Death In The Alps

The snow began falling three weeks ago in Galtor, Austria, and it didn't stop, even after it had covered the entire town with enough powder to shut down roads and immobilize ski lifts. Monika Spitzbarth and her husband, Roland, had come from Zurich to ski the Austrian Alps, but the storms and heavy snows kept them lodged in their hotel room at the Ballunspitze resort. Last Tuesday, just after 4 in the afternoon, the Spitzbarths were playing yet another game of cards when the sky went black. "There was a terrible roar outside, and everything was suddenly dark," recalls Monika. "It was like being inside a car as it goes through a car wash." Somewhere outside, people were screaming.

After several minutes of chaos and darkness, the Spitzbarths looked out their window. A large barn that stood only a few feet away had disappeared, ripped to shreds and buried by a wall of snow that crashed down Galtor's 2,500-meter-high Adamsberg mountain. Cars were flipped over on their tops. Snow and debris packed 10 meters deep cut a swath through the village; no one knew how many people were be trapped below. Almost immediately, tourists and locals began digging frantically at the piles with their bare hands. They quickly freed about a dozen people. Rescue workers, held back by the blizzard, didn't arrive until the next day. Underneath the brick-hard snow, they uncovered bodies that had been torn apart and crushed by the force of the avalanche. By the time the ordeal was over, the death toll from the disaster in Galtor had risen to 31 people.

Sadly, this season's Alpine fatalities did not begin, nor are they likely to end, with the avalanche in Galtor. Since January, record snowfalls along Europe's mountainous spine have triggered a series of horrific avalanches, from the Alpes-Maritimes to the Carpathians. The average annual death rate from avalanches in Austria since 1992 has been about 25. Already, at least 40 people have died there this season. In France, five people were killed in a series of avalanches beginning on Jan. 12 in Chamonix. On Feb. 21, nine people were killed and another disappeared under a wall of snow in the Swiss town of Evolene, near the resort of Sion, which is bidding for the 2006 Winter Olympics. Two days later an avalanche hit the village of Valzur, just down the valley from Galtor, killing seven. In Switzerland alone, more than 100,000 tourists were stranded, many at high-end resorts like Zermatt and Davos. Even if the snow lets up, as it did last weekend, the runoff is likely to produce major flooding in the European lowlands over the next month. Already, some streets along the Seine in Paris have been closed by high water, and there is widespread flooding on the Rhine.

Back in the mountains last week, rescue efforts were underway, with a fleet of helicopters from Austria, Germany and the United States airlifting more than 12,000 people out of disaster areas. As the shock slowly wore off, many began looking for someone or something to blame. Though experts say that similar snowfalls are recorded in the Alps every 20 to 30 years, most people found it difficult to look at last week's drama as a phase in an innocent natural cycle. Austrian radio meteorologist Erhard Berger says he tried to alert the authorities to the impending danger in Galtor, but was rebuffed by local businessmen who accused him of trying to panic tourists. Avalanche experts have often warned that Galtor is dangerously exposed, and called for the construction of snow barriers. In fact, several mountainsides in Galtor were scheduled to get the barriers, long parallel fences made of wood or steel, designed to stop or reroute snow. But they are expensive (about $1 million to cover 10,000 square meters). And since there are bigger Austrian resorts in even more avalanche-prone areas, Galtor wasn't high on the government's priority list.

Even if the barriers, which avalanche experts call "passive" controls, had been put in place, they probably wouldn't have stopped the snow in Galtor or anywhere else--there was simply too much of it. David Pitt, a consultant to the environmental group Alp Action in Geneva, described the recent weather pattern in the Alps as "a little like a cold hurricane." Imagine Mitch, which did so much damage to Central America last year, but with snow. When the enormous, unstable masses of snow started to slide down the mountain, the speed and force were beyond the power of any barrier. What's more, the high population density of the Alps makes it difficult for authorities to use "active" avalanche controls--namely, exploding small avalanches before they become big ones (following story). Where there are crowds, there can be no explosions, and therefore no active avalanche prevention.

