A three-week period beginning in late January this year provided a tragic reminder that ski resorts are an environment prone to natural disaster. Heavy snow in the central Alps provoked avalanches which killed 75 people: in Galtur, Austria, a snowslide hit the village at more than 100mph, while an avalanche as tall as a house plunged down the Chamonix valley.

A three-week period beginning in late January this year provided a tragic reminder that ski resorts are an environment prone to natural disaster. Heavy snow in the central Alps provoked avalanches which killed 75 people: in Galtur, Austria, a snowslide hit the village at more than 100mph, while an avalanche as tall as a house plunged down the Chamonix valley.

The heavy death-toll was the result of the avalanches penetrating inhabited areas; as a rule, the victims are climbers, skiers and snowboarders up on the slopes. Avalanche conditions are usually caused by a combination of heavy snow, wind and changing temperatures. But what provokes the snowslide is often a skier or boarder: most victims die in an avalanche of their own making. For a skier going off-piste in unfamiliar terrain when there is an avalanche risk, an essential precaution is to be accompanied by a qualified mountain guide.

For anyone caught in an avalanche, the key survival techniques are to stay near the surface with "swimming" movements, avoid inhaling snow and try to create a breathing space before the slide comes to rest - at which point the snow can set like cement.

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