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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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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Best Swiss Winter Sports Hotels

Switzerland has some of the best winter sports hotels in the world. With Covid, however, many cantons have closed restaurants and bars except those associated with hotels, and these are only open for residents. Now is perhaps a good time to figure out where are some of the best places to stay with full restaurant and bar service and things to do off the slopes, given that there could be various restrictions yet to come.

Hotel Kempinski in St Moritz

Much as I haven’t eaten in many of the restaurants listed in my previous post, I haven’t stayed in enough hotels in Switzerland to tell you which are the best for winter sports from first hand experience.

However, as is the case with Gault & Millau when it comes to the rating restaurants with the best food in Switzerland, the influential Zurich newspaper, Tages-Anzeiger, annually surveys which are the best 3, 4 and 5 star hotels in Switzerland for winter sports visitors.

The resulting lists are behind a paywall, but I shared the lists from 10 years ago on my “Where to Stay” page at the Swiss Winter Sports web site. Last week the newspaper published their latest annual survey (now up from the top 15 in each category to the top 25) and here are some of the best value choices, based on two people sharing:

For 3 star hotels, the Revier Mountain Lodge (Swiss Lodge) in both Adelboden and Lenzerheide are an impressively affordable at SFr 99 per person per night, although breakfast is an extra SFr 18 and dinner is not included. 3 star hotels offering full board at less than SFr 200 per person per night include the #1 pick Spitzhorn in Saanen (Gstaad), Sporthotel in Pontresina, Kernen in Schönried (Gstaad), Spescha in Lenzerheide and Des Alpes in Flims.

Amongst highly ranked 4 star hotels, there are some that come in cheaper than many 3 star establishments, notably the Ameron Swiss Mountain Hotel in Davos, at SFr 170, followed by the Radisson Blu Hotel Reussen in Andermatt at SFr 190, both full board.

The Gstaad Palace dominates the village of Gstaad.

Prices ratchet up quite a bit for the 5 star hotels. However the Lenkerhof Gourmet Spa Resort in Lenk, the Chalet Royalp Hotel & Spa in Villars, the Capra Saas-Fee and the Cervo Zermatt, appear to offer full board mid-season for less than SFr 400 per person per night. The famous Badrutt’s Palace seemed to offer the lowest prices in St Moritz at SFr 495 per night. Gstaad‘s top hotels were even more expensive, but there are options on a lesser budget in both St Moritz and Gstaad.

Schönried gives good access to the best slopes of Gstaad Mountain Rides.

The prices I quoted are taken from Tages-Anzeiger. I did a spot check and they seemed to be broadly correct, but do check at the hotel itself, the Swiss Tourist Board, Bookings.com, TripAdvisor or some other aggregator. Given the Covid situation, you might find some bargains are to be had – I certainly have so far this season.

You may well ask what the different star ratings represent and how durable the Tages-Anzeiger ranking system is by comparing the list of ten years ago with the latest.

Not surprisingly, it was Switzerland who first introduced an independent hotel classification in 1979. In 2010 this became the European Hotelstars .Union, and its classification has been adopted by most Alpine hotels (but not those in France). The full list of criteria is here. However you might want to know what the minimum criteria would be for a hotel selected by Tages-Anzeiger (i.e. three stars):

  • Reception opened 14 hours, accessible by phone 24 hours from inside and outside, bilingual staff
  • Lounge suite at the reception, luggage service on demand
  • Beverage offer in the room
  • Telephone in the room
  • hair-dryer, cleansing tissue
  • Dressing mirror, adequate place or rack to put the luggage/suitcase
  • Sewing kit, shoe polish utensils, laundry and ironing service
  • Additional pillow and additional blanket on demand
  • Systematic complaint management system

For many people a one star hotel will offer everything they want, such as half-board, TV, ensuite bathroom, daily room cleaning and towels. Indeed, I would happily recommend most hostels and many no star hotels in Switzerland to skiers and snowboarders based on my own experience. On the whole Switzerland is an orderly, clean and safe country and I have found even the most basic hostel in the country better than the best hostel I have stayed in elsewhere. Hostels usually offer full board, provide a bar service and have a range of accommodation, – from dormitories to en-suite. Indeed, normally you might prefer a ski-in, ski-out hostel to luxury accommodation where you would need a hotel transfer to get to the slopes. However many of the budget hotels do not offer a dinner or bar service at this time, and many hostels will not be offering shared accommodation any time soon.

