Danger!!!!! What We’ve Learned About Avalanches

No, I’m not talking about the Chevrolet Avalanche, or any other SUV.  It will come as no surprise that the last time I saw one of those was before we moved to Switzerland.  This post is about snow, lots of it…tumbling down mountains.

3 = Marked Danger of Avalanches

The Alps have around 250,000 avalanches every year!  To have an avalanche, all you need is a mass of snow and a slope for it to slide down.  Specific topographic, snow and weather conditions increase the likelihood of avalanches.  They include:

  • Steep slopes of 30-45 degrees are more likely to avalanche.
  • Convex slopes are more prone than concave slopes.
  • Just looking at bowls and gullies, should alert you to their avalanche danger.  What happens when you pour water into a funnel?
  • Slopes that gather drifting snow, accumulate more of it and do it more quickly.  The snow is also looser, less compacted.  You can see how these factors all increase the likelihood of an avalanche.
  • Smooth, grassy slopes are much more dangerous because there is nothing to anchor the snow to the mountain.
  • Moist, dense precipitations are typically less dangerous than loose, dry snows.
  • Wind. It moves snow about the slopes and exerts pressure.  Need I say more.
  • Changes in temperature.  Change is destabilizing.  High and rapidly rising temperatures create wet snow prone to slides.  That’s likely what happened in the pictures below.
  • Thawing and refreezing.  When old snow melts, it becomes smooth (or icy after a rain).  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out new snow on top might slide off.
  • Similarly, loose, underlying snow is unstable.  It doesn’t take Copernicus to predict what is likely to happen.
  • A foot or more of soft, new snow is dangerous. It puts pressure on the existing snowpack.  New snow has to go somewhere, right?  Some of it might rest where it lands.  Some of it might come tumbling down.
  • Even the shape of the snow crystals can make a difference!

Avalanches can be deadly, but people buried in avalanches have a good prognosis if they are found and dug out quickly (within 15 minutes to have a reasonable chances of survival).

  • Much of North America is so large that the chances of a professional rescue team arriving in that time frame can be slim.  Nevertheless, Canada‘s average time to dig someone out is 18 minutes (with a survival rate of 46%)!  In Europe, where everything is closer, things vary by country.
  • In France, the average time to dig someone out is 45 minutes.  As a result, France’s death rate from avalanches averages 25-30 per year (60% of extracted victims die).  France (where we do most of our skiing) had more avalanche fatalities than any other country.  The winter of 2005-2006 was a difficult avalanche season and over 50 people died from avalanches in France alone.
  • Switzerland takes 35 minutes (with a survival rate of 47%).

Just last month, Prince Frisco of the Netherlands was caught in an avalanche in Austria.  He was buried under the snow for over 25 minutes and it took nearly 50 minutes to resuscitate him.  He remains in a coma and may never recover.

Avalanche deaths have been on a rise.  Equipment has improved over the past couple of decades, making “off-piste,” backcountry skiing without the benefit of marked trails composed of compacted snow, possible for many more.  It looks like tons of fun, but many are ill-prepared and not sufficiently knowledgeable.

This was taken at Les Contamines, near Mt. Blanc. If you look closely, you can see the aftermath of the avalanche.

Several technologies are essential for anyone backcountry skiing as they help improve the chance of survival.

  • Transceivers, otherwise known as avalanche beacons, send and receive radio signals, helping rescuers to quickly pinpoint the location of a buried victim.  Nevertheless, not even half of those with beacons survive.  It cannot save you if you are severely injured or buried deeply.
  • Avalanche airbags are recommended and gaining in popularity.  We have even seen them advertised at bus stops.  Worn like parachutes, the ripcord causes an airbag to inflate, encircling the head.  It  protects their head and their neck and provides floatation, decreasing the likelihood of burial.
  • Other crucial safety tools include: collapsible probes and shovels.
  • The best defense is a good offense.  It is best to avoid an avalanche altogether.

