Magazine article The Spectator

The Reality of an Avalanche

Magazine article The Spectator

The Reality of an Avalanche

Article excerpt

VERY many years ago, on my way to ski at Zurs for the first time, I was warned by an old Tyrolean, a veteran skier, to avoid the Vorarlberg. The mountains, he said, had the wrong configuration, convex where they should be concave, and therefore heavy snow would not stick. I never questioned whether he was right; year after year we went on to ski insouciantly at Z*rs and Lech.

With nearly 50 deaths last week alone, most of them at Galtur, within five miles of Zurs, it looks as though my old friend might have had something, with the mountain gods now avenging themselves after the rules have been flouted so flagrantly over the past decade.

As long as snowballs are snowballs, people will be killed in avalanches. Even Hannibal's elephants are recorded as having triggered off disaster while crossing the Alps. After more than 50 years' skiing, two interrelated fears beset me. One is to be mashed by some teenager ski-boarding out of control, but worse, fleeing the ubiquitous ski-boarders, to be caught in an avalanche, possibly triggered by some other idiot above. Even on a good year, twice as many fatalities on the slopes come from what Austrians call the `White Death' than from accidents.

I have been close to some horrendous slides in the Rockies, which certainly changed my attitude to risky skiing off-piste. I can think of few more terrible deaths. The accumulated force of even the lightest powder snow, sometimes achieving pressures of 100 tons per square metre and speeds of over 200 mph, is quite unimaginable.

So is what it can do to the human body. In Utah I have watched two-foot-thick firs splinter like matchsticks and a car being tossed through the first-floor window of a ski lodge. Photographs of victims, horribly disarticulated, look like swatted spiders. Twenty per cent of those caught die almost immediately; worse still is the slow death of suffocation, upside-down with arms pinioned by snow like concrete. Remarkable recently was the four-year-old boy resuscitated at Galtur after having been buried for 100 minutes, though there have been rare cases of survivors rescued even days later.

An army major described to me what happened when he was caught near Andermatt, 20 years ago, by two avalanches in quick succession:

`An enormous, billowing, horrific cloud of airborne snow came sweeping down the mountain. It hit me, engulfed me, and I was swept away like a leaf in a thunderstorm, crashing, tossing and rolling over and over, head over feet. It seemed to go on and on. I remember a terrible falling sensation, and then a bang as I landed on my back.'

What are the causes of avalanches? In short, the same as of war: instability and stupidity. High wind or sudden changes of temperature, rising or falling, provide the biggest danger, as do heavy snowfalls. Some ski areas - such as Austria's Vorarlberg and France's Val d'Isere/ Tignes - are recognised as being topographically more danger-prone than others, but even the tiniest slope can prove fatal. A famous Swiss guide, Hilti von Allman, died in an avalanche just 20 metres long, a short distance from where children were skiing down the piste. Only his head was buried.

Almost exactly five years ago, on Tignes' 8,600-foot Col du Palet, one of the most appalling accidents in recent ski history killed five British doctors, including a husband and wife, all of them expert skiers. …

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