Avalanches in Switzerland kill two

Avalanches in Switzerland have left two people dead, leading officials to warn on Saturday of the risks posed by particularly unstable snow cover. A further eight people have died in neighbouring Austria

A man uses a machine to clear a path through the snow in the ski resort of Wengen in the Swiss Alps
A man uses a machine to clear a path through the snow in the ski resort of Wengen in the Swiss Alps. Avalanches have killed two people in Switzerland. (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP)

In Switzerland, two off-piste skiers were killed by an avalanche Saturday morning in the southeastern canton of Graubuenden, the cantonal police said.

A third member of the group was caught up in the flow of snow but managed to escape unharmed, local police said in a statement.

The two skiers who died were a 56-year-old woman and a 52-year-old man, said police.

The rescue operation there was hampered by poor visibility and bad weather conditions, police said.

In Austria, the body of a 59-year-old man buried while helping the snow removal effort in his tractor was recovered, police in Austria’s western Tyrol region said on Sunday.

Two skiers aged 29 and 33, including a guide, who were carried off-piste on Saturday morning, were found dead in Sankt Anton am Arlberg.

And a 62-year-old man, who had not returned after cross-country skiing around the summit of Hohe Aifner, was recovered by rescuers and could not be revived, a police spokesman told AFP.

The authorities declined to give information on the nationality of the four victims recovered Sunday.

These deaths are in addition to the three killed on Saturday who were visiting Austria’s Alpine regions.

“One winter sports enthusiast was killed in an avalanche in Kaltenbach on Saturday,” a police spokesman told AFP, without giving further details of the
accident in the small Alpine village.

Austrian news agency APA reported that the victim was a 17-year-old New Zealander who was skiing off-piste.

On Friday, a 32-year-old Chinese man, who was also said to be skiing away from the designated routes, died in an avalanche in the resort of Soelden.

A third victim was found dead Saturday after being reported missing the previous day. APA reported that the man, in his 50s, had died in the Kleinwalsertal valley on Austria’s border with Germany.
Over the past two days, intensive snowfall and wind have increased the avalanche danger.

The officials in Austria have warned winter sports enthusiasts to exercise caution.

Despite the alert level being set at four on a scale of five however, many holidaymakers have ventured off the marked slopes, authorities said.

The avalanche situation also led to numerous rescue operations on Saturday, which were themselves made more dangerous by the weather conditions.

With the February school holidays underway in Vienna, Austria’s resorts have filled up, after a poor start to the season because of the lack of snow at low and medium altitudes.

In recent years, in Austria, a leading winter sports destination, avalanches have killed around twenty people a year.

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OPINION: The Swiss obsession for the sun is a recipe for frustration

When it comes to weather, Swiss people have a one-track mind. Only the sun will do. Perhaps their proximity to the Mediterranean has made them yearn for a better climate. They need to accept the grey days, Clare O’Dea argues.

OPINION: The Swiss obsession for the sun is a recipe for frustration

The Swiss climate, at least where most of the people live in the Central Plateau, delivers a mixed bag of weather. There are sunny days, wet days and foggy days. We have falls of snow in winter, heatwaves in summer, hailstorms, and winds with quirky names – the warm Foehn and the cold Bise.

Yet for the sun-worshipping Swiss, the only right weather is sunny weather. The global climate crisis has had little to no effect on this obsession with being bathed in sunlight. The longing for sun runs deep in the Swiss psyche.

Who would want to be a weather forecaster in Switzerland? A big part of your job is to apologise to viewers or listeners that they are being denied their due dose of sun on that particular day. For 55 percent of daylight hours every year, the sun is behind the clouds, and that keeps everyone wanting more.

The weather men and women address the public as if their main purpose in life was pleasure seeking. It doesn’t matter how many days of drought the country has suffered; the focus will be on the possibility of spending the day outside in the sun.

Skiing without sun is considered a minor tragedy

Hikers, lake swimmers or skiers are their target audience. The poor famers don’t get a look in. Anyone temporarily and unjustly trapped beneath low fog, will be advised where they can escape to sunnier altitudes.

It is true that some regions of Switzerland are afflicted by long spells of low-lying fog. There I have more understanding for the sun fixation. These fog interludes occur from late autumn to spring, mostly along rivers and lakes where the air is very damp.

Low lying fog can be the source of much frustration for the Swiss. Photo by Samuel Ferrara on Unsplash

According to MeteoSwiss, the dry air of the north-easterly Bise causes low-lying fog to rise. Strong, persistent Bise wind can mean that the low cloud cover does not lift for several days or even weeks. It’s tantalising for some during those cold, grey days to know that the sun is shining above the stratus, not far away in the mountains.

For most of Swiss history, people avoided the mountains, unless they were unlucky enough to live on or near them. Now, thanks to tourist infrastructure first built for rich foreigners, the mountains are the playground of the Swiss, easily accessible in winter and summer.

But the first rule of a successful weekend is that it has to be sunny. Whatever activity you undertake, the first question people will ask is whether it was sunny. Skiing without sun is considered a minor tragedy. Little attention is paid to the harm of high temperatures and the regular problem of drought. Every day of sun is a win!

A nationwide epidemic of seasonal affective disorder?

In fact, there seems to be a general lack of awareness of how crucial precipitation is to the Swiss ecosystem, agriculture, water and energy supplies. Instead, every day of rain is greeted as an imposition.

Could it be that Swiss people have a physiological need that is driving all this? A nationwide epidemic of seasonal affective disorder? It doesn’t seem to be a version of SAD because the sun hunger is no less pronounced in the summer, when it is sunny more often than not.

Let’s not be too harsh. I’m not the Ebenezer Scrooge of sunny weather. While writing this article, the sun came out for the first time in many days. I was drawn outside for a break and I turned my face to the sky gratefully. It’s just that I don’t miss the sun terribly when it’s not here. I know it will always come back, and, eventually, with a vengeance. In the summer, I spend most of my time seeking shade.

One part of Switzerland is living the dream, where daylight hours are sunny more than 50 percent of the time. The rest of country looks enviously towards Ticino, known as the sun balcony of Switzerland, for its extra hours of sunlight. Not surprisingly, the canton on the south side of the Alps is the number one destination for domestic tourists.

Italy the top destination for Swiss residents seeking sun

There is a mass migration of Swiss to warmer climes in the summer. A 2022 survey by the insurer Generali showed that Italy was the top destination for Swiss residents taking holidays abroad (29%), followed by France (18%) and Spain (16%).

The inconsistency of Swiss weather is probably what wears people down and feeds the sun fixation. There is a perception that the summer should be warm and dry all the time but May to August is also when it rains the most.

The proximity to the Mediterranean doesn’t help. It’s frustrating to be so close to the European region with the ideal outdoor climate and to get a taste of that in your own backyard on some days but never often enough.

If I may advise, rather than fighting against reality, a little acceptance would take a lot of the frustration away. There’ll be plenty of dazzling days in the summer, don’t worry. It’s just that the pattern will be unpredictable. And, whether we like it or not, winter is actually meant to be a grey time, where we make our own light and find different joys. If it’s any consolation, the sun is always there, whether we can see it or not.