Now that my son Tom will be ski-leading for the Ski Club of Great Britain in Verbier later this month, including some off-piste days, or at least with a greater proportion of off-piste than our usual family skiing, my mind turns towards avalanche safety and the recent sad news of the fatal avalanche in a familiar resort we have skied in many times, Tignes (and Val d’Isère).
The first news of this was on the BBC and Sky News websites. The BBC coverage at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-38954628 has been updated to reflect the later news that the group, which included a 48-year-old man, his 15-year-old son and the son’s 19-year-old half-brother, as well as the experienced and well-known instructor, 59, were only a few dozen metres from the ski lift. It would seem they had been walking, carrying their snowboards, possibly towards a nearby lift. Since they were swept 400m down the slope, this must have been higher up, perhaps the Combe Folle draglift up to just below the top of the Lavachet Wall.
The Sky report, that hasn’t been updated, said the avalanche had been in the Tovière area. I well remember the run Mur de Paquerettes (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=QuwFfN6ESqo) (PS not me skiing in this video) underneath the Tovière mountain restaurant, where there is live music and where the hang gliders take off. Mur de Paquerettes is a pretty steep mogul run we have skied a lot, but it isn’t in the pictures here; we don’t see the Tovière Gondola bubble lift which provides a spectator view of the mogul antics from right over the run. It is further to the right as we look here; the off-piste run in this avalanche area is down from the Lavachet Wall, and we see part of Tignes le Lavachet in the foreground.
These screenshots from the excellent ski navigation app FatMap (https://fatmap.com) show the area concerned. In the lower centre of the right hand picture, we can clearly see the large ridge that protects the Tignes village of Le Lavachet, with a smaller similar feature protecting Val Claret pictured at the centre of the wider shot on the left.
This extract from the Tigne piste map shows the specific area concerned and the ridge clearly visible to the left of Le Lavachet. Note that the red piste Combe Folle, and the black runs Crocus and Trolles finish at the Tignes Lac and Le Lavachet side.
Henry “Avalanche Talk” Schniewind was interviewed this morning about yesterday’s avalanche in Tignes down from the Lavachet wall. This is clearly an historically avalanche-prone slope, so much so that the man-made ridge and trough seen above had been constructed to protect houses in Tignes Le Lavachet from avalanches, and the party were thus caught in even deeper snow in the trough or gully between the slope itself and the ridge. Estimates of the accumulated avalanche depth there range from Henry’s 2-3 metres to 8 metres in the BBC report. Not a great place to be skiing (or even walking, as this party were thought to have been, carrying their snowboards towards a nearby lift) between a steep slope above and a snow trap below. It is to be remembered that once the avalanche snow stops moving, it has the consistency of concrete, rendering it vital to somehow stay on top of – or float on – the avalanche as it is moving down the slope, before it comes to a stop.
Here is the weblink for this morning’s ITV interview with Henry Schniewind:
Henry talks about the vital, minimum equipment necessary when skiing off-piste – an avalanche transceiver, a probe and a shovel. To this many would nowadays add a flotation air-bag rucksack, although opinions are divided on this. Opinion is also divided on which type to choose – a mechanically triggered RAS system (e.g. Mammut), an electronically triggered ABS system (e.g. Ortovox) or an electric fan-based inflation system (such as the Black Diamond Jetforce system), which obviates any (compressed air cylinder) issues for air travel with such rucksacks, but which might not be so quick or effective for inflation. All types are triggered by the wearer using a T-handle, stored in the rucksack shoulder strap when not required.
There was a lot of confusion on the scene of the Lavachet Wall avalanche yesterday but clear details have finally emerged.
The group taken by the slide was a group of 4, and not of 9 as previously reported. It is currently not clear why authorities were looking for 9 victims – it sounds as if the family party of four were all double booked.
The instructor was a very high-level ESF snowboard instructor, aged 59, with years of experience. His clients were a family from the South of France: a father, 48; his son, 15; and his step-son, 19 – all strong snowboarders, all wearing avalanche kit. One member of the family escaped having descended earlier with an equipment issue.
The slide took them while they were boot-packing across the face which cut in to the snowpack, weakening it, and causing the slide to release. 40m wide at its release point, the avalanche took the victims over 400m down the slope burying them underneath 7m of snow in a man-made gully built for the express purpose of protecting the houses behind it from avalanche debris.
With Météo France’s avalanche bulletin warning of windslabs and instability on slopes of this aspect an investigation will follow. Jean-Christophe Vitale, the mayor of Tignes, has gone on record to say: “He was a very experienced professional who knew the area well. I’m sure he took every precaution while taking his clients to this place, but off-piste zero risk does not exist.”
One bright-side to the incident is that one 16-year-old who was with the group when they did the same run earlier in the morning wasn’t with them on the second run. Either experiencing problems with his equipment or after a fall the instructor sent him down the pistes for the day. It wasn’t until the afternoon that he learnt the group he was with were caught in the slide.
The risk of avalanche at the time of the avalanche was 3 on the scale of 5 and this incident, on a North-West facing slope, came on a relatively warm morning after several days of strong winds. Météo France’s official avalanche report noted the risk of rising temperatures and the presence of wind slabs on North, West, and Southerly aspects.
An avalanche risk rating of 3 is hardly unusual through the season; it highlights the need to be very aware of the weather reports and resort assessments, noting that there is always some risk. Here is that morning’s Metéo France report:
The following article by Henry Schniewind and Hugh Morris has some useful hints and tips on what to keep in mind when skiing off-piste:
and see more from Henry’s website at http://www.henrysavalanchetalk.com