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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 April 2006, 11:29 GMT 12:29 UK
Floods follow record Alps season
By James Cove
BBC News, The Alps

Record levels of snow are continuing to fall in The Alps, providing excellent conditions for Easter, traditionally the end of the season.

Alp mountains
Unseasonably good April conditions could prolong the ski season

Almost a metre of snow has fallen in some resorts in the last two weeks. Most of them are due to close this week even though they still have plenty of snow; many in the ski industry see it as a missed opportunity.

"People just don't seem to realise that you can ski in April and even into May," says Betony Garner, from the Ski Club of Great Britain.

"This week there was even snow in Kent, so believe me the conditions in The Alps are fantastic with a good base and plenty of fresh snow."

Each winter, 1.25 million British people go skiing and the industry wants more of these to realise it is possible to ski outside the traditional months December to March.

This season, I started in October on the glacier in Saas Fee, Switzerland and plan to finish in Tignes, France, in May.

However, it appears attitudes are changing as Crystal Holidays, the largest British Tour Operator, report sales about the same as last year.

They still have vacancies and are keeping some resorts open until the end of April. There were real worries the late Easter would see poor numbers of people skiing.

Bizarre weather

Weather patterns have been changing over the past decade or so with more snow falling at the end of the season and less at the beginning.

Skiers on mountain
Tour operators are keen to encourage late season skiing

In the Swiss resort of Verbier, the snowfall levels in April are the same as February. Since the beginning of April, 75cm has fallen.

This winter has been one of the strangest for many years with little or no snow at the beginning of the season.

The first major fall only just arrived in time for the all-important Christmas period.

Then there were poor snowfalls throughout January. Since then it has been snowing regularly.

Temperatures have fluctuated wildly this winter, sometimes as cold as -26C for days on end. In Zermatt, lifts were closed because the resort feared people might get hypothermia.

All this comes at a time when the skiing industry has been deeply worried about global warming and poor snowfalls.

Record deaths

The high levels of snow have come at a human price with 56 people dying in avalanches in France alone.

Melting Alps snow
As the Alps snow melts there are flood fears in the lowlands

It is the worst year since records began 35 years ago and has led many to question the whole ethos of off-piste skiing.

"Off-piste enthusiasts may be good skiers or snowboarders but they often lack sufficient mountain knowledge," says the French Minister for Sports, Jean-François Lamour.

He describes the avalanche deaths this season as "unacceptable" and has called on backcountry travellers to "make a U-turn or change their route if conditions dictate or to stay on open ski runs".

In Verbier, there have been avalanches throughout the resort and last week the main ski area was closed for a time as avalanches came down across the pistes.

The two main ski areas were also cut off as avalanches fell across the connecting run, though people still continued to duck under ropes to use it.

The big melt

Now many are preparing for the spring thaw which will undoubtedly bring floods as rivers burst their banks when the huge amount of snow up in The Alps melts.

Already thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes due to flooding.

In Slovakia last month, the Danube rose to four metres higher than normal for the time of year and in Hungary river traffic was banned due to the high level of the water.

Emergency services are stock piling sand bags and preparing for the worst.

The winter of 2005/6 will remain long in the memory.


SEE ALSO:
Relief as snow hits ski resorts
17 Dec 05 |  Europe
Piste pressure on alpine plants
18 Apr 05 |  Science/Nature
Cloak protects glacier from sun
10 May 05 |  Europe


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