Today we have heard from local police that there has been a fatal avalanche in the ski resort of Tignes. At the time of writing 4 skiers have been confirmed dead with another 5 buried. First off I just wanted to say my thoughts are with them and wish the buried skiers all the luck.
This is the biggest avalanche this season in Tignes but the shocking truth is that avalanches happen every day. Most are very small and do not involve holidaymakers, thankfully. This is mainly down to the brilliant work the piste safety staff perform every day.
So what has made me put pen to paper, if you will, about this avalanche?
As with most accidents we can learn from others mistakes or bad luck. Skiing or Snowboarding like many other sports can be dangerous, it is something you should understand when you click into your bindings each morning. For most on-piste holiday skiers this could mean a bruise or broken bones at worse, but, for off-piste skiers, there is a lot more at risk.
This avalanche stood out to me more than most and it has a few areas which we can learn from, this is what I would like to discuss here.
Who was involved?
A group of 8 holidaymakers hired a mountain guide to take them off-piste skiing. It was reported that all 9 skiers were swept away in the 400 meter wide avalanche. Sadly 4 skiers died whilst 5 more are buried.
At this very early stage, it is not known how close the skiers were to each other at the time, the size of the avalanche was quite wide so might not make a difference anyway.
Was it safe to go off-piste?
Now that is a question!
It is never safe to go off-piste skiing just levels of how risky it is that an avalanche could happen. Most ski resorts use a flag and/or number system which is controlled by the local piste authority who continuously monitor pistes and adjacent slopes for likelihood of slides. They could change the flag/number at any point in the day, it is something that all off-piste skiers should know about and monitor.
Most resorts use a scale of 1-5 (numbers) which shows how risky it is, 1 being low and 5 meaning stay on piste!
Today the avalanche risk was 3 out of 5.
I can’t speak for anyone else but I would consider this an acceptable level of risk if I was skiing off-piste.
So I (you might not agree) think the conditions looked ok to ski off-piste.
What else could make a difference?
The 8 skiers were bright enough to hire a local mountain guide, this is something I can not stress the importance of. Unless you are one of the few people who grew up and have lived in the resort all your life and know the area as good as a mountain guide, you should always hire a local guide if you intend on going off the beaten track.
What about the Weather?
From what I have seen and the reports I have read it looked like a perfect day to go off-piste skiing, a clear blue sky.
There is a big caveat here, the weather for that time is not the only consideration under the ‘Weather’ heading. I don’t at this moment know the temperatures and history of snow fall on that slope which are areas that investigators will need to look into at a later date.
So the weather looked ok too.
How did the avalanche happen?
Well, this is very early days here and I can only guess from what I have read and know of the area. So, please, this is just what I think at this moment what could have happened.
The reports from eye witnesses say that the avalanche was triggered by another set of skiers higher up the slope.
Why did the Ski Instructors stop all ski lessons?
Ski resorts have well-drilled emergency procedures, they practise before the season starts as well as throughout the season. Some resorts sound a siren alerting of an avalanche, some use radios to communicate the emergency.
Ski areas are vast and quite simply there isn’t enough lift attendants and emergency ski patrollers to cover the area within the time needed to help skiers in trouble. Additionally often, like this avalanche, it covers a lot of ground so you need as many people as possible to help find the buried skiers.
Therefore when the alarm is sounded all ski instructors no matter what they are doing drop everything and go to help. They have all been trained and know what they need to do. This is why ski lessons were cancelled.
What can we learn?
As mentioned above there is always something to learn from a disaster to help educate and reduce them happening again, here are my thoughts on this event and what we can learn:
The conditions looked very good and the group hired a local mountain guide, however as much preparation for your days skiing and the amount of knowledge the mountain guide has, there are always other skiers around. A big no no for off-piste skiing is to ski above another group of skiers lower down the slope who are not in a safe position. Did the other group just see the guide group and thought ‘if they can ski there it must be safe’? Or was the group led by another mountain guide and something just went wrong?
The chances are is that the guide group wouldn’t have been able to do anything about this, avalanches happen so very quickly and if you don’t know it’s happening, well…
What we do know is that in the time I that it took for me to have written this post the chances of the buried skiers being found alive (if they have not been found already) are very slim, it would be a miracle. The first 15mins of an avalanche is the most important, speed is everything.
A very common thought in skiing is that ‘it must be safe as those skiers skied it’, I can not stress how wrong that is. If there is one thing to take away and remember from this article or today’s sad event, please please don’t think this.
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