There have been many fatal avalanches recently in the Alps. Some of the people caught were inexperienced, but professionals have also died.

The latest fatality was a massive slide in Verbier, Switzerland in which a local guide, out with clients, died. Verbier also had two other separate and fatal slides last week. One involved an experienced skier and the other an instructor, both locals.

On January 22nd a 23-year old Swedish skier died in the Savoleyres area of Verbier.

Last week there were five fatalities in France. Additional accidents occurred in France over the weekend.

There was at least one fatal avalanche in Italy.

Switzerland, where ski resorts are open, has had 16 avalanche deaths so far this winter.

Is this typical?

At the same period last season the total was 4. Last season saw seven total. But the season ended in mid-March due to coronavirus. In the 2018/19 season it was 21 total and in 2017/18 it was 27.

Weak Snow

The current deaths result from a highly unstable snowpack with weak layers at the bottom of the snowpack. It is not so much the amount of snow that has fallen, but rather its fragility.

“Underneath the wind slabs the bonding of the snowpack is unfavourable at high altitudes, in particular in the western part of the northern flank of the Alps, in Valais and in Grisons,” said a recent advisory from the Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Studies.

Considerable Danger

There remains “considerable” (Level 3) danger across the whole of the Swiss Alps. This is the level which sees the most fatal avalanches.

“In these regions, distinct weak layers exist in the middle part and near the base of the snowpack in all aspects. Fatal avalanches can be triggered in these layers and release the entire snowpack, in particular in places where relatively little snow is lying. Remote triggering has been observed in central Valais and in Upper Engadine in particular. These weak layers are still to be found in the central and eastern parts of the northern flank of the Alps as well, but here they are mostly embedded deep and therefore unlikely to be released. On the southern flank of the Alps, the bonding of the snowpack is more favourable. Here, fractures are unlikely to occur deep in the snowpack.”

So it is quite dangerous in some areas.

Many areas affected

The fatalities in Switzerland have been across the country.

Map of swiss fatal avalanches
Fatal Avalanches in Switzerland

In France conditions are also highly unstable.

“While this is not unprecedented during the middle of a busy winter with a persistent unstable snowpack and moderate snowfalls coming down on top of the weak layer or layers, a lot of people are asking questions about why this is happening now, especially when there’s a lot less skiers out there…and many of the victims are experienced, or even professional,” said Henry Schniewind.

The latest snow is sitting on top of a very weak layer.

Some people claim that coronavirus is adding to the problem. In areas where the lifts are closed, like Italy and France, people are hiking up into the dangerous terrain.

No slopes have been kept safe by the resorts since lifts are closed.

Where resorts are open, Switzerland and Austria, there are not the numbers skiing off piste.

More snow is currently falling in the Alps on the already weak foundation.

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