French ski patroller dies after avalanche in Switzerland’s Valais

UPDATED: A French ski patroller has died as a result of injuries received when an avalanche struck a ski slope in the canton of Valais on Tuesday, local police have confirmed.

French ski patroller dies after avalanche in Switzerland’s Valais
Rescue workers search the avalanche site in Valais on Tuesday. Photo: Valais Police

Police said on Twitter that the 34-year-old had died overnight in the hospital in the city of Sion.

Three other people received minor injuries after the large avalanche hit the Plaine-Morte ski slope in Crans-Montana at around 2.15pm yesterday.

A huge search operation immediately got underway for possible further victims after local, unconfirmed reports suggested as many as 10 to 12 people may have been hit by the avalanche.

However, on Wednesday morning, police in Valais said they were suspending the search.

They said no further victims had been found beneath the snow and there were no further indications that more people were missing. However, search operations would continue if it became necessary.

Crans-Montana's website had on Tuesday listed the risk of an avalanche at two on a scale that runs from one (lowest risk) to five. 

The site of the avalanche in Crans Montana on Tuesday. Photo: AFP/Valais Police

The vast majority of deadly avalanches in the Alpine nation hit people skiing off-piste. 

“We don't know yet whether the avalanche detached by itself or was set off by skiers, or a rockfall,” Swiss avalanche expert Robert Bolognesi told the 20 Minutes news site.

An investigation has now been launched into the incident.

Plaine-Morte, at an altitude of about 3,000 metres, is the highest ski slope at Crans-Montana.

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Weather warning: Part of Swiss Alps placed on high avalanche alert

Due to the heavy snowfall in recent days and more expected until the weekend, an avalanche warning is issued for Switzerland’s southern canton of Valais.

Weather warning: Part of Swiss Alps placed on high avalanche alert
Avalanche warnings should be taken very seriously. Photo by AFP

Valais authorities said the current avalanche risk level is between 4 and 5, meaning ‘high’ to ‘extreme’.

The population is urged to stay at home. When out, they should obey the signs and especially stay away from the avalanche corridors, officials warned.

Significant amounts of snow have fallen in the area in recent days, dumping 1 metre of snow above the altitude of 2,000 metres in the upper part of the canton. Between 30 and 40 centimetres are still expected. 

The highest risk of avalanches is in the Goms valley, the Zermatt valley, as well as the entire right bank of the Rhône. 

Some particularly threatened areas could even be evacuated, authorities said.

People planning to go skiing in Valais over the next few days should check snow conditions and avalanche warnings in place, especially as many roads, mainly in Upper Valais, are cut off, and a number of villages in the Goms Valley, Lötschental and the Zermatt region are no longer accessible by road or train. 

The Avalanche Bulletin is a good source of information not just for Valais, but for all of Switzerland’s mountain regions.

READ MORE: Is the pandemic to blame for Switzerland's spate of avalanche deaths? 

Avalanches have been particularly deadly in Switzerland this winter, having claimed 14 lives so far — well above the average yearly figure of eight people.

Avalanches have caused casualties in the mountains of Valais, Vaud, Graubünden, Obwalden and Schwyz. 

With many people concerned about the potential for contracting coronavirus on the slopes, the idea of skiing off piste has become more attractive. 

But this practice can trigger massive avalanches, so it is crucial to stay away from unsecured slopes.

READ MORE: Large crowds on Swiss ski slopes spark concern over coronavirus spread