Avalanches and a broken chair lift bring misery to the frozen Alps

Skiers stranded for hours as Alpine rescuers warn of lethal risks on the slopes

A total of 88 skiers were left dangling above the slopes when a chairlift broke in the Alps over the weekend.

The jammed mountain lift in Italy's Aosta Valley left them trapped 10 metres above piste for three hours in temperatures of minus 11C, as two helicopter crews battled the bitter cold to rescue them.

The incident follows deadly avalanches after Christmas and the death of three Italian climbers who fell to their deaths in the Lecco region of the Italian Alps.

During the chairlift incident on Sunday, rescue helicopter teams lowered the trapped skiers one by one on to the piste below, during an operation which saw the wind chill lower the perceived temperature even further.

Several of the trapped skiers said they had feared they would freeze to death. Around 20 of those trapped were under 12 – and Italian newspaper reports said many of the youngsters were treated for frozen hands and fingers. But there were no serious injuries.

The incident occurred at Saint-Rhemy-En-Bosses, just north-east of Courmayeur, by the Swiss border, on a chairlift which carries skiers and snowboarders from 1,970 metres to 2,450 metres up the mountain.

At 9.30am a power failure caused the chairlift's motor to stop. To their dismay, operators then saw the reserve diesel motor fail. Rolando Reale, president of the Crevacol skiing association, which includes Saint-Rhemy, said engineers "tried everything" to restart the motor but a safety system, designed to prevent the re-engagement of a damaged lift system, had kicked in. "At this point we asked the civil protection service to intervene," he told La Stampa newspaper.

The last person to be rescued, a ski instructor from the nearby Pila ski school, was lowered from the chair lift at 12.30pm.

It has emerged that an electrical problem also struck a cable motor further down the mountain on Saturday. Mr Reale said this was quickly repaired and had represented no danger.

Luca Mercalli, a mountain safety expert at the Italian Meteorological Society, said: "I think the safety standards of the Italian resorts are very good. There are a lot of checks. And the rescue by helicopter was done by the book."

Guido Bertolaso, head of Italy's civil protection unit, agreed: "It could not have been very pleasant sitting in the cold for hours. But the people were never in real danger."

Three Italian Alpine explorers in the Lecco region were not so lucky. The body of a 38-year-old man was found in a ravine on Mount Barro. High winds had prevented rescuers from responding to distress calls. In a separate incident, two men aged 35 and 25 were found in a ditch on Mount Grigna.

The temperatures were exceptionally cold again in the Italian Alps at the weekend, with the mercury plunging to minus 26C at Point Helbronner, 3,500 metres high, near Courmayeur.

Experts, however, said that the greatest danger in the mountains remained that of avalanches, particularly when skiers went off-piste against the advice of authorities.

This was underlined last week when four rescue workers died after going to the aid of two tourists who had ignored avalanche warnings to go climbing in the Italian Dolomites. Five more died at the weekend, four in the Bernese Oberland and one in Valais, both in Switzerland.

Reckless skiing and skiboarding were widely blamed.

Mr Bertolaso said: "We can't allow this kind of incident to go on. We will continue to make our warnings clearer and louder. But if people still disregard them we may have to introduce fines."

Mr Mercalli said: "We have to keep repeating to those people who go off-piste that snow is a constantly changing and unstable substance, and that the risk bulletins must always be followed. They are there to prevent entertainment from turning into tragedy."

But he added that so far this season the number of deaths had not been exceptional, and by following advice the risk could be further reduced.