps a few minutes. 85% of avalanche deaths are due to asphyxiation.

The impact of the avalanche may well have made the skier unconscious or caused serious injury. In 15% of avalanche fatalities trauma is a factor. Avalanches often include debris such as trees and rocks, and in turn may sweep a skier on to rocks or other hard objects.

If a victim of an avalanche is not killed by the impact and is dug out within 5 minutes there is a 90% chance of survival. If they have been able to create a large enough air pocket a survival time of an hour is possible but is rare.

I have talked in an earlier article about how important it is to have some form of beacon, such as a RECCO reflector, in ski gear to improve the chances of being found. If you do survive an avalanche, it is likely because of some one else’s preparedness.


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End of Season Ski Report – Switzerland

I haven’t seen any figures yet, but I imagine this winter season will be one of the better ones for winter sports participation in Switzerland.

Nicholas Oatridge in Villars

And it’s not over yet! Although many resorts closed after the Easter weekend, the snow is better than I can recall it this late in the season. I am currently skiing Villars-Gryon and the depth of snow is staggering. No bare patches to speak of – even the resort run into Villars is pleasantly skiable at the end of the day. Although there are Spring ski conditions the pistes have been excellently groomed and, without the Easter crowds, the pistes are staying in good condition throughout the day.

Many resorts have held their end-of-season bashes in the assumption the snow would have gone. Villars held theirs over Easter, but plan to stay open until 15th April. My sense is that they could well stay open longer, but with so many skiers calling time on the season it is probably uneconomical.

Crans-Montana

Indeed one resort I was hoping to get to before the end of the season, Crans-Montana, unexpectedly closed all the lifts on 2nd April. With a glacier and some seriously high runs, Crans-Montana is often one of the last resorts to close, despite its largely South-facing slopes. It had over 4 metres of snow at the top and all runs open when, in what can only be described as as a fit of pique, the lift operators closed all lifts because of a dispute with local municipalities.

In an open letter , Philippe Magistretti, chairman of the ski lifts, announced the immediate closure of the Crans-Montana Aminona ski area, citing a failure of the municipalities to honour an 800,000 Franc deal.

In response, the municipalities say that the breach of which they are accused is part of an agreement “still under negotiation between all the parties involved” and “vehemently reject” Mr Magistretti’s remarks.

They go on to say that “the priority of the Communities is to minimize the negative consequences of this decision on tourists,” and are providing a free bus service to nearby Anzère. Now I like Anzère a lot, but it is a more modest, and lower, resort.

Needless to say local businesses feel they have been let down so a lot of bad blood is likely to ensue.

And I won’t be going to Crans-Montana this season.

Regrettably Saas-Fee is only planning to stay open 15th April, despite it’s altitude. Verbier and Samnaun/Ischgl, however, will be open until the end of the month, and Glacier3000, St Moritz, Engelberg and Andermatt plan to stay open into May. Zermatt is theoretically an all-year resort but has already started closing some lifts, but I’ve known the valley run from Furi open well into May so I am optimistic it will be for some weeks yet.

STOP PRESS: Crans Montana has re-opened as of 6th April – although only until the official end of season on 17th April. Wouldn’t it be nice if they extended it a few days to make up for the closure?

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Andermatt

An article in the UK Metro newspaper claims Andermatt in the Swiss Alps should be your next weekend break. I’m not going to disagree, it’s a beautiful little resort with some great off-piste on the Gemsstock, and it gets some of the largest dumps of snow anywhere in the Alps. You can also get there easily by train.

Andermatt Village

I’m not so sure it would be my first choice for a weekend break though. Flims/Laax and Engelberg are about the same distance from Zurich Airport. The Jungfrau is feasible for a weekend break via Basel’s Euroairport, and Chamonix, Verbier, Portes du Soleil, Leysin, Les Diablerets and Villars are about the same distance from Geneva Airport. Plus there are a handful of smaller resorts much closer to the airports – Feldberg from Basel or Flumserberg, Pizol, Hoch-Ybrig and Braunwald from Zurich.

Things might change, however. Andermatt is going through a massive expansion. The resort is currently in the midst of a huge redevelopment by Egyptian billionaire Samih Sawiris. Probably the most obvious sign is the new builds in the village, including the impressive 5-star Hotel Chedi. However a number of new and replacement lifts are in place as the Nätschen-Gütsch area gets upgraded in advance of being linked up with the resort of Sedrun, in the Rhine valley. Expansion and upgrades to the Gemsstock area are also planned. The “masterplan” is due to complete for the 2018/9 season.

Andermatt is also billing itself as a year-round resort with a number of scenic viewpoints, varied mountain walks and an 18 hole golf course to lure summer visitors. Hopefully all this development will not diminish the charm of the old village. The schedule of new lifts can be seen here.

Gemsstock Cable car in Andermatt

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