'Riding in the backcountry? Do you have a death wish?' and I was forced to listen to stories about huge avalanches seen on the Discovery Channel by non-skier friends on a birthday party. As skiers we don't have to worry that much about the catastrophic avalanches (no, we have to worry about slab avalanches), but it's a fact that catastrophic avalanches claimed the lives of thousands of people. An overview of the ten deadliest avalanches in history.
1. Yungay, Peru (May 31, 1970)
Approximately 20.000 victims (some say almost 70.000) when a huge avalanche swept down as a reaction to an earthquake just off the coast. Part of Mount Huascarán thereby collapsed and the result was a stream of ice, rocks, snow and mud that came down with an incredible speed. More info.
2. Tyrol, Austria (December 1916)
During World War I an estimated 10,000 people serving the Austrian or the Italian army were killed in avalanches. Avalanches that were the result of a combination of immense quantities of fresh snow triggered by explosives, killing the enemies troops. More info.
3. Ranrahirca, Peru (1962)
This avalanches took the lives of an estimated 4.000 people. The avalanche started on Mount Huascarán (again) when a huge chunk of ice broke lose from the glaicer and snow, rocks and mud came down at great speed. More info
4. Plurs, Switzerland (September 1618)
It's quite a while ago, but an avalanche claimed 2427 lives in the village of Plurs. The avalanche destroyed the entire village. Only four inhabitants survived. Simply because they weren't there at the time of the avalanche.
5. The Alps (1950-1951)
During the avalanche winter of 1950-1951 there were 265 casualties caused by avalanches. Remarkably, there still wasn't a thing called 'mass tourism' and there were only a few lifts in the Alps. The majority of the victims were inhabitants of the Alps or professionals working in the Alps.
6. Blons, Austria (January 1954)
Blons, Austria suffered over 200 victims when an avalanche hit the village early in the morning. To make things worse, a second avalanche came down later that day, covering the remains of the village in meters of snow.
7. Lahaui Valley, India (March 1979)
About 200 people died after an avalanche hit the valley. With debris piling up to six meters, the effects were disastrous.
8. North-Ossetia, Russia (September 2002)
When an avalanche came down from Mount Kazbek, it took the lives of around 150 people.
9. Siachen Glacier, Pakistan (April 2012)
When an avalanche hit the camp of Pakistan soldiers, it took the lives of around 140 people.
10. Wellington (WA), USA (March 1910)
After a storm that lasted 9 days and dropped huge amounts of snow, an avalanche came down from the top of Windy Mountain, claiming the lives of 96 people.
And what about Galtür, Austria? Galtür was hit by a huge avalanche during the avalanche winter of 1999 after three consecutive storms brought enormous amounts of fresh snow. 57 people were buried by the avalanche of which 31 did't survive. A tragic event that is remembered by many. It was also remarkable since the Alps saw a huge drop in casualties caused by catastrophic avalanches.
The catastrophic avalanche that my friends were talking about at the birthday party isn't our biggest threat anymore, though they claimed a lot of lives in the past. Better knowledge about avalanches resulted in the protection of roads with tunnels and galleries and better knowledge of where (and where not) to build houses in mountain villages. No, nowadays we're the biggest threat ourselves. Of the on average 100 victims in the Alps every winter, around 90% trigger the avalanche themselves. Those slab avalanches are less spectacular to see than catastrophic avalanches, but can be as deadly for a single skier or snowboarder. Always leave the marked slopes with the right knowledge and the right gear.