Winter 14/15: 75 fatalities due to avalanches so far

By meteomorris on 10 February 2015 · 10

How much worser can it be? Winter '14 -'15 is really dramatic so far. It's only February the 10th and there are at least 75 avalanche victims in Europe, of which 68 in the Alps alone. Where does this end? Whatever else happens, we always mention it, but one thing is clear: if you have no knowledge of the risks in the backcountry, stay on the slopes!

Do not dwell on the great and positive stories of semi-experts, alleged locals, avalanche bulletins that create confidence, tracks on faces or any other 'truths' whatsoever. No knowledge = on the slopes! Do you have the knowledge? Please be very careful. The avalanche does not know that you are an expert.

An exceptional winter?

Yes, this is an exceptional winter. Since December the 22nd, we warn frequently for the very dangerous and unstable snow cover. I can write a long story about that, but if you don't have any knowledge, it's pretty much of no use. Essentially, it is very simple: trust us, it is very dangerous and a layman simply won't recognize the dangers. The main problems can be found deep in the snow cover and even an expert can not recognize the problems without a helping hand.

Lately, a lot of nonsense is published about avalanches in the media. Something with the hammer and the clapper. Even so-called experts are present with their 'knowledge' about the snow cover. The message should be clear. Not only now, but also during other winters: without knowledge = stay on the slopes. You don't send your children into the ocean if they can't swim, and you don't let friends go into the backcountry without any knowledge. There's no problem at all most of the time, but like a child that drowns in the ocean in seconds, an avalanche victim suffocates within minutes.

Should it be forbidden?

No, of course not. Your children still go into the ocean right? And of course, we, as parents, only allow them to go in when they can swim. It's quite the same with going into the backcountry. Only go off-piste if you have the right knowledge. Follow one or more courses and make sure your friends also have the right knowledge and gear. Make people aware and responsible is much better than forbid freeriding.

And if you will be ridiculed by your friends?

Then find other friends to ride with. No knowledge = stay on the slopes. Of course you can go off-piste without knowledge and gear, but if something happens it's your own fault. Don't say that the avalanche itself is the cause of the problem, because in 95% of the cases, you trigger it yourself. It's your choice whether you send your kids into the ocean.

But is 75 victims a lot?

Hell yeah. To give you an idea of the numbers. During winter '13 -'14 we counted 80 victims all winter, winter '12 -'13 there were 107 victims, in winter '11 -'12 'only' 68 and in winter '10 -'11 eventually 83. So, we're already at 75. An overview of all the victims so far.

But isn't the winter almost over?

No, the statistics are in general from September 1st till September 1st and even in the summer months there are avalanche casualties (think of the avalanche in Chamonix last summer). Remember that we are just at the start of the peak season and that there are still a lot of people that will go ski touring in the coming months. Often until early June. But to give you an idea, usually the counter at this time of the winter is somewhere between 30 and 40 victims. Ergo: there are already two times more casualties this year compared to what's normal for this time of the year.

Which countries and regions?

With as many as 24 victims France has the dubious honor of being number one. Particularly the Department of the Hautes Alpes (with ski resorts like Serre Chevalier, Risoul, and the famous tourski region the Queyras) has a hard time with as many as 11 fatalities so far. Number 2 is Switzerland with 20 victims, followed by Italy (15) and Austria (14). Striking this winter are the two victims in the German Black Forest. Something you normally never see over there.

Who are the victims?

Almost 60% of the victims are tour skiers. Some 42 tour skiers already died in an avalanche this winter. Number two, are the so-called freeriders. Until now, there were 26 casualties among freeriders. Then there are five hikers (yes, walking around in snow is not without risk) and two professionals.

Off-piste dangerous?

Yes, it is a sport with risks. Not like playing soccer in a conditioned environment, and you decide for yourself how far you want to push yourself. Fortunately, with the right knowledge you can reduce the chances that you get into an avalanche to 1%. The choice is yours.

Is there always an avalanche risk?

Yes, if there is snow in the mountains, there's always a risk of avalanches. I hear more and more people say that avalanche danger 3 is very dangerous. Well, let me make something clear... without knowledge avalanches 1 and 2 are very dangerous as well. Even with those risks there are fatalities. And the bad news is that avalanche danger 0 does not exist.

Situation still unstable

If you go to the Alps the next couple of days, be alert. Check your local daily avalanche bulletin, make sure you have the right gear with you and that you have the right knowledge. No knowledge? Are you not sure? Say no to off piste and wait for conditions to improve. The season is still long.

But I stay close to the lifts and slopes

Sweet dreams, sweet dreams.