You can see where the snow slid (and might again).

Here are some YouTube links to videos of Avalanches:

During our Swiss travels in Switzerland, we have seen evidence of the Swiss infrastructure to prevent and deal with avalanches.

An avalanche shelter in Switzerland’s Lauterbrunnen Valley

Avalanche snow fences in the Jungfrau region of Switzerland

Don’t worry mom, ski resorts try to eliminate the possibility of an avalanche on the slopes by compacting the snow or using explosives.  We aren’t good enough (or brave enough) to really go off piste.

Covering to prevent snow from covering the road into the Lotschental Valley

 

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The News From Geneva

A month ago, Geneva (and Europe) was in the middle of a giant cold snap.  Pictures of a frozen car in Versoix, Switzerland made headlines around the world (and was featured on this blog).  Waves and spray from Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) covered the lakeside with ice.  While it isn’t exactly warm here, it is much warmer.  The owner of the storied car made headlines when he finally retrieved it this week.

The front page of the paper 20 Minutes with the headline “The frozen car leaves without coughing.”

He had to wait for the ice to melt because chipping it off damages the paint.  We still see little bits of snow here and there, but it is melting fast.  Boats are going back into the lake.  I even saw a girl sunning herself in a bikini top.  She had to have been freezing, but no one was complaining.

The title of 20 Minutes article is “My notoriety is to have poorly parked my car.”

Problems with the weather and natural disasters continue.  Sion and Zermatt experienced avalanches.  Luckily, no one was injured or killed.

Also from 20 Minutes

Also in the Alps, a helicopter crashed near Les Diablerets.  The two people on board survived, but were injured.  This is the second crash there in as many months.  As much fun as the mountains have been, there are daily reminders of their dangers.

In other news, Micheline Calmy-Rey, the former Swiss President, received a pie in the face after attending  the opening of the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights.. Actually, it was a Black Forest Cake.  She is not pressing charges.

Also from the paper 20 Minutes

a photo of the article in 20 Minutes

A 66 year-old Swiss retiree gave birth to twins. She was artificially inseminated at a clinic in the Ukraine.
In Switzerland, just like just about every other country, women make less than men for doing the same work. Today is Equal Pay Day, the day women break even with men… for the work they did last year. The average woman worked all last year through to today to make the average salary that a man made from January 1, 2011 through December 31, 2011.

from 20 minutes

From 20 Minutes

From 20 Minutes

Finally in sports, Swiss superstar athletes (Roger Federer and Fabian Cancellara) continue to win.  Skiing is big.  Quel surprise.

 

Les Contamines

Late one night, a group of us decided to ski the next day.  When you make plans late at night for the next day, sometimes (shockingly) they aren’t well thought out.  As we would be a large group of all levels, we decided to go to Les Contamines. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a good choice and a great day.

We chose it because:

  • It is close to Geneva.
  • It is not crowded.  There are rarely any lift queues.
  • As it is at the back-end of a valley, it is less traveled.  It has a reputation for having a calm, laid back atmosphere.
  • It is a small, relatively unspoiled town.  There’s no trendy après-ski or clubs.  In fact, there isn’t much nightlife.  As a result, it is calmer.
  • Fewer people means snow stays untracked longer.  Who doesn’t love unskied powder?
  • It offers a wide variety of terrain for all levels.  We had a diverse group and there were pistes to suit everyone.
  • The prices are reasonable.
  • When the weather is clear, it has a wonderful view of Mt. Blanc.  Heck, when the weather is clear, it has wonderful views.  Period.  Contamines is known for its beautiful mountain panoramas.

Oh yeah.  It wouldn’t be a skiing post if I didn’t do something stupid.  This time it yielded a cool photo.  While I was lying with my face in the snow, I got my camera out and snapped a pic to show you the view from down there.

