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Six escape avalanche in French Alps
21 January 2016

It has taken a while, but the snow eventually arrived in Morzine last weekend. It set in on Saturday 9 Jan, following four days of miserable heavy rain, and we’ve experienced days and nights of heavy snowfall ever since.

It almost makes up for the lousy conditions over Christmas and New Year. The festive season holidaymakers were all crammed onto the few pistes that were open. For us, it didn’t seem worth the schlepp up the hill to ski on stone-encrusted slopes and icy bumps. We felt sorry for those who had paid peak season rates, only to find the conditions were less than adequate for a family or friend’s ski holiday. Still, that’s the unpredictability of the mountains.

The snow coverage is now excellent in most places on the pistes and in the off-piste areas. But, with such a deluge, comes the increased risks of avalanche. Drew had a very scary afternoon last Wednesday, when he and his ski training group were involved in an avalanche at Avoriaz, the resort at 1800 metres close to Morzine. It was the same day that two French kids and a Ukrainian tourist were killed in Les Deux Alpes. Luckily, my husband Drew’s group were spared.

As Drew tells it, the group had just alighted at the top of the (Interdit) lift and were traversing the mountain on the Arar blue run, high up above the Avoriaz resort. The terrain above the lift had experienced heavy snowfall on top of an unstable layer, caused by rain and little hard snow beads called ‘graupel’, which had fallen over the days and weeks prior to the heavy snow dump. It is thought that a cornice collapsed, leading to a slab releasing which cascaded multiple tonnes of snow down the mountainside and across the six skiers below.

Drew’s group were skiing off from the lift as the avalanche hit, and three of the group were swept up in the slide. Karen, a retired IT consultant from Northern Ireland, was buried by a layer of snow above her head, but she bravely punched through and self-rescued. Laurie, a young blonde lass from the UK who lives in Morzine year round, was carried 200m and managed to resurface twice after being dragged under the ice and snow. Drew, Nigel and friend Jude were able to stop at the side of the avalanche as it began, and Ricey McLintock, the trainer, was able to ski out of the avalanche and away from danger at high speed.

Once everything settled, Jude was the first to reach Laurie who was in shock. She was buried and stuck from the waist down. Deep shock began to set in quickly and she was cold (treated later for hypothermia), which made her incredibly lucky that she suffered no serious injury. Drew organised bystanders to cordon off the piste and call for help. He grabbed his avalanche safety equipment and immediately began a transceiver search to find out if any more people were swept up in the slide; it was hard to know who had been skiing on the piste at the moment of impact, because it was very close to a lift station.

Ricey, the instructor, made all the necessary emergency calls and followed the relevant safety measures. Pisteurs and emergency first aiders arrived quickly. A helicopter whisked Laurie to the Avoriaz medical clinic and Drew continued to assist in probing the site for around two hours, until they were sure that no-one else was involved.

The avalanche site became crowded and everyone with probes took part in the 2-hour search. You can see all the thin poles in the image above; these are avalanche probes.

The first I knew of this was when Drew arrived back at the apartment very shaken. He explained the incident then and I was obviously shocked. But yesterday he took me to the spot where it happened. Now I’ve seen the site, I realise how lucky everyone was. And it could have been much worse; a group of young kids in ski school could have been standing in the path of the moving snow, ice and rock. They’d have probably been less fortunate than the trained adults, who were all wearing transceivers and who all knew how to use them.

We can count our blessings at the positive outcome from last week. The current conditions are obviously more exciting for skiing and boarding, and we're really enjoying the snow. But the mountains have spoken. We’ll continue to listen.