Avalanche Accident Zürs am Arlberg


"The avalanche occurred on the Arlberg in the west of Austria in the Vorarlberg part, between the towns of Zürs and Lech below the Omeshorn. There were three of us, I was the only one with an ABS® backpack. I was the first to go down the slope and was the only one to be caught and, by and large, remained uninjured.

The avalanche situation report Tyrol announced danger level 3 down to 500m, due to rain just 2 days before, increased temperatures and fresh snow of 10-20cm the previous evening/night. The Vorarlberg avalanche situation report, on the other hand, predicted aDanger Level of 3 above 2300m and 2 below 2300m (both reports all exposures the same). Instead of consulting the less favorable report due to the border region, we decided on a route below the Omeshorn of northeastern exposure with a steep slope, which would have been passable in more favorable conditions (a "real" avalanche level 2) according to the reduction method (Werner Munter, SLF) (below the critical height, small group, only individually on the slope).

We skied to the point above the steep slope where we wanted to enter. The snow turned out to be wet and heavy. At the point of entry, we found that the slope was steeper than expected. Although I knew better, and although I "normally" would never have skied this slope in this constellation, I was the first (and only one with an ABS® backpack) to enter the slope, looking for what I thought was a safe spot (a crest).

At that moment, a snow slab came loose below and above me. Immediately I pulled the release handle of my ABS® backpack, which felt slowly inflated, while I was already sliding / falling down the slope and buried by the snow. Since I never have my poles in the loops when freeriding, they were immediately gone. For a few seconds I felt myself sliding below the surface of the snow, trying to keep a breathing cavity clear with my hands. The skis were probably gone by this time. But I didn't manage to keep the snow away from my face, because the snow was coming from all sides and finally I had snow in my mouth. I thought for a few moments that I was about to suffocate. I had in these moments also no chance to spit out the snow, let alone to take new air. Suddenly, however, I felt myself coming to the surface and shoveled myself up with all my might until I was on the surface.

In the end, I slid on my butt with my legs buried in the snow for a few more feet and kept shoveling with all my might to avoid sinking again or tipping over in front and landing on my face (because I had a feeling this might happen). Then I stopped and after about 200m (maybe more?) of falling/sliding I was able to stand up without having to shovel myself free. During the slide, I basically remained in a sitting position facing downslope the entire time.

When I came to a stop, the ABS® backpack air bags looked like they had deflated slightly, but still seemed intact. My friend came down to me with his snowboard and retrieved my ski. Since I had no major injuries other than a sore hand and saw no further danger to myself, I immediately pulled out my cell phone and used it to call the third person who was still up there in safety. I told them to immediately hike back up the flat section above the steep slope and return to the secured ski area to avoid another breakaway or fall in the steep terrain on the hard surface that the avalanche had left behind. While gathering to exit the avalanche cone, I kept phone contact with her the entire time to ensure her safety (no more visual contact).

A rescue helicopter was overhead not two minutes after the avalanche had passed, but we turned it away with a NO sign formed with our arms, since there was no more danger and everyone was uninjured. In the end, we both skied down to the valley and the third person (my girlfriend) walked back to the secured ski area and skied down to the valley station. I sustained a few scratches to my face, a slight hairline fracture to my metacarpal and a hyperextension (?) to my left knee. My ski goggles were lost at some point during the avalanche, but had partially protected my face until then.

The reason for the avalanche accident is, in my eyes, mainly our own human error, due to an overly optimistic assessment of the avalanche situation, pushing the limits of the avalanche situation report, and an unhealthy group dynamic between me and my friend at that moment. We should have known that the critical slope section was very much at the limit of what was possible (over 40° steep) and that the avalanche situation was more like a danger level of 3 than 2, even if the LLB seemed more favorable, especially since the critical slope was at the limit of the LLB's danger levels. It was the first good weather day after many days of fog and it was our last day for this ski week, as well as the first time in a while that we could freeride together. Accordingly, we were looking for a highlight while being distracted by the real situation on the ground. I am "normally" a defensive, rational freerider. Often on the road alone, even for lack of an alternative, but always only compatible with the current mix of avalanche situation report and observation and always willing to do without in order to avoid unnecessary risk. This time I let myself in on an exciting but for the given situation too dangerous route, in order not to stand there as a killjoy. This was the real mistake. I should have said NO. Nevertheless, my friend is not to blame, at least not more than me, because I just did not say no.

The worst part of the situation for me is that I didn't have the courage to disagree and stop the tour, thus protecting the three of us. Instead, I pursued selfish goals, like proving something to myself and the others and not looking like an overprotective killjoy. Thank goodness I had an ABS backpack and was the first to enter the slope. The backpack saved my life in my eyes, but since I wasn't in the same avalanche without a backpack, of course I can't prove that flawlessly."

Foto: Tegan Mierle