Swiss Off-Piste Accident May Change The Rules

An upcoming criminal trial regarding an off-piste avalanche may change how off-piste skiing in Switzerland is done. Last December, the Christmas holiday season was in full swing at Anzere (a medium-sized ski resort in Valais), and powder snow still blanketed the peaks. On 27 December 2009 three off-piste skiers triggered an avalanche that swept on to an open ski run burying a 15-year-old girl and injuring two other skiers. The rescue operation was fast, large, and expensive. Fortunately, the girl was found quickly and survived. To rescue the three and to clear the avalanche to ensure no others were buried involved 130 people, 8 avalanche rescue dogs, and 3 helicopters. The entire operation cost an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Swiss Francs (about the same in US Dollars).

In late October the three middle-aged skiers were charged with “obstructing public traffic through negligence.” The three, all medical doctors, helped in the initial search and rescue. Days later they were identified by police, and this is the first time in Switzerland that officials have been able to identify the person or persons who triggered an avalanche that swept onto an open ski run. In the past, it seems, these people quietly slipped away.

A lawyer for one of the skiers feels it will be difficult to prove negligence as the slope was already covered in tracks and was even used by ski school instructors to teach powder skiing.

If convicted, the three face up to three years imprisonment or large fines. In addition to criminal penalties, the three will also be expected to reimburse the search and rescue costs. The ski resort’s insurance company already paid the rescue costs and will sue the skiers (if convicted) to recoup their expenses. The family of the 15-year-old girl is not involved in the legal actions and has waived any rights. They would like to “move on.”

Swiss ski resorts, insurance companies, avalanche experts, and skiers and snowboarders will be watching closely the trial and awaiting the verdicts. A conviction will clearly send a signal that off-piste skiing will be or should prohibited, at least in certain situations. This will mean resorts will have to take greater responsibility and effort to manage where their guests may or may not ski. Skiers and snowboarders will also lose the freedom to ride off pistes, again, at least in certain situations and circumstances. No trial date was mentioned in the news articles.

Dale Atkins, RECCO AB

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