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HOW SAFE ARE THE PISTES? - James Cove, PlanetSKI Editor
Tuesday February 26, 2019 - Email this article to a friend

The question is in sharp focus after a huge avalanche swept across a marked run in Crans-Montana last week. PlanetSKI reports.

It is every skier's nightmare.

You are coming down the piste or standing its side and suddenly a huge wall of snow comes apparently from nowhere.

There is little time to try to out run it or avoid it.

It engulfs you in seconds.

This is what happened last Tuesday in the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana at 2.34PM.

Four people were caught and one of them, a local ski patroller, died.

Crans-Montana avalancheCrans-Montana avalanche

Here is a video of the incident:

Alexis Ramu posted this video of someone filming from a helmet camera as the avalanche came down.


The incident made international news and we reported it extensively on PlanetSKI:

But what are the chances?

Fortunately very, very small, but it does happen. There is no such thing as total safety in the mountains.

Level 1 in the avalanche danger scale means ‘low' not zero.

In Crans- Montana it was Level 2 at the time - ‘moderate'.

It is very rare for an avalanche to hit the piste and certainly one of this size.

Crans Montana avalancheCrans Montana avalanche - photo Valais Police
















According to the Swiss Avalanche Institute there have been five similar incidents in Switzerland since 1996 that have resulted in five deaths.

One was in Saas-Fee as a child, who was with a ski teacher, was killed.

In others people have survived:

In neighbouring Austria a man died on piste in Ischgl as he was buried in an avalanche back in 2012:

And then there are people that break the rules and ski a closed run bringing an avalanche on to the piste.

Searching for victimsSearching for victims













Searching for victimsSearching for victims












"February 1999 saw a spate of avalanches throughout the Alps, claiming many lives and in some cases causing extensive damage to property," said a recent statement from the Swiss Avalanche Institute.

"Switzerland learned lessons from this experience, in particular by improving the training and organisation of avalanche services. But even today there is no absolute security."

So what are the lessons learned over the past 20 years in Switzerland?

The Swiss Avalanche Institute, based in Davos, has given some details.

Many are replicated in the other alpine nations.

Increase artificial avalanche release

Since 1999, permanent explosive delivery systems have been installed in many places to protect transport routes and settlements.

Around 10 times more are now in use compared with 1999.

Improve avalanche warnings

The avalanche warning system has been strengthened, both nationally and regionally.

Avalanche bulletins are now published twice a day in four languages meaning that the public are better informed.

Adapt protection structures

Following the extreme winter of 1951, substantial investments had been made in structural avalanche protection such as snow retention structures in starting zones, diverting structures, dams and snow sheds.

These measures had been largely successful, but many were pushed to their operational limits.

The avalanche control guidelines were therefore overhauled, taking into account the extreme snow depths experienced in 1999.

Stopping an avalanche before it startsStopping an avalanche before it starts
















There has also been greater and standardised training of safety staff, improved communications between the cantons and an increase in resources to ensure avalanche are limited as much as they can be.

However it looks like the dangers will increase with warmer temperatures predicted into the future in the Alps.

The president of the Valais Ski Lift Association, Berno Stoffel, was interviewed by Swiss Public Radio SRF after the Crans-Montana incident.

He said that avalanches will increase in the future due to climate change and that more slopes will have to be closed.

Spontaneous wet snow slideSpontaneous wet snow slide
















The latest information from the Swiss Avalanche Institute ends with a warning.

It can be applied across the mountains.

"There is no such thing as absolute safety. Even today, neither the exact location nor the exact time of an individual avalanche can be predicted."

Avalanche search on pisteAvalanche search on piste













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