The mountainous terrain that dominates the geography of Switzerland lends itself to phenomenal skiing, arguably some of the best in the world. This has not been missed by the off-piste adventurers, as more and more of them have taken to the offerings in the surrounding backcountry. But along with all that often-sought snowfall comes the danger of avalanches and avalanche fatalities. Has there truly been a spike in avalanche deaths? The SLF (Snow and Avalanche Research group) examined the data from the past 80 years to find out.
Since the SLF’s inception in 1936, there have been 2000 documented avalanche deaths. The data revealed that over the past four decades, about 100 people per year have lost their lives. However, where the victims were at the time of the avalanche showed two different trends. First, in controlled areas (e.g., roads, railways, ski runs) the number of fatalities from avalanches has dropped dramatically – from it’s peak in the 1940’s of 15 per year to less than one by 2010. In large part that was accomplished by:
- avalanche barriers near roadways
- improved danger maps
- effective route closures & evacuations
- artificially triggering avalanches
So far, so good. But what about all those backcountry enthusiasts, the one’s venturing into the areas that are, by definition, NOT controlled? The trend was almost the opposite. In the 1950’s fewer than 10 deaths per year by avalanche were recorded. However, as the popularity of skiing in general and off-piste specifically grew, so too did the number of casualties, reaching a peak of almost 27 deaths per year in the 1980’s. Despite the fact that now, more than ever before, people are venturing off-piste, the numbers have stabilized at around 20 fatalities a year. As education and technology geared toward avalanche safety has improved, so have the numbers.
“The number of fatalities in uncontrolled terrain almost doubled between the 1960s and the 1980s. Since then, numbers have remained relatively stationary with no further significant increase, despite a large increase in the number of winter backcountry recreationists.”
Avalanche Safety Basics:
- Obtain current information on avalanche danger in the area
- Learn about what to look for and what to do in avalanche territory
- Carry the minimum basics of a transceiver, shovel and probe