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Last Updated: Friday, 3 March 2006, 12:29 GMT
Europe ski deaths to hit record high
By James Cove
BBC News, The Alps

This winter is set to be one of the worst on record for the number of people killed in avalanches across Europe.

Chamonix mountains
In 1999, an avalanche in Chamonix killed 12 people

Already 39 people have died in the French Alps, while in the whole of last season the total was just 25.

Today the avalanche danger is classified as "high" in many resorts with people advised to take extreme care.

Last week 20 people died in France and Switzerland alone. A 30-year-old British man was buried as he skied on his own, while in the worst accident of the week three French teenagers died in Pra-Loop within the main ski area.

A respected web site that specialises in off piste information, www.pistehors.com, describes the present time as "one of the worst in living memory".

The dramatic rise is confusing experts.

Although there have been large snowfalls this winter there have been no major avalanches killing a high number of people like the Chamonix avalanche in 1999 that killed 12. Rather there has been a sharp rise in smaller ones.

So, why the increase?


The weather conditions have made the snow very unstable this winter with steep fluctuations in temperature, but it is believed there are further reasons.

It is estimated that in the French resorts of Tignes and Val D'Isere 50% of people now ski off piste.

People who leave the marked runs should wear an avalanche beacon that transmits a signal so they can be found under the snow, but many people rarely do this, so it takes too long to find most victims.

Advances in equipment allow people to ski off piste before they have a high level of skill, while skiing away from the marked runs, so-called "freeride" skiing, is the latest fashion.

Meanwhile some people simply duck under safety ropes in search of fresh snow and go into it before it has stabilised.

In the Swiss resort of Verbier last week I stood by a shut run and in just 10 minutes eight people went under the barrier into closed territory.

Ski rescue course
Some resorts now offer ski-safety courses

"It is crazy the number of people that head into deep powder snow without the necessary knowledge to know what is safe and what is not," says Felix Tanguay from the specialist off piste ski school, Powder Extreme, based in Verbier.

"It's fashionable to wear helmets and have all the safety equipment but many people never practise and in some ways it gives them a false sense of security."

Criminal charges

Last month a British ski instructor died in Les Menuires when a group of snowboarders apparently set off an avalanche above him and he was buried in it.

They have been questioned by police and could face criminal charges.

Another reason for the sharp increase in deaths may be that the smaller resorts have been unable to cope with the high levels of snow this year.

Many of the deaths have occurred in little-known resorts with limited numbers of ski patrollers and rescue services.

Safety drive

In America many areas of the mountains are closed to skiers but in Europe people are allowed anywhere at their own risk.

The authorities are now encouraging people to educate themselves about snow conditions, to have all the necessary safety equipment and, most importantly, know how to use it.

Skier going under safety cordon
Many skiers are ill-prepared for the dangers of off-piste skiing

Tignes has designated a special area, Skiing Powder of Tignes (SPOT), where people can be taught about mountain safety for free.

Specialist companies like The Ski Club of Great Britain and Mountain Tracks are running courses in safety.

"With this sharp increase in deaths this year it's vital people learn about mountain safety," Julie Slaughter, from Mountain Tracks, told the BBC News website.

"Otherwise the authorities may have to tighten up the rules and that would curtail the freedom of skiers to go where they want".

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