When the Mountain Falls

Last winter was among the deadliest avalanche seasons on record in the United States and Europe. Why is the number of fatalities rising? And what's being done about it?

Feb 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
The Austrian village of Galtür, population 701, lies at the foot of a long ridge of 10,000-foot peaks. Last winter, abundant snowfall promised the best skiing in years, but it also created a death trap. Shortly after 4 p.m. on February 23, 1999, the quiet of the Alpine valley was interrupted by a loud rumbling. Suddenly, a huge wall of snow burst through the windows of the town's homes and lodges. Two avalanches had converged to form a 656-foot-high powder blast that hit Galtür at 186 miles per hour. When it was over, the debris pile the avalanche deposited in the center of town was more than 15 feet high. Thirty-one people were killed. Unfortunately, Galtür was not an isolated case. Before the season ended, thousands of avalanches ravaged Europe, bringing the death toll to 160, almost twice the number of fatalities from the year before.

The European avalanches of 1999 didn't just kill people; they inflicted staggering economic losses. The Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, widely recognized as the world's premier avalanche research center, estimates that avalanches caused $258 million in property damage in Switzerland alone, despite the fact that the country has spent $630 million during the last 50 years to construct 340 miles of avalanche fencing above villages, towns, and roads. Another $438 million went to build avalanche sheds to protect roads and deflection dams to divert snow from villages. In the past five years, the Swiss have erected 80 remote sensing stations high on mountains in avalanche starting zones. These stations continuously transmit weather data that enable avalanche forecasters to predict when and where an avalanche might run.

In spite of these preparations, avalanche fatalities in Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe are not decreasing. It's a numbers game: In addition to the resident population, 120 million visitors per year come through the Alps. "What we can assume is that the increasing settlement pressure is increasing the danger," notes Karl Kleemayr, a member of Austria's Institute of Torrent and Avalanche Control. "The more people there are, the higher the risk that something will happen."

In response to the Galtür disaster, a deflection dam has been built above the town, and avalanche fences have been placed higher up on the mountain. The French and the Swiss also reacted to last year's tragedies. The French repaired and built new avalanche barriers and accelerated previously planned avalanche prevention programs. In Switzerland, 15 new early avalanche warning stations were installed, the height of deflection dams was increased, and the nation's avalanche warning Internet site was revamped.

North America suffered its own avalanche catastrophe during the 1998-99 season. On December 31, 1998, in the remote Inuit village of Kangiqsualujjuaq in northern Quebec, 500 townspeople had gathered in the local school gymnasium for a traditional nightlong New Year's Eve celebration. The school, located just over a hundred feet from the base of a steep 650-foot hill, was the community's main gathering place. The weather leading up to New Year's Eve had been warm, and then there was a heavy snowfall. That night, the wind was blowing at up to 70 mph. At 1:40 a.m. on January 1, a powerful avalanche roared down the side of the hill and collapsed a wall of the gymnasium, burying scores of people.

Those who weren't in the gym rushed to the site and frantically tried to dig out their neighbors and loved ones. "There we all were, in the lit-up gym, but in a couple of meters of snow," principal Jean Leduc later told the regional Nunatsiaq News. Nine people were killed, and 25 were injured. It was later revealed that building inspectors had expressed concern in a 1995 report to the school board about the area's vulnerability to avalanches. The report recommended several safety measures. But none of those recommendations was carried out prior to the accident.