The Road Through The Alps Into Switzerland’s Lötschental Valley

 

Last weekend, we went to Wilder, Switzerland to see the Tschäggättä and Carnival parade. Wilder is located in the Swiss Alps in the Lötschental Valley.  It is one of the most remote places in Switzerland.  It remained largely cut off from the outside world until the beginning of the 20th century.

 

Courtesy of Mappery.com

 

Even then, the valley remained remote and difficult to reach, especially during the winters. It was so isolated that in the 1932, Dr. Weston Price, an American dentist, went there to find cultures relatively untouched by the modern world.  He included it in his book of nutritional studies across diverse cultures, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.   At the time, some towns in the valley were accessible only by footpath.

 

 

When Switzerland built a road into the valley, they did it with typical Swiss quality and precision.  It is built into a steep gorge and hugs the side of the mountain.  You can see the road climb up the mountain until it disappears into it.

 

 

We saw the first bit of snow and ice at the first curve.  Coming out of that turn, you hug the edge of the road.  If you aren’t the driver, the views are fantastic (even if the drive is a bit hair-raising).

 

 

The road zigs and zags up the mountain.  Switchbacks abound.

 

 

Switchbacks are courtesy of Google Maps

 

Looking at the map, you can (1) all the switchbacks, and (2) why I am glad that I wasn’t the driver.

 

 

Surprisingly, there are cute roadside picnic spots sprinkled along the way.

 

English: Alpine Ibex near Lauchernalp (Lötsche...

English: Alpine Ibex near Lauchernalp (Lötschental), Switzerland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Since this is Switzerland, there are tunnels and covered areas to protect the roads from impassability due to snow.  As you climb back into the valley, the dates on the exterior of the tunnels becomes progressively more recent.

 

 

When we exited the tunnels, we thought the road had been reduced to one lane because the road narrowed.  We were wrong.  Although it may have been slightly more narrow due to the snow, traffic continued in both directions.  There just wasn’t much room for you to put a road.

 

 

We were rewarded for long drive with a fantastic festival in a stunning setting.  It is well worth the effort to get to Wilder.

 

 

We were lucky the weather (and roads) was clear.  In 1999, around 1,000 avalanches crashed down Switzerland’s mountains.   The  Lötschental Valley is an avalanche hot spot.  That year, avalanches made the road impassable and cut the valley off from the outside world.  Tourists and people with health problems were helicoptered out while locals and food were flown in!

 

 

 

 

Mt. Blanc, The Tallest Mountain In The Alps

Him and Mt. Blanc/Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco

Mt. Blanc, Mont Blanc and Monte Bianco all refer to the same mountain.  It has so many names because of its strategic location.  It in France, viewable from Switzerland and forms part of the border with Italy.  The French and Italian names mean “white mountain.”  Other names for it include La Dame Blance and Il Bianco.

Aosta Valley – From behind the protective tape and snow fence on the slopes

It lies in the Alps between Italy’s Aosta Valley and the Haute-Savoie region of France .  The 11.6 km (7.1 mile) Mt. Blanc Tunnel has connected the two since it was built in 1965.

courtesy of EnlightenedTraveler.co.uk

The trip around the alps is long and so the tunnel was an instant success, becoming one of the major trans-alp transport routes.  It costs about $60 roundtrip for a car to use the tunnel.  That does not include the fine you will pay if you speed over 70 km/hr or do not leave sufficient distance between you and the car in front of you.  They are militant about this safe driving because in 1999 there was a fire in the tunnel that killed 39 people.  We felt a bit more at ease traveling through the tunnel knowing that when the tunnel reopened in 2002, it contained additional safety features.

courtesy of railsystem.net

Mt. Blanc’s height is 4,810 m (15, 782 feet) tall.  It has year-round snow.  Its Bossons glacier comprises the largest ice fall in Europe.  It made the news in 2007, when it grew 6 meters!