The Alps are the most densely populated high mountain range in the world. The weather of the past two months--overwhelming snowfalls--has emptied many of the areas' resorts and will certainly have an effect on tourism. But in a good season, the Alps are the single most popular tourist region in the world, drawing 120 million visitors per year, who spend a full one tenth of the world's tourism revenue there. In Austria, tourism is particularly important. It represents more than 6 percent of the country's GDP, and pays a higher proportion of local salaries than anywhere else in the world. Resorts in Austria, along with many in Switzerland and France, are under enormous pressure to keep revenues up. That means guaranteeing good skiing. With less snowfall in the lower valleys in recent years, developers have begun building resorts higher and higher up in the mountains, in areas that lack the natural avalanche protection offered by trees.

This sort of development worries environmental groups like Greenpeace, which believe that global warming has forced skiers into high-altitude, more avalanche-prone areas. "Above 1,500 meters, the natural protection from avalanches through forests is limited," says Erwin Mayer, a Greenpeace climate expert. "And the higher up, the more exposed a region is to strong winds, another risk factor for avalanches." Galtor sits at about 1,600 meters. It is part of the rugged mountain region of Tyrol, which has the fastest development rate in Austria. Several evacuees pointed out that the buildings destroyed by the avalanche there were all fairly modern, while centuries-old structures built away from its direct path were left standing. "There had to be a reason why no one used to build their houses where the avalanche came down," said one evacuee. Though old buildings were destroyed in some parts of the Alps this season, overdevelopment is clearly a concern. "It's not enough that we mourn the dead," said Galtor's Gov. Wendelin Weingartner. "We have to draw the lessons. And one of those lessons is that we have to put limits on development in the Alps."

Still, avalanches aren't as big a danger as they once were. Helicopters, avalanche barriers and seismic studies of avalanche patterns have all made the mountains safer. In the tiny Alpine principality of Liechtenstein, people in the hamlet of Malbun were evacuated last week because experts decided the snows looked too heavy and unstable on the slopes above them. After they left, an avalanche destroyed 12 homes. The fleets of helicopters operating in the Alps late last week were rescuing people buried under avalanches, but more often they were ferrying others out before disaster struck.

Better telecommunication systems make a huge difference. Many skiers now carry "beepers" that can send or receive homing signals. When three French hikers got lost in a blizzard in the high Alps two weeks ago, they built an igloo to escape 75-mile-an-hour winds. Then they used their cell phone to call the local authorities. They were able to describe their general vicinity, and the French phone company homed in on their signal. During the nine days it took for the weather to break and a helicopter to arrive, the hikers ran out of food and grew weak and dehydrated. But had they been caught in the mountains 10 years ago, they would have died.

Nature's sheer power and unpredictability pose a threat that people living or traveling in extreme areas (even those equipped with mobiles) should take to heart. Avalanche experts agree that no matter how safe the mountains become, they will never be disaster-free. For centuries Galtor was a tiny hamlet at the highest end of a steep valley, where a handful of families made a meager living as subsistence farmers. Today, there are 700 full-time residents and an average of 3,000 resort guests during the ski season, who demand cleared roads, groomed pistes and all the comforts of home. Last week's events are a powerful reminder that, like exposed beaches or flat flood plains, mountains are places where existence is precarious. But that's a fact that people in the Alps are willing to live with. Several Austrian winter resorts that weren't hit by avalanches are now crowded with tourists who couldn't get to their target destinations. Last Saturday there was a 30-mile-long traffic jam on a highway going toward Innsbruck. Monika Spitzbarth says she'll be back to ski in the Alps next season, despite her ordeal. "You know there's a risk, but you never think you'll be the one who's affected," she says. "In the mountains there are avalanches. That's just the way it is." And the way it always will be.

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