Fierce winds and heavy snowfall have unleashed a rash of avalanches in the French Alps, sweeping away skiers seeking off-limits thrills and making this ski season the most deadly in at least 35 years, experts say.
Avalanches have killed 53 people in France's Alpine stations this season, said the National Association for the Study of Snow and Avalanches, known by its French initials ANENA. This winter has been the most deadly since the association was founded in 1971.
Alpine snowslides in France have swept away mountain climbers, a ski patroller and a mountain rescuer who was killed during a training session. Most victims, however, were skiers who strayed off the packed-down trails to pursue thrills in deeper, untouched powder.
Avalanche experts say they have not seen an increase in off-limits skiing this year, and that there is no reason to believe skiers are suddenly taking more risks. The rough weather this year is the culprit, they say.
"The dangers were in place from the start of the season," said Pierre Vray of the national Meteo-France weather service in the eastern city of Grenoble.
In December, there were no mild spells or rain to pack down the light layer of snow on the ground. That left the underlying snow layer lacking in cohesion and "comparable to powdered sugar," Vray said.
Strong winds at the end of January caused volatile snowdrifts, and then heavy snowfall dumped an additional three feet of snow in mid-February onto the slippery existing layers, he said.
During one 3-day period, from Feb. 20-22, 12 people were trapped and killed by avalanches. Usually, snowslides kill about 25 people on France's slopes each season.
"Everything has depended in large part on the weather," said Frederic Jarry of ANENA. "It's hard to imagine that people suddenly changed their behavior."
The surge in avalanches has been concentrated in the southern reaches of the French Alps and appears largely confined to France. In neighboring Switzerland, there have been 21 avalanche fatalities this season, eight fewer than last season's final total, according to the country's Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research.
In avalanche-prone areas, off-limits cross-country skiers are particularly at risk, said Pierre Pelcener, leader of a mountain rescue service based in Grenoble. Alpine rescuers recommend that cross-country skiers carry an avalanche transceiver and tell someone their route before setting off.
In France, some towns briefly banned off-limits skiing several years ago but later gave up the effort. However, skiers who trigger snowslides have been prosecuted in some French courts for acting irresponsibly and endangering lives.