The dangers of mountain life

<Photo of an avalanche at the bottom of La Balme, La Clusaz, in April 2013>
Living in a ski resort is obviously lots of fun. There’s more time to spend enjoying the snow, the air is fresh and the scenery is always stunning. Last week, however, the dangers of living in the mountains became all too clear, with two skiers caught in an avalanche off-piste at La Balme.

Pictured is an avalanche lower down the same peak in April last season. It took out trees and carried on for hundreds of metres. Thankfully, nobody was caught in it, but it’s a good indication of the power of an avalanche. The latest avalanche, higher up at 2,200 metres on Friday 26th December, was sadly more deadly. Five or six skiers and snowboarders left the safety of the piste to enjoy the fresh dump of powder when a slab avalanche caught two of them in its path. Despite being found within 20 minutes (one with an avalanche transceiver and one was only partly buried), they suffered serious injuries and died a day later in hospital. My heart goes out to the families of the two deceased.

In hindsight, it’s easy to say that they should have read the signals and stayed on the piste: the avalanche flags were indicating a high risk of 4/5 (with 5/5 being the highest); the weather was warm; the base was unstable; and many areas that day were marked as closed. However, we’ve all taken risks whether it’s for fresh powder, a faster commute or a cheaper deal. What they did is what someone else would have done minutes later if they had not.

This is the first avalanche in La Clusaz that has killed anyone since I moved here, and, like many others, I was shocked when I heard the new. Deadly avalanches here have become the exception rather than the rule due to the competence and commitment of the ski patrol staff. On Friday, Mother Nature proved that she has the ultimate control of the mountain. Let’s hope the effort keeps her satisfied for a very long time.

My friends and I are now a bit more hesitant to go off piste, and I hope this tragedy motivates people to buy at least the minimum equipment if they head off piste — an avalanche transceiver, a probe and a shovel. They also need to learn how to use it. It’s no guarantee of survival, but it’s a step in that direction. It’s also a great way of ensuring that this couple did not die in vain. I’m pledging to practice using my own equipment so that if the worse happens, I can rescue my friends in the shortest time possible. Are you an off-piste skier? Will you pledge something too?

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About

I'm a technical author, journalist and writer from Australia who has been living in Europe since 2000 and exploring the world from there. My passions are writing, snow sports and travel.

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