Nearly 300 destructive avalanches during ‘dramatic’ Swiss winter

A total of 299 avalanches causing property damage or injury were reported in Switzerland up to the end of April while 19 people lost their lives.

Nearly 300 destructive avalanches during 'dramatic' Swiss winter
A 300-metre wide avalanche hit the restaurant of the Hotel Säntis in Schwägalp, eastern Switzerland on January 10th. Photo: Kantonspolizei Appenzell Ausserrhoden

That is the balance provided by Switzerland’s WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) in a report published on Tuesday.

All but one of the 19 people killed in avalanches during the winter were participating in outdoor sports in unsecured terrain, the SLF said. The only exception was a ski patroller who died on an open ski run in the canton of Valais.

In late April, in what was the deadliest single avalanche accident of the season, four Germans were killed – also in Valais.

A map showing avalanche fatalities for the period from October 2018 to the present.

The 20-year average for avalanche deaths in the six-month winter period is 21.

The SLF drew special attention to the six deaths in the western part of the northern flank of the Alps in the winter of 2018–19. It said these were “caused by snowpack that remained unfavourably bonded for a prolonged period”.

This was described as “an unusual occurrence for the region”.

A dramatic winter

The SLF report paints a picture of a dramatic winter.

Very heavy snowfall followed by storm-force winds at the beginning of the year saw the institute predicting “very high” avalanche danger on January 14th.

There were a large number of avalanches at that time – many of them containing a large amount of “snow dust” and therefore travelling long distances, the SLF said.

However, thanks to structural defences, danger zone maps, and the work of the avalanche authorities, no lives were lost during this period.

Caution is still required

The SLF said people engaging in mountain sports should continue to pay heed to avalanche warnings in spring and summer. Daily reports are still being issued for now and will continue to be published as required in summer and autumn.

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Dad’s ‘miracle escape’ after being buried by avalanche in French Alps

A man out walking with his family in the French Alps has made a miraculous escape from an avalanche after spending more than two and a half hours trapped under snow, rescuers said.

Dad's 'miracle escape' after being buried by avalanche in French Alps
Ski lifts in France are closed, but visitors and locals are free to enjoy other outdoor sports. Photo: AFP

The 50-year-old father was snowshoeing near the high-altitude Val d'Isere ski resort with his wife and two children on Thursday without anti-avalanche safety equipment.

“Thank to the mobilisation of nearly 100 people… the man was found alive after two hours and 40 minutes of searching,” the police for the local Savoie département announced on Twitter.

Because of the depth of the snow, rescue dogs were unable to detect a trace, but the man was eventually dug out by a specialised mountain police team which used a Wolfhound device to locate his mobile phone under the ice.

“I think it's a miracle,” Alexandre Grether from the PGHM rescue team told the France 3 local news channel, adding that the man was found 2.5 metres (eight feet) below the surface.

The chances of survival after more than 20 minutes in an avalanche are usually slim.

“He was protected by a tree, that's what prevented him from being crushed by all the ice that slid down. The snow had surrounded him, but he had a pocket of air,” he explained.

The victim is expected to make a full recovery after suffering a fracture to his hip.

The avalanche risk on Thursday was at its maximum – five on a scale of five – and rescuers urge people to always check the snow conditions before venturing out.

READ ALSO 'Whole season a write-off' – what next for France's ski resorts?

Ski lifts in the Alps, which have seen some of their heaviest snowfalls in years in January, are currently closed because of restrictions imposed by the government to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Visitors and locals are free to enjoy hiking, cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing, but occupancy levels in hotels and chalets are way down and business owners and seasonal staff face serious hardships.

The government has promised an economic support package for the sector.