It is a center for alpine outdoor activities including: skiing, snowboarding, heliskiing, paragliding, snowshoeing, mountain climbing, trekking, hiking, mountain biking and everyone’s favorite pastime of warming themselves in cute cafes.  All of this activity is not without danger and Mt. Blanc averages 100 fatalities a year and many more severe injuries.  Recently, a Russian couple froze to death while attempting to climb Mt. Blanc, a body was found on a black run (he must have snuck in some night skiing), and an avalanche killed a man.  Looking at a video of a Mt. Blanc avalanche on YouTube, helped me to understand their power and danger.

Courmayeur Piste Map courtesy of winter-sports.com

The Aosta Valley, where we spent the weekend, is a paradise for off piste skiing.  Some of our group went off piste.  Having skied a whopping three times in the last fifteen years, I was happy to stick to the reds.

Please note that these pictures are from the Italian side.  Mt. Blanc’s peak is not visible as it is obscured by a lower part of the mountain when viewed from this angle.

Snow Report Geneva

“First we’ll make snow angels for two hours, then we’ll go ice skating, then we’ll eat a whole roll of Tollhouse Cookie Dough as fast as we can, and then we’ll snuggle.”- Buddy the Elf.
They don’t have Tollhouse Cookies here, but we finally have snow!  It was our first time seeing snow in Geneva.  Winter in Geneva, it is grey and cloudy.  The beautiful snow was a welcome change and no one seemed to mind the mess it made.
I didn’t bother getting dressed or putting on makeup, but downed a quick cup of coffee, put on snow pants, tied up my snow boots and ran out quickly with my camera.
Severe snow storms covered southern Europe and extremely cold temperatures are forecasted in the upcoming days.  North and east from where we are, people have gotten stuck in cars.  A few have actually frozen to death.
There was already a good amount of snow in the mountains, but it’s always nice to have more when you are skiing.  It snowed into the afternoon.  We got quite a bit, but I’m sure the Alps got even more. Unfortunately, they have also warned of strong avalanche danger in the alps.  Last week, someone was killed by an avalanche in Chamonix.
Today’s newspapers did not make it into their boxes.  At 8:00, the boxes were still empty.
Genevans were sledding, having snowball fights, and walking their dogs in the snow.  I didn’t see anyone on skis.
The city busily cleaning up the snow (a nice change from cleaning the streets) and by mid-day, the worst of the mess was over.  Although I didn’t see a single snow blower, people were out with salt and shovels, clearing the walks in front of every building.
 

Lauterbraunnen Valley

 
Switzerland is filled with wonderful, amazing, unique diverse places.   The Lauterbraunnen Valley in the Bernese Alps is one of these places.  It is one of the deepest trough valleys in the alps.  The mountains, with their visible limestone, rise directly up on either side of the valley.  They are perpendicular to the valley floor.  Since the valley is only about a kilometer wide, the dramatic cliffs are everywhere you look.
Snowmelt + cliffs = waterfalls.  The Lauterbrunnen Valley is filled with them; there are 72.  The largest and most well known is Staubach Falls.  Others include: Trümmelbach and Schmadrifällen. We drove into the valley at night and could hear the falls.  The next morning we woke up to this view!
The cliffs on either side make it a paradise for base jumpers (just take a look at the second photo to see where the spot where they jump).  While the vertical valley walls may be great for base jumpers, you can imagine what happens when it snows.  Avalanches are a huge danger.  This is Switzerland, they’re prepared.  Avalanche shelters dot the valley floor.
They also attack the problem from up above.  These snow fences were at high altitudes to protect towns.  This one is protecting Wengen (a town just above the valley).
We aren’t the only ones who like this area.  In 1911, J. R. R. Tolkien hiked from nearby Interlaken to the Lauterbrunnen Valley.  The valley’s landscape made a powerful impression and was a model for his sketches and watercolours of the fictitious valley of  Middle-earth‘s Rivendell valley, in his The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books. It was a setting for the car chase in the 1969 James Bond (George Lazenby) film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  It’s the one where Bond escapes from Schilthorn by skiing down the mountain to reach the nearby village of Mürren at its base.