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EXPERTS SAY the avalanche risk is unprecedented in living memory. Villages, hamlets and resorts are built in spots that have been proved safe.

While some of this winter's first avalanches were triggered by skiers and snowboarders straying off-piste into danger zones, the most recent victims have been people in chalets and houses, normally considered among the safest places in times of avalanche danger. But only those in avalanche-proof cellars can really consider themselves safe.

The chaos is due to excess snow, with more falling in many villages than at any time in living memory. The position was made worse this week when the weather turned milder and it rained, only for the snowfall to return. This created heavy, unstable snow, which froze. Any more snow is landing on an icy base and being whipped by winds of up to 80mph.

It means some areas of the Alps, particularly western Austria, where the snow has been heaviest, are experiencing avalanche dangers on a scale which locals say that they have never seen before.