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Deadly Avalanches Sweep the Alps, Killing 11

This weekend, a series of avalanches rocked popular ski areas across Europe, resulting in 11 deaths. Authorities say the slides were caused by a combination of intense wind and heavy precipitation, which loaded many of the Alps’ steeper slopes with heavy slabs of snow. When hordes of skiers hit the backcountry this weekend—a school break for several European countries—they triggered those slabs, which broke loose and tumbled down mountainsides at freight-train speeds.

The avalanche victims ranged from 17 to 62 years of age and varied widely in experience level. Nine of them were backcountry and side-country skiers who had ventured off designated ski runs. The other two were a farmer working to plow a road near his home and a cross-country skier, respectively.

Image by Alain Bachellier

Sunday was one of Austria’s most deadly yet this season, with police announcing five deaths that day alone, accounting for nearly half of the weekend’s fatalities. The victims included a 55-year-old visitor from Germany, a 32-year-old Chinese skier, and a 17-year-old from New Zealand. A guide, 29, and his client, 33, were also swept up in a slide.

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The same storm cycle affected regions of Northern Italy and the Swiss Alps. In Italy, not far from the Dolomites, a 31-year-old German woman was buried under eight feet of snow when a slope let loose. Rescuers were unable to reach her in time due to 75-mile-per-hour winds, which made it impossible to fly a helicopter into the area. In Switzerland, a pair of skiers, aged 52 and 56, were killed in another avalanche.

Authorities warn that the avalanche cycle may not yet be over and that this weekend should serve as a cautionary tale. Avalanche warnings were set to level four out of five, but dozens of vacationers ignored the warnings. While successful avalanche rescues happen, they’re rare. In this case, many of the slides were too big to survive.

If resort signage, avalanche forecasts or local authorities recommend staying out of the backcountry, heed those warnings. And remember that the mountain doesn’t care if you booked an expensive vacation for a particular weekend. Losing a deposit on that mountain chalet or guided ski package is far better than losing your life. 

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