Death comes to the 'hors-piste' heroes as winter snows beckon the thrill-seekers

The scene is Dick's Tea Bar in Val d'Isère. It is the night for Henry's Avalanche Talk and there is standing-room only. The mood in the bar beforehand is one of excitement, as if avalanches are part of the romance of life high in the mountains.

But only 10 minutes into Henry's twice-weekly lecture and film show, the mood sobered, as is meant to happen. Avalanches are as graceful, rapid and cruel as tigers, the audience - mostly British, mostly young - is told.

If you are caught in an avalanche, after tumbling over and over as you are buried in tightly packed snow you might, if you have any breath left in your body, start clawing your way out, not realising that you are digging down into an icy grave rather than up to safety. After 15 minutes you are dead. "Shee-it," said the young man next to me.

The threat of avalanches in the French Alps is acute this year. There have been heavy, but not heavier than normal, snowfalls in the past week, piling on top of a thin crust of snow which was frozen by cold weather before Christmas. Afterwind and rain on Tuesday, the avalanche alert was raised to the maximum level of fiveacross the northern and central French Alps. The level has since been reduced to three or four, but it is still snowing and still windy.

As thousands of British skiers prepare to depart for the Alps over the next month - 100,000 visit Val d'Isère alone during the season - there is no cause for alarm. Reports this week of the slopes being shut because of the avalanche risk, and the Val d'Isère resort being closed for a day, were exaggerated or wrong.

On marked slopesin resorts the avalanche risk is minimal to non-existent. The problem is that increasing numbers of skiers are not sticking to the marked slopes.

Eleven people - including Jonathan Smout, 34, a Briton who was swept away and crushed by an avalanche while skiing near Val d'Isère last month - have died in avalanches in the French Alps since the end of November. All of them were either skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing off-piste, which means off the official slopes. It is not forbidden, but dangerous unless you know what you are doing, and even then it is risky.

But this year's figures are roughly in line with the number of off-piste-avalanche casualties over the last 12 years. Between 25 and 31 people have died in off-piste avalanches each season in the French Alps since 1990. And the figures could be described as encouraging; if they were rising as rapidly as the number of off-piste skiers, there would be many more victims.

Henry Schniewind, 38, an American who has lived in France for 14 years, is a qualified ski instructor, off-piste guide and was once a professional avalanche-watcher. Mr Schniewind, the man behind Henry's Avalanche Talks, is not complacent about the casualty figures. He said: "There is a much bigger problem waiting to happen. We have had a series of winters with low snowfall. Even this year the snow is not abnormally heavy. If we get a year of truly heavy snow, many, many more people are going to be caught."

The marked and prepared avalanche-protected slopes are growing more crowded as skiing increases in popularity, and one in four skiers ventures off-piste.

Some off-piste ski enthusiasts admit that the sense of danger is one of the things which attracts people beyond the boundary fences. One off-piste guide in Val d'Isère said: "Three quarters of the people who go on organised off-piste tours are young men. Just like with rock-climbing or bungee-jumping or other extreme sports, it is partly the danger, the sense of going beyond the bounds, of testing themselves, which attracts them."

Avalanches in the high mountains are natural and constant. High-altitude resorts such as Val d'Isère and Tignes, which form a skiing area of 300 kilometres (186 miles) of slopes and 97 ski-lifts, are safe because of enormous efforts to keep them that way. After heavy snowfalls the official pistes are cleared of snow-drifts and explosives are used to trigger avalanches in potentially unsafe areas before skiers are allowed on.

Val d'Isère also has 10,000 kilometres (6,214 miles) of off-piste skiing, making it the off-piste capital of Europe. It is difficult to protect skiers over such a large area. People are constantly warned not to go off-piste unless they are equipped and experienced and they are strongly advised against it when the risk of avalanches is high. Otherwise, there are no rules or laws against off-piste skiing in France, as there are in many parts of the United States. It is this sense of freedom which attracts many skiers to resorts like Val d'Isère, where one in three visitors are British.

Jane Jacquemod, the resort's spokeswoman, came to Val d'Isère as a student from Birmingham 30 years ago, married a Frenchman and has lived here ever since. She said that the resort does not promote off-piste skiing. "If we did, we would probably be accused of attracting people to their deaths," she said. "We don't discourage it either but we do, everywhere that people go, warn them over and over again of the dangers."

David George, 38, a British off-piste enthusiast, said that French resorts have an ambivalent attitude to off-piste skiing. He said: "Officially, it may be true that they don't encourage it, but if you look at their brochures, they mostly show unspoiled mountain vistas and untracked snow. They don't show people queuing for ski-lifts." Mr George has started a website to warn skiers of off-piste dangers.

Mr Schniewind's avalanche talks have the same intention: to encourage safer off-piste skiing. There are no foolproof rules, but this broadly means: do not go when the avalanche risk is high; do not go alone; take shovels and location beacons; go with someone who knows which slopes are likely to be dangerous; do not go too far; and do not let pride, or machismo, overcome caution.

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