Swiss avalanche deaths are up this season. Significantly more people have been killed than the latest 20-year average. The majority of victims were off-piste skiers or snowboarders. The grim statistics come in a report by the Swiss Institute for Snow & Avalanche Research (SLF) and cover the period from 1st October 2020 to 30th March 2021.

27 people have died in avalanches and one person is still missing. The 20 year average is 18 Swiss avalanche deaths to the end of March. This shows an increase of 50%.

“All of the victims were winter sports enthusiasts in unsecured terrain,” the report states. 11 were backcountry ski touring or hiking and 16 were off-piste skiing or snowboarding.

Two people died in one accident, but for all other accidents, one person died.

The 4 Valleys area, which includes Verbier, was the worst hit with seven (26%) of the season’s avalanche deaths recorded there. One fatal accident was recorded in the Swiss Jura, where such incidents are very rare, with the last one dating back to 1991.

Overall 318 avalanches causing damage – material and bodily injury – were reported to the SLF Institute. Of these, 215 were triggered by people, rather than spontaneous slides, with 296 people being caught in them. The 20-year average for triggered avalanches is 113.

The 20-year average for the number of people caught is 177, meaning this winter roughly two-thirds more people were involved in some way.

There were also spontaneous slides, most of them in mid-December and late January.

Possible Reasons

Fragile old snow

Layers of metamorphosed snow close to the ground and weak layers in the centre of the snowpack. Most serious accidents had this cause, including the eight fatal avalanches from 15th to 18th January.

Abundant fresh snow

From December until the beginning of February and again in mid-March, the situation was critical for weeks because of a several episodes of snowfall. Constant snow and the formation of layers of windblown snow added to the problem of the old snow layer.

Large avalanches

The slides triggered in old snow were often large and sometimes very large.

Increase in off-piste accidents

More than half the fatal accidents were in the off-piste area. In multi-year statistics, there are more fatalities among backcountry tourers or hikers.

Five of the fatal avalanches happened when the avalanche risk was at level 4 (on a scale of 1 to 5).

The report also says there were slightly more accidents than average at the weekend, especially Saturdays, when more people are usually on the mountains.

“It is not known whether the coronavirus pandemic has an influence on mountain attendance date and the risky behavior of winter sports enthusiasts,” it says.

Swiss Avalanche deaths and reported avalanches
Swiss Avalanche deaths and reported avalanches

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