You can get into an avalanche next to the slopes
You can get into an avalanche next to the slopes


  • JohannKrauter
    JohannKrauter op 11 February 2015 · 07:36
    In which ski resort happend this avalanche next to the slopes?
  • ise
    ise op 12 February 2015 · 18:40
    " Fortunately, with the right knowledge you can reduce the chances that you get into an avalanche to 1%"

    Do you have citation for this? How have you arrived at this figure?
  • Arjen
    Arjen op 12 February 2015 · 21:47
    @ise When you correctly use Werner Munter his 3x3 method you can reduce the risk down to 1%.
    One day, they'll invent synthetic powder, ban all kinds of work and give you a free liftpass...
  • ise
    ise op 12 February 2015 · 22:33
    And again, I have to ask if you have a citation for that? I am familiar with Munter’s work, the goal was to provide a decision support framework to reduce risk in avalanche incidents following a series of serious incidents. In that context an acceptable risk, already accepted by Swiss society, was the risk of fatality in an auto accident. Unless you’ve some data to the contrary I believe that figure is less that 3.4 fatalities per 100,000 of population. I hope you can see how far that is from 1% which is a figure no society would find acceptable. You would be extremely reckless to engage in any activity with a 1% risk of serious incident. You are massively overstating the risk, I would suggest you examine the assumptions of this article.
  • Arjen
    Arjen op 12 February 2015 · 23:19
    @ise I get your point. It's all about filtering the risky faces. On the faces that aren't filtered out, the risk is 1% (because you filtered every risk that you can filter). If you decide to ride a risky face, there's a bigger chance of an avalanche, if you decide to ride a more mellow (and less risky) face, the risk would be 1% or even lower. It's all about risk management.

    Isn't it that the 3.4 fatalities are based on 100.000 population. Not on 100.000 skiers and boarders. Avalanche warnings, bulletins, etc in Switzerland are there to protect the society, and not the skiers and boarders specific.

    Interesting discussion!
    One day, they'll invent synthetic powder, ban all kinds of work and give you a free liftpass...
  • philingle
    philingle op 14 February 2015 · 11:24
    In 1992 I was caught in an avalanche that crossed the piste in Val Thorens. Seven people were killed in that avalanche. Three of those killed were friends of mine.

    Since then I have taken a great interest in avalanche awareness. I have always carried a probe, shovel and worn a transceiver, even when skiing on piste. I have been on a number of avalanche awareness courses. I am an International Mountain Leader and a BASI ski instructor. Both of these qualifications include a significant amount of learning about avalanches. I have learnt from Alain Duclos, one of the global experts on avalanches. I have taken part in many days of avalanche transceiver practice with many different groups of people, from other professionals through to clients with no experience at all.

    Given over 20 years of education on the subject, this winter I got caught in an avalanche and I am very lucky to be able to be here to tell you about it.

    I would recommend that anyone thinking of skiing off piste, even within the bounds of the resort should take an avalanche awareness course, and should ski with a probe, shovel and transceiver, and know how to use them
    If you ski off piste regularly, do a course every year, at the start of the season.
    If you are a seasonaire, then use bad weather days to get out and do transceiver practice sessions, make a competition out of it, with rounds of drinks as prizes.
    Read books, look at websites, get involved in forum discussions.

    If that all sounds like too much effort, you just want to get out and ski and have fun, then I would suggest that you do stay on the piste.

    Some things that I have learnt.

    Trees and rocks are weak points in the snow pack, they do not 'pin' the slope together. Look how the fracture line jumps from rock to rock in these avalanches
    The best way to trigger an avalanche is to put pressure on that fracture line, so stay away from the rocks.

    The collapse of the weak layer can propagate a long distance.
    In this avalanche, the group of snowshoers were about 70m distance from the foot of the slope, nevertheless they triggered an avalanche on the slopes above them. Which buried them.
    So beware of the slopes above you, even if the slope you are on seems safe

    Avalanches can happen in trees
    So dont think that it is a safe place to ski in dodgy conditions.

    Be careful out there, and ski another day.
    Be sincere, whether you mean it or not
  • fredB
    fredB op 15 February 2015 · 19:45
    No knowledge = stay on the slopes, I can only agree with that.
  • fredB
    fredB op 15 February 2015 · 20:54
    But then what about the PowderQuest App, showing on the map some really advanced routes, some dangerous ones, without any further explanation. Just a long discharge of liabilities...

    It doesn't goes well with the global message of your website that is always smart and responsible.
  • meteomorris
    meteomorris op 16 February 2015 · 10:26
    @fredB, good point. This is something we are working on. We just teamed up with Salomon and Atomic to bring more safety knowledge to the audience.

    Just some teasers so far:

    The launch is planned for winter '15-'16. Please keep that kind of feedback coming. At the end we want to bring the freshies, but also the knowledge.
    May the powder be with you.
  • fredB
    fredB op 24 February 2015 · 09:31
    That's looking like a good idea. My feeling is that bringing the knowledge is one important thing, and another one is teaching to fetch informations on site. Making them available so easily on a smartphone will always be wrong.


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