It’s a tale of two halves in the Alps at the moment. While the French Alps and Italy are suffering from lack of snow, in Austria, Germany and parts of eastern Switzerland, a deluge of powder is claiming lives.
At least eight people have died in weather-related incidents over the past week: a 28-year-old man and a 23-year-old woman were found dead near Salzburg in central Austria after going out snowshoeing; in Germany, 44-year-old man died in Wackersberg in Bavaria when he was hit by tree branches brought down by heavy snow; a woman was buried by an avalanche last week in the Uri canton of Switzerland and died of her injuries on Saturday; and over the weekend three skiers in Austria were killed by avalanches while one woman in Bavaria died in a weather-related incident.
The Hochkar alpine road and the entire Hochkar ski region in Lower Austria were closed due to high avalanche risk, while Austrian authorities warned skiers not to go off piste or drive their cars unless absolutely necessary.
All of which begs the question: is it safe to ski in the Alps right now?
Is it safe to ski in the Alps?
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The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has just updated its guidance to Austria. It said: “Continued heavy snowfall is forecast in the Austrian Alps over several days from Tuesday 8 January. This could cause travel disruption and heightened risk of avalanches in some areas. For the latest travel information, contact your transport provider and/or tour operator.”
It is 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 – something that has happened in Austria in recent days.”
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: “The situation will be evolving as more snow arrives this week, so it’s important to avoid blanket advice that’s either wrong or dangerous; take local advice.”
Where is the avalanche risk highest?
It varies from valley to valley, but the highest avalanche risk is currently in the northern half of the Austrian Alps – which means the provinces of Vorarlberg, Tirol, Salzburgland, Upper Austria and Styria – according to Wilkin of Weathertoski.co.uk.
In Germany, parts of Bavaria also have huge amounts of snow.
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Avalanche Risk Levels are assessed on a scale running from 1 (low risk) to 5 (extreme risk). Large areas of Austria currently have the Risk Level at 4 and even 5 in places, says J2ski’s Pellatt. These Avalanche Risk Levels apply only to off-piste areas rather than open pistes.
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 venturing off piste in affected Austrian and German resorts is currently not advisable.
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“The off-piste is extremely dangerous right now across most of Austria and parts of eastern Switzerland and southern Germany,” he says. “Off-piste in these areas should be avoided at all costs until further notice.
“The risk of avalanche off-piste is lower in the southern and western Alps (i.e. most of Italy and France) as there has been much less or no snow there in recent days.
“However, a lower risk of avalanche risk 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.
“Once things have settled down, continue to 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.
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“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.”