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Avalanche accident Zürs am Arlberg

06.01.2013

"The avalanche occurred on the Arlberg in western Austria in the Vorarlberg part, between the towns of Zürs and Lech below the Omeshorn. The three of us were on our way, I was the only one with a ABS® backpack. I was the first to go into the slope and was the only one who was caught and remained largely unharmed. 

The avalanche situation report Tyrol announced the danger level 3 to 500m downwards, due to rain almost 2 days before, increased temperatures and fresh snow of 10-20cm the previous evening/night. The avalanche report Vorarlberg, however, said level 3 above 2300m and 2 below 2300m ahead (both reports all exposures equal). Instead of using the less favourable report due to the border region, we decided to take a route below the Omeshorn northeast exposure with a steep slope, which would have been passable under more favourable conditions (a "real" avalanche level 2) using the reduction method (Werner Munter, SLF) - below the critical height, small group, only one at a time on the slope.

We drove up to the point above the steep slope where we wanted to enter. The snow turned out to be wet and heavy. At the point of entry we noticed that the slope was steeper than expected. Although I knew better and although I "normally" would never have ridden this slope in this constellation, I was the first (and only one with a ABS® backpack) to enter the slope to look out for a supposed safe spot (a hilltop).

At that moment a snow slab broke loose above and below me. I immediately pulled the release handle of my ABS® backpack, which felt slowly inflated while I was already sliding down the slope and was buried by the snow. Since I never have my poles in the loops when freeriding, they were gone immediately. For a few seconds I felt myself slipping under the snow surface and tried to keep a breathing space free with my hands. The skis were probably already gone by this time. But I couldn't keep the snow away from my face, because the snow came from all sides and I had snow in my mouth. For a few moments I thought that I would suffocate. I didn't have a chance to spit the snow out, let alone get some fresh air. But suddenly I felt myself coming to the surface and I shovelled myself up with all my might until I was at the surface.

In the end I slipped on my bottom with my legs buried in the snow for a few more meters and continued shovelling with all my strength to avoid sinking again or tipping over in front and landing on my face (because I had the feeling that this could happen). Then I stopped and after about 200m (maybe more?) After the fall/slide I could just get up without having to shovel me out. While slipping, I basically stayed in a sitting position with my face downhill the whole time.

When I came to a stop, the air bags of the ABS® backpack looked as if they let air out easily, but still seemed to be intact. My friend came down to me with his snowboard and got my ski. Since I had no major injuries apart from a sore hand and saw no other danger for me, I immediately pulled out my cell phone and called the third person who was still safe upstairs with his cell phone. I asked them to immediately walk back up the flat part above the steep slope and return to the secured ski area to avoid another break or fall in the steep terrain on the hard surface left behind by the avalanche. As I gathered to exit the avalanche cone, I kept in telephone contact with her all the time to ensure her safety (no more visual contact).

A rescue helicopter was above us less than two minutes after the avalanche had descended, but we let it take off with a NO sign formed with our arms, as there was no longer any danger and everyone was uninjured. Eventually, we both went down to the valley and the third person (my girlfriend) ran back to the secured ski area and descended to the lift station. I got a few scratches in my face, a slight crack in my metacarpal and an overstretching (?) of my left knee. My ski goggles got lost at some point during the avalanche, but had partially protected my face until then.

In my opinion, the reason for the avalanche accident is mainly our own human fault, due to an overly optimistic judgement of the avalanche situation, pushing the limits of the avalanche situation report and an unhealthy group dynamic between myself and my friend at that moment. We should have known that the critical slope section was very much at the limit of what was possible (over 40° steep) and that the avalanche situation was more in line with danger level 3 than 2, even though the LLB seemed more favourable, especially since the critical slope was at the limit of the danger levels of the LLB. It was the first fine weather day after many days of fog and it was our last day for this ski week, as well as the first time in a long time that we could freeride together. Accordingly, we were looking for a highlight and were distracted by the real situation on site. I am "normally" a defensive, rational freerider. Often alone on the road for lack of an alternative, but always compatible with the current mixture of avalanche situation report and observation and always willing to give up in order to avoid unnecessary risk. This time I went for an exciting but for the given situation too dangerous route to not be a spoilsport. This was the real mistake. I should have said NO. Nevertheless my friend is not to blame, at least not more than me, because I did not say NO.

The worst thing for me about the situation is that I didn't have the courage to disagree and stop the tour to protect the three of us. Instead, I pursued selfish goals, like proving something to myself and the others and not to be an overly cautious spoilsport. Thank God I had a ABS backpack and was the first to enter the slope. In my eyes, the backpack saved my life, but since I was not in the same avalanche without a backpack, I can't prove it perfectly, of course".

Photo: Tegan Mierle