At least seven skiers have been killed in avalanches in the Alps over the last few days.
On Monday 4 February, the bodies of three skiers, including a Briton and a New Zealander who lives in London, were found in a valley near the Italian resort of Courmayeur.
A French skier’s body was also found, while a Polish skier who lives in Chamonix is currently missing.
Elsewhere, an 18-year-old was killed by an avalanche in Italy’s South Tyrol region and an avalanche in the French Savoie region claimed the life of an off-piste skier.
In Austria, and avalanche killed a 52-year-old man in Carinthia; an avalanche in Bern, Switzerland, on Saturday killed a man and injured a woman, who is still in Austria.
All of which begs the question: is it safe to ski in the Alps right now?
Is it safe to ski in the Alps?
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office updated its guidance to Austria last month, saying: “A high risk of avalanches exists in parts of Austria. There could also be associated travel disruption. Follow the advice of local authorities and your tour operator.”
Its Italy advice includes the following: "If you’re visiting a ski resort, you should take advice on weather and avalanche conditions before you travel and familiarise yourself with local skiing laws and regulations."
Skiing and snowboarding are safe, as long as you follow the rules, says Fraser Wilkin of Weathertoski.co.uk. “Resort authorities will not open pistes unless they consider them safe. It’s the same for roads, if they are considered to be at risk from avalanche, they will close them, even if this means cutting resorts off for a period of time.”
David Pellatt, director of ski site J2ski, agrees that it’s safe to ski provided local advice says so. “Resort staff will be working hard in difficult conditions to make things safe and if lifts and pistes are open then they should be safe to ski (and conditions will be fabulous) – provided you stay within the marked bounds of the pistes.
“The caveat – of course – is that if lifts and runs are closed, they will be shut due to very dangerous conditions; so nobody should even think about entering a closed run. You should consider a closed run to be as dangerous as skiing off-piste at the moment.”
He adds that skiers should follow the advice of local authorities as conditions and forecasts vary wildly across the Alps: “It’s important to avoid blanket advice that’s either wrong or dangerous; take local advice.”
Can I ski off-piste?
It’s all about assessing the risk, according to experts.
“Whenever you ski or snowboard off-piste it is advisable to consider the risk factors – recent weather, snowfall, temperature and wind as well as slope aspects. Asking ski patrol for advice and checking local avalanche forecasts will help you understand the risk better,” the Ski Club of Great Britain tells The Independent.
“You should always take an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe when venturing off piste.”
Henry Schniewind, founder of Henry’s Avalanche Talks, recommends sticking to open pistes in areas that have experienced heavy snowfall. “If you choose to venture off-piste then ensure you stay on slopes below 30 degrees and that are not exposed to slopes steeper than 30 degrees above them,” he advises.
Weathertoski.co.uk’s Wilkin warns that a lower risk of avalanche does not mean ‘no avalanche risk’: ”Always take a qualified guide unless you are highly experienced and know exactly what you are doing.”
J2Ski’s Pellatt strongly advises skiers looking to stray from the piste to take local advice and err on the side of caution.
“Follow local resort advice, never ski off-piste alone and always carry appropriate safety gear (transceiver, shovel and probe) and know how to use it,” he adds.
Is this season more dangerous than previous years?
“It does appear that this winter, especially in Austria so far, it’s significantly more snowy than many previous years,” says Schniewind. “It’s now a similar situation to what we saw in the French Alps this time last winter.”
Some resorts in Austria have broken 40-year-old snowfall records in the past week; however, experts add that France has had relatively little snowfall compared to previous seasons.
“Every few years there are exceptional situations like this in one part of the Alps or another,” says Wilkin.
“This situation is therefore not that exceptional in the context of the Alps as a whole, but is certainly exceptional in parts of Austria, especially in the lower resorts of the northern Austrian Alps such as Saalbach, Kitzbuhel, Ski Welt and Zell am See, where there is talk of it being the most snow they have seen here since the winter of 1978-79.”