Avalanche!

Unprecedented snowfalls have killed 21 people in the French Alps in the past fortnight, with the Chamonix disaster the most devastating of them all. Is it safe to go skiing?

At 2.40pm on Tuesday Daniel Lagarde was at home in front of his fire with his wife, 12-year-old son and four-year-old granddaughter. Normally, at this time of year, at that time of day, Daniel, 50, would have been high in the mountains, on the Lognan-Les Grands Montets ski slopes (a resort especially popular with British skiers).

Daniel, a Parisian who emigrated to his beloved mountains as a young man, was employed as a "pisteur" or avalanche expert. It was his job to know which slopes might be dangerous and, if necessary, to launch controlled avalanches with small explosions to allow the holiday-makers to ski safely.

On Tuesday all the Grands Montets slopes were closed, as they had been for seven days, partly on Daniel's advice. After a week of the heaviest snow falls anyone could remember on the Massif du Mont Blanc, the avalanche danger was at its maximum. Everyone was advised to stay indoors as much as possible.

Daniel's home was in the hamlet of Montroc, just to the east of Argentiere. When asked if he feared that avalanches might reach his modern chalet, Daniel would claim a four-fold safety guarantee. He was an avalanche expert; he had bought the chalet from an avalanche expert; the hamlet was in a "white zone", signifying minimal avalanche risk. The only known avalanche track in the area, inactive for 91 years, was on the opposite slope of the valley, on the other side of a main road and small river. To reach his home, an avalanche would have to cross both and then climb 50 metres uphill.

On Tuesday afternoon, high on the opposite slope, the Montagne de Pecleray, a terrifying natural phenomenon occurred which Daniel understood well but never expected to occur here with such ferocity. The two to three metres of freshly fallen, light powdered snow on the upper slopes of the mountain were whipped into a snowstorm by the wind. A special kind of avalanche - an "aerosol avalanche", a cross between an avalanche and a whirlwind - began to move down the north-western slope of the mountain, towards Montroc. Gathering speed and power and denser layers of snow as it fell, the avalanche snowballed to a monstrous 18 metres high and 200 metres wide - the length of two soccer pitches - before it ploughed into the tree line.

Reducing the tall firs to match-wood, the loosely packed snow cloud crashed into the valley bottom at an estimated 100mph and continued for 100 metres up the opposing slope, bulldozing three chalets and toppling and burying 15 others. Daniel, his wife and granddaughter and nine other people in neighbouring chalets were killed. His son, Raphael, was trapped, barely conscious, for 10 hours between the now densely packed snow and the remains of a concrete wall. When rescued, he was close to death but recovered enough to be told, two days later, what had happened to his home and his parents and his tiny niece.

The tragedy of the Lagarde family - a family well known and loved in the Argentiere area - helps to explain the sense of shock and fear that has settled on this small Alpine town five miles east of Chamonix. The whole town turned out for their funeral on Friday. If such a disaster could befall an avalanche expert in a no-danger zone, then no place in the mountains is safe. The entire, complex map of avalanche risk zones, the basis for the rapid development of the Chamonix valley in the last 30 years, may have to be torn up.

MICHeLE, PROPRIETOR of a small chalet hotel in Argentiere, who knew the Lagardes well, says: "Living in the mountains is like living near the sea. You grow used to the idea that you are going to lose loved ones. But you expect to lose them on the sea, or up in the mountains. You don't expect them to die in their own living-room, in front of the television or in front of the fire."

Faced with an exodus of panicked tourists, and a wave of cancellations just before the Parisian February "snow holiday" as well as the influx of British visitors arriving this weekend for the half-term holidays, business people and politicians in the French Alps are anxious. In the last fortnight, the death toll from avalanches has risen to 21. On Friday, Catherine Ovington, 26, was killed after she and four others ignored warnings from the French authorities by venturing on to treacherous out- of-bounds slopes above Val d'Isere.

The worst incident was undoubtedly Tuesday's disaster. But was it a horrific one-off; a combination of exceptional circumstances which could happen only "once in a century"? So it may prove.

Two questions must be asked, however, at least one of which may be the centre of a legal investigation. The first concerns something that even French investigative magistrates cannot subpoena - the weather. The extraordinary snowfalls in the Mont Blanc area, and throughout the Alps, in the last ten days, are the highest since recordings began in the 1950s. They are part of a disturbed weather pattern that has brought freezing temperatures to Italy and Greece and balmy weather to Iceland in recent weeks. Last winter, Alpine resorts complained because there was almost no snow.

Some meteorologists blame the confused weather on the effects of global warming. If they are right, conventional wisdom on avalanche danger in the Alps - based on the expectation of steady snowfalls and warmer periods to glue the snow together - will have to be reconsidered.

Rene Bozon, the assistant mayor of Chamonix in charge of public safety, is a leather-faced mountain guide who looks 55 but is 73. He is regarded as one of the valley's great experts on avalanches; an expertise that has been dearly bought. His father, his brother and his son were all mountain guides, and all died in avalanches; avalanches high up in the mountains, not in the valley bottoms.

Mr Bozon dismisses, cautiously, the global warming theories. "My belief, my hope, is that this is something cyclical. A period of severe weather of this kind comes along every few decades. There is no reason to believe it will become a regular pattern."

But a few decades ago - say 40 years ago - the population of the Chamonix valley, in the shadow of Europe's highest mountain, was a few hundred people. Now the permanent population is 20,000. At the height of the ski season it might be 80,000 or 100,000. Almost the entire valley has become a kind of winter-sports suburb. Only one farm survives in a valley dependent on tourism.

This brings us to the second question, one that may be the subject of a legal investigation by an examining magistrate. (The chief prosecutor for the departement visited the scene on Wednesday.) How carefully was the valley mapped for avalanche risks in the early 1980s? Did the pressure for commercial development lead some zones to be placed in the white (no risk) category, when an appreciable risk in fact existed?

Francois Giannocarro, assistant director of the Institute of Major Risks in Grenoble, says: "Put yourself in the place of a local official, who has some big business wanting to invest ... There has to come a point when a risk is negotiable."

There are three levels of avalanche risk. In the red (high risk) zones no building is allowed. There are 118 "avalanche avenues" in the Chamonix area, which fall into this category (as of last Tuesday, that should rise to 119). There are blue zones where construction is allowed under certain conditions. Buildings must have reinforced concrete walls facing the danger area; they must have small windows and avalanche defences. Evacuation is mandatory when the risk is high. In the white zones - something like 60 per cent of the valley - no building precautions or defences are required.

ASSISTANT MAYOR Bozon rejects any suggestion that the mapping of the Chamonix area was influenced by commercial considerations. He says the zones were categorised by examination of past avalanche tracks and by questioning older residents on past slides. In the case of Montroc, there had been only one serious avalanche on that slope - in 1908, and that did not breach the tree line.

"If those chalets had been built to blue-zone standards, they would not have been swept away," he says. "They would have been severely damaged, certainly. But there is every reason to believe that we would not have lost so many lives."

He insists, however, that what happened was completely unpredictable; that there was no reason to expect, at that place, whatever the prevailing avalanche risk, a slide of such terrible force and magnitude.

Daniel Lagarde evidently agreed. The fact that he, a professional expert in avalanche dangers, installed his family in Montroc tends to suggest that there was no official negligence. But is that not just as worrying? Is not the whole basis of avalanche knowledge and avalanche mapping - on which the valley has been planned - called into question?

Mr Bozon agreed it was inevitable that the entire risk map "will be looked at again".

Suggested Topics
News
Shoppers at Selfridges department store in central London
news

News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
Sport
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game