During a 25-day period beginning in late January 1999, some 18 feet of snow fell on the central Alps, touching off avalanches that killed 75 people and stranded tens of thousands in remote villages. “In the past 400 years there has never been such an avalanche,” says Leo Walter, town secretary of Galtür, Austria, where in February two avalanches collided and raced through town at 155 miles an hour. Thirty-one people were buried alive.
The carnage in Galtür was just one focal point in a wave of destruction that swept the Alps as the massive snowfalls piled up. Another was the Chamonix valley, where eight feet of snow fell in two days, setting up a two-story avalanche that destroyed 17 chalets and buried six others in the ski villages of Le Tour and Montroc-le-Planet. Twelve people were killed. Much of the damage was attributed to overpopulation. “One hundred years ago Chamonix had 2,500 inhabitants. In the winter we now have 55,000,” notes Chamonix spokesperson Claude Marin.
Because of the incredible volumes of snow, this year’s victims weren’t just off-piste skiers and snowboarders — dozens of whom are killed in the Alps every year — but also unsuspecting tourists and locals. Many were asleep when the avalanches hit. “People did not believe it could happen,” says Paul Föhn of the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research. Though Föhn and others had called attention to the danger, their warnings often went unheeded. The body of one Swiss goat herder who had refused to abandon his house and goats was recovered nearly 1,000 feet down the mountain.
Galtür’s victims, however, were in a zone that had been rated avalanche safe by the Austrian government — further indication that avalanches are a menace that won’t easily be tamed. “In the mountains not everything can be explained,” says Marin. “Even experts make mistakes.”