Deadly avalanches sweep French Alps

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Media captionThe BBC's Christian Fraser: "It's like being buried under concrete"

For the advanced skier there is no sensation like it: a day in the mountains, in the powder, floating down the untracked valley, far from the groomed piste.

But this season, far too often that perfect day has ended in tragedy. In our last count, at least 24 people have died in avalanches in France and Switzerland since Christmas. A similar number have escaped, many of them with serious injuries.

In some of the most recent examples:

  • On Sunday, two Danish skiers - brothers - died after being buried under 3m (10ft) of snow in Alpe d'Huez
  • On Saturday, a brother and a sister were caught out skiing in the Belledonne in the Dauphine Alps. She was buried for 45 minutes, under just 20cm of snow. But her brother, who had suffered a broken femur, was unable to reach her. She died of cardiac arrest
  • In Vercors range in Isere, a man was carried 500m over a rocks and small cliffs. He lost a ski but survived thanks to an emergency airbag on his back
  • A climber was killed after a crevasse fall in the Vallee Blanche. The victim plunged 40m when the snow bridge he was crossing gave way

So why is it happening so often? Experts says that in some areas the fresh snow is not sticking to what is an unusually icy base layer. It is as if the new snow is sitting on ball bearings. So even the most benign slopes off-piste can slide under a skier's weight.

And of course it puts pressure on the search teams in the Alps. They are warning that this year skiers need to be extra vigilant, particularly on north-facing slopes.

On the scent

Above the village of Montgenevre, on the Franco-Italian border, we teamed up with the mountain gendarmes who are training the new generation of rescue dogs.

General Alain Georgis, who oversees their training, said: "Last year we had snow in great quantities, but this year, the base layer before Christmas was thin and weak.

"Since then we have had a fresh dump of snow but it is not secure. Last week we were called out to find a 16-year-old snowboarder who was killed in an avalanche. There have been others.

"We estimate we have 30 minutes to find someone in these situations. To be honest, the chances of finding anyone alive after that are dramatically reduced."

Which is why a dog like Crixi, a six-year old Belgian shepherd, is vital. Yes, there is new technology to find those buried, such as the avalanche beacons that sensible skiers wear, but they are not as quick as Crixi.

He is light in weight but strong. And across this barren frozen landscape we are in, he can pick up even the faintest human scent, which will rise through packed snow.

For the purposes of the training exercise I was buried in the snow. I wriggled into a narrow hole prepared the night before - and waited.

Crixi darted from one pile to another while I sat below him, in the dark, reflecting what it must be like to be buried for real. The snow is like concrete. It is the most suffocating feeling you can imagine.


Two weeks ago in the resort of Karellis, in the Haute Savoie, a dog like Crixi saved a man from certain death.

Remi Mollaret works in Karellis, securing the piste. He is therefore an expert on snow.

On this particular day he was in the back country with a friend, when the gentle slope he was skiing suddenly gave way. He was unconscious when rescuers found him. He had been buried under a metre of snow for 40 minutes.

"I was completely covered - I couldn't hear anything or see anything," he said.

"It was completely dark. The snow was right up against my face. I didn't feel the cold, just focused on staying calm and controlling my breathing. After a while I passed out, all I could breathe was the carbon dioxide trapped in the small pocket in front of my mouth - that was my last memory.

"The next thing I knew I was waking up in the hospital in Grenoble."

Mr Mollaret is one of only 13 people the French gendarmes have ever pulled out of an avalanche alive. Does he feel lucky? Haunted might be a better word.

Elite dogs

Craig Parkin, a Briton who moved to the area because he loves to ski, agrees the conditions are precarious but he also believes some of the deaths can be blamed on inexperience. He knows, because when he was less experienced, he nearly came a cropper too, in a slab avalanche.

"We dropped into the slope off a short little drop," he said.

"I felt it crack below me. It was probably the size of a decent-sized living room. It moved slowly but the slab was so big it anchored my snowboard. I was buried up to my waist and I was wedged tight against a tree, as it all slid past me."

Mr Parkin believes that off-piste skiing has become more accessible, for many more people.

"When I was young you didn't dream of off-piste skiing unless you were an expert," he said.

"[But now] it only takes a little powder track, heading somewhere off-piste, it can be very tempting, and before you know it you can find yourself in lots and lots of danger."

The dogs of course, see it all as a fun game of fetch. In each snow-hole, the trainers bury a favourite toy alongside the missing skier.

Yet the truth is that, in most cases, the rescue dog is just too late on to the scene of an avalanche to save life - and on most of their missions, they will be hunting bodies.

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