Early-Season Avalanche Kills Seven Climbers in the French Alps

Posted on: September 17, 2015

The view from the 4015-meter Dome de Neige des Ecrins in the Massif des Ecrins in the French Alps. On September 15 an avalanche left four Germans and three Czechs dead and another 36-year-old female German climber, the only survivor, with a broken leg. [Photo] Eltouristo/Wiki Commons

Seven climbers died in an avalanche on September 15 on one of the French Alps' most popular mountaineering peaks. The slide, which occurred around 12 p.m. on 4015-meter Dome de Neige des Ecrins, left four Germans and three Czechs dead and another 36-year-old female German climber, the only survivor, with a broken leg. The names of the victims have yet to be released, but they were all men between ages 39 and 51. One of victims was a professional mountain guide, Liberation reports on an investigation from the French mountain police (PGHM).

Dome de Neige des Ecrins is a popular route for budding mountaineers and ski mountaineers in the Massif des Ecrins of the French Alps.


The wind-slab fracture measured approximately 250 meters across and one-meter deep, the French news source Le Dauphine Libere reports. Rainstorms over the weekend in the nearby town of Pelvoux, in southeastern France, came down as snow up in the peaks and that new snow formed slabs on the glacier's hard surface. Conditions were "winter-like" in the area on the day of the accident, local police commander Christan Flagella told BBC News.

While there were clear to partly cloudy skies with light winds in the area on the day of the avalanche, according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Jason Nicholls, the deadly slab had already formed on the peak.

Six of the victims had stayed at the Refuge des Ecrins, located at 3172 meters on the mountain at the base of the route. Before the slide, the hut keeper advised the climbers not to attempt the mountain because of dangerous avalanche conditions, according to to the PGHM and regional investigation. A group of Spanish climbers heeded this advice and turned back from the climb.

The 2014-2015 season was the deadliest in Europe in five years. Thirty-nine people have died in avalanches in France alone this year, including six skiers in January and three in April in the same region as the recent slide, Telegraph reports.

[Update: The European Avalanche Warning Service (EAWS) has yet to make a full report on the accident. Keep an eye on its website for details after it has made a full investigation—Ed.]

Sources: accuweather.com, bbc.co.uk, dici.fr, ledauphine.com, liberation.fr, lefigaro.fr, nbcnews.com, parcsnationaux.fr, summitpost.org, telegraph.co.uk

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It might be useful with these kinds of articles to provide information that might serve as a lesson for future climbers to avoid similar mishaps in the future, similar to reports in Accidents in North American Mountaineering. I was hoping Alpinist might provide some since from the mainstream press I couldn't even tell if this was a slab avalanche or serac collapse.

I was in the Haute Savoie region at the time and I recall 30cm of snow at around 4000m on the evening of the 13th into the 14th. When I heard about the avalanche it seemed like perhaps it had been a very obviously bad idea to push on in spite of snow conditions (in fact, where I was it seemed nobody was climbing that day). I was left scratching my head wondering why this had happened, and I'm curious to hear about any reasonable explanation for what motivated these climbers to push on (especially since there was a presumably experienced guide involved who should have recognized the conditions for what they were). Simply saying 'they were advised the conditions were bad and pushed on nevertheless' doesn't quite cut it for me. Were there mitigating circumstances that tempted them? I'd like to know to avoid being tempted if I encounter similar circumstances in the future, and no source has so far provided these details. I was hopeful Alpinist might.

2015-10-03 13:44:47

Dear Sir,

Thank you for your very thorough and very clear article reporting on the Ecrins tragedy. My comment is more about the use of the noun "Mountain police" than anything else. The PGHM - Peloton de gendarmerie de haute montage = mountain gendarmerie rescue platoon — is a rescue unit which is part of the Gendarmerie (still part of the Armed Forces) and not from the Police. They share/rotate mountain rescue in the French Alps with Police Rescue Unit, which are called CRS -Compagnie republicaine de securite - . They are equally competent but have a different status. The unit is based in Briancon, at the bottom of the Ecrins massif.

Best regards, Y. Durieux.

2015-09-17 15:56:12
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