Avalanche rescue on the Steinberg glacier (5.2.)

  • jakob.melchior
    jakob.melchior op 8 February 2016 · 14:34
    Friday afternoon a huge avalanche (maybe 200m long and 100m wide) happened on the Steinberg glacier in Engelberg. The glacier run is very popular for Freeriding and the avalanche happened on the easiest/busiest variation oft he run). The avalanche danger was level 3 with drift snow. Some small, spontaneous slides happened throughout the day.

    The fracture started on the short, steep part next tot he rocks (there was probably drift snow in that slope). Thant he avalanche went sideways over the way shallower slope below. There were probably at least 300 tracks on that slope just from the same day with the gondola only running for 2 hours. The slide probably started without a skier triggering it.
    Three people on the slope below were caught by the avalanche with one being able to ski out, one stopped on top oft he snow thanks tot he airbag and the third was buried around 1,5 m deep even with the deployed airbag. He was rescued unconscious but without injuries.

    I was very surprised that such a large avalanche happened in that place and it was definitely lucky that no-one die das it easily could have buried a group waiting in the path.
    But the main reason why I am writing this report is how the search effort took place.

    I was skiing with two friends and we were way up higher on the face when we saw the snow cloud from the avalanche. At that point there were maybe 20-30 people between us and the avalanche. We skied tot he side anyway in case our help was needed.
    The fact that we were the first people skiing down the avi-path with our beacons, called the heli, located the buried person even though we only arrived maybe 4-5 minutes after is just bad.
    Even while the search with the beacons went on (to locate the buried person and look for others) people keeps skiing into the area with their beacons on „send“. A friend was even asked by a group if he could show them how to turn of their beacons.
    I know People reacted differently during accidents like this but it was just very apparent that a lot of these people just weren’t prepared.

    So please read up how to use the beacon, go out to practise and think through the possible scenarios to be able to react correctly even when in panic.
    The rescue, until the skiers head was freed, took maybe 15 minutes and that is just way too long considering there were maybe 50 people who could have helped and it was perfect weather and no risk of further slides. I am certain that people would have died if more than one person would have been buried.

    In addition I have to mention that a lot of bad behaviour can be seen on a daily basis with people skiing down the glacier without backpack (and I don’t mean without airbags but without a backpack and gear at all and probably without a beacon as well).
    During the rescue apparently someone was spotted snowboarding straight through the rupture edge where the avalanche had started. Also after the mountain rescue had closed the Steinberg glacier a guide protested that he and his clients should be allowed to ski down as he is a mountain guide. These are just a small sample of bad instances but they just accumulate more with more people freeriding. I know dangerous slopes are harder to avoid if the rest is tracked out so I think everyone should reflect on his decisions regularly and I sure did after what happened Friday.

  • oday
    oday op 9 February 2016 · 06:14
    Good debrief Jakob,
  • Dovydas
    Dovydas op 9 February 2016 · 12:03
    Is there any thought why ABS air-bag didn't help? Is it because an avalanche was too massive?
  • jakob.melchior
    jakob.melchior op 9 February 2016 · 16:30
    The airbag did help but stopping on top of the snow didn't prevent him from being buried as he was covered by the still sliding snow behind him.
    As the airbag only decreases the density there is a certain velocity needed to float up.
    An other factor was that he was standing sideways on the slope when he was caught by the avalanche from above. This resulted in the snow quickly flowing over his skies and pulling him down. No idea what his DIN setting were but the peak forces were probably too small for his left ski to release.
  • Dovydas
    Dovydas op 12 February 2016 · 11:45
    Thanks Jakob for comment!
  • 8611
    8611 op 13 February 2016 · 22:39
    Very informative post, thank you for taking the time to make it, sounds like somebody was very very lucky you were on the mountain, well done


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