Sixty years ago, in January 1954, devastating avalanches swept across Austria’s Vorarlberg state. In a 48-hour period 388 avalanches were observed. The aftermath was disastrous; 270 burials resulting in 125 deaths, 55 houses and hundreds of farm buildings were destroyed, and 500 cattle were killed. The Grosswalsertal valley and the village of Blons were the hardest hit. Ultimately, the avalanche cycle led to improved knowledge, practices and tools in avalanche dynamics, the construction of stronger defense structures, and more focused avalanche forecasting. Surprisingly, little has changed in 60 years when it comes to avalanche rescue.
After an exceptionally warm and dry autumn, the first real snows did not fall until just before Christmas and were followed by two weeks of cold, dry weather. By the second week of January high pressure had formed over the Bay of Biscay and low pressure over Scandinavia. The combination resulted in a strong and moist northwesterly flow that swept into Austria’s Northern Alps on January 9. By January 11, up to 2 meters of snow had fallen across Vorarlberg, and heavy snow continued to fall. Here is survivor Robert Dobner’s description of the scene: “It was dark on Monday, so full of snow, the air was.”
As the storm continued to rage, temperatures had also started to warm. Heavy, warmer snow fell onto cold, light snow. On Monday morning the Avalanche Warning System’s bulletin, read over local radio warned, “The danger of avalanches has become extremely serious and is still increasing.”
High above Blons the widely-spaced trees, dilapidated snow fences, and walls were no match for the deep, fresh snows. A huge avalanche released from the Flavkopf and slammed into the east side of the village at 10:00. Eighty-two residents were buried, most in houses or barns, and 34 died. A small avalanche late that afternoon killed another person, and at 21:00 a second monstrous avalanche fell from Mont Calv and hit the village center. Forty-three people were buried, including 16 who had been buried in the morning’s avalanche, and another 22 died.
The storm had knocked out power and telephone service even before the first avalanche struck. Word of the village’s plight did not reach rescuers until a day later. The first rescuers did not reach Blons until January 13 and an international rescue effort soon followed. Rescuers from Germany, Switzerland, and the United States soon joined Austrian rescuers. The US Air Force flew 99 helicopter flights to Blons transporting rescuers, evacuating injured patients, as well as dropping off 11,000 kg of relief supplies. The Swiss Air-Rescue dispatched 14 rescuers, 6 dog teams, and 2 helicopters, as well as a DC-3 with 5 rescue paratroopers and 2 doctors.
In terms of the rescue, the tools used 60 years ago are still today’s predominate means to find people — probe poles, shovels, and dogs — especially when victims are in homes, or when they are not equipped with transceivers or reflectors. Today, across the developed world, avalanches crashing into villages are rare, but in the backcountry and in off-piste areas outside resorts, only about 50% of buried victims carry avalanche transceivers. In other words, about half of avalanche victims are not searchable. For these people rescuers still rely on the same tools used more than half a century ago.
About half of the buried victims in Blons survived and most were found quickly; however, some were buried for many hours. The last survivor was freed after 62 hours. Post-mortem studies of those killed found; “Only a few of the victims died at the moment they were struck by the avalanche. Most died later.” As modern rescuers we should not be asking, “Is the buried victim dead?” Rather we should be asking, “Might the buried victim still be alive?”