As Alps ski resorts celebrate heavy snowfall and the best start to the season in more than a decade the large snowfalls combined with an unstable snowpack have prompted warnings of “massive avalanches” throughout the winter.
The fragile conditions have already led to the deaths of three people in France.
Two teachers from the Lycée Marlioz in Aix-les-Bains were killed while ski touring in the Chartreuse Mountains during the first weekend of this month. A third man, Fabrice Bouttaz, 47, was killed on the same day in a separate avalanche in the same area.
Last season 31 people were killed in avalanches in France. The winter before, 21 people died.
Most Alpine resorts are now open with keen skiers heading to the slopes to take advantage of the excellent conditions. This week the Alps have been battered by storms, bringing large accumulations of fresh snow.
In Val d’Isère more than a metre of snow has fallen this week, according to the Ski Club of Great Britain. In nearby Val Thorens, Europe’s highest ski resort, there is now more than two metres of snow on the upper slopes.
Snowfall resumed in the region yesterday with the avalanche risk for the weekend expected to be upgraded from three (considerable) to four (high) on a scale of one to five in all of the major mountain ranges.
“I think that the winter is [looking] bad, with the potential for large volume avalanches,” said Alain Duclos, a snow scientist and president of data-avalanche.org. He said the recent fresh snow has fallen on an already fragile base.
The instability of the snowpack — a mass of snow compressed by its own weight — is said by experts to be the result of a weak layer that formed at the end of November when very low temperatures turned the snow “sugary”. The fresh fall on top is unable to bond, making the snow prone to sliding.
“What is also exceptional this year is that the situation is the same throughout the region,” Mr Duclos added.
This year’s snow follows three disastrous starts to the Alpine season. A handful of French resorts, including Tignes, Val Thorens and Courchevel, celebrated the unseasonably early snowfalls by opening their slopes in November.
“Currently, avalanches of a great magnitude are to be feared,” said Fabrice Rouve, a deputy of the PGHM, the French mountain police. “This is clearly not the time to walk, ski tour, or otherwise, especially in unsecured areas.”
This week, the French mountain police, stationed in Isère and Drôme departments, carried out a major joint force avalanche training operation at 3,200m on Les Deux Alpes glacier.
• Switzerland’s highest court has convicted three skiers of violating their duty of care when they triggered an avalanche in Anzère, in the Valais canton, that injured two people in 2009. The skiers were initially sentenced by a district court but on appeal their suspended sentences were overturned by the cantonal court. This week the Federal Supreme Court said it had overturned that decision. The court said the skiers’ abilities, combined with the avalanche information available, meant they should have known not to be in the area.
Source: The Times