It is difficult maintaining a web site dedicated to Swiss winter sports when it is impossible to visit every resort, hotel and restaurant every year and anecdotal information can be inconsistent, so it is useful to have independent input. One question, however, is whether the information is largely consistent from one year to the next and not faddish like many sources. I also wondered whether it is true that the most highly rated establishments tend to maintain more consistent standards over time. If I am right, the best Swiss winter sports hotels in Tages-Anzeiger will have changed less amongst 5 star than 4 and 3 star hotels, comparing 2010 to 2020 and 2020 to last year. Let’s see how it goes.

Well, all but two of the 15 top 5 star hotels in 2010 are in in the top 25 for 2020. The two that have dropped out have been rebranded and appear to be under new ownership, and the two that snuck in to replace them were ranked 23rd and 24th. The ones that dropped out still get good reviews online, but clearly are rebuilding their reputations. The top 10 are the same as last year, with some small differences in ranking. Interestingly, the W in Verbier, which the Telegraph rated 9/10, does not make the top 25 – which may be because the Tages-Anzeiger list addresses Swiss rather than UK tastes.

When it comes to 4 star hotels, only 7 that were in the top 15 are still in the top 15, 10 years later. All the others had dropped out of top 25 altogether. There have been some changes of ownership, but the list for 2020 has a different feel. However only 2 have dropped out from the top 10 of last year, to 14 and 15th places. There are 4 new entrants from last year, 2 of which made it straight into the top 15.

For the 3 star hotels, 6 have retained a place in the top 15, and 9 in the top 25. Only 1 has dropped out of the top 10, down to 16th. There were 5 new entrants, none higher than 17th place.

So it is not very scientific, but it does look like 5 star hotels have more durability than 4 or 3 star hotels but no real difference between 3 and 4 star hotels in terms of durability of reputation.

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Best restaurants in Zermatt

Diners at the restaurant at Matterhorn Glacier Palace.
The restaurant at Matterhorn Glacier Palace has great views, but the toilets are not free!

The winter season officially opens in Zermatt on 5th December with lifts on the Rothorn and Gornergrat adding to the ski area already open above Furgg.

Sadly the mountain restaurants won’t open fully until 13th December because of covid restrictions, but six mountain restaurants are offering a take-away service during this period. Annoyingly all the seats have also been removed up the mountains, so you need to find a nice rock to sit on to enjoy your fare. My experience so far during this lockdown period is alcohol is not generally served as part of the take-way service.

Socially distanced tables at Trockener Steg under the Matterhorn.
Restaurant at Trockener Steg before lockdown, but with socially distanced tables.

When the restaurants do open up, Zermatt probably offers the best culinary options in the Alps – both on the slopes and in the town. Gault Millau, who rate the best culinary experiences in Switzerland identified 15 in Zermatt out of 830 throughout Switzerland to deserve special note.

The marking system is as follows:
17 points: mark for the best quality and high consistency
16 and 15 points: high level of the culinary arts and quality
14 and 13 points: very good cuisine and offering much more than everyday dining
12 points: conventional, good cuisine without special ambitions

The restaurants are:

PointsName of the restaurants
17After Seven (Backstage Hotel)
17Ristorante Capri (Mont Cervin Palace)
16Alpine Gourmet Prato Borni (Grand Hotel Zermatterhof)
15The Omnia
14Chez Heini
14Chez Vrony
14China Garden
14Findlerhof bei Franz und Heidi
14Grill le Cervin (Mont Cervin Palace)
14Restaurant Saveurs (Chalet Hotel Schönegg)
14Zum See bei Max und Greti
13Lusi Brasserie & Lounge (Grand Hotel Zermatterhof)
13Myoko
13Restaurant Sonnmatten
13Restaurant 1818
Simon Hughes enjoying the fabulous fish stew at Chalet Etoile.

Not included in the list, of course, are the restaurants on the Cervinia side – sadly off-limits for the time being due to covid. At the web site, SwissWinterSports.co.uk, I opine that “the small serving of fish soup in Chalet Etoile off Plain Maison in Cervinia is not only an inexpensive and filling repast, it is probably the best fish soup you will experience anywhere in the world, at least above 2000m.” 

So now you know.

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