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.
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.