Too often in the past the beauty of the French Alps in winter has been disfigured by terrifying avalanches.
Too often in the past the beauty of the French Alps in winter has been disfigured by terrifying avalanches. There have been many deaths. Mountainside chalets and entire villages have been engulfed by millions of tons of snow roaring down the steep slopes with the speed of an express train. While the French authorities cannot stop the snow movements, they are putting into operation an "avalanche early warning system".
For months teams of "snow investigators" have been trained to detect changes in snow structure which could indicate the possibility of the onset of an avalanche. On Tuesday (December 15) the 20 strong team of observers will officially begin their vital and, hopefully, life-saving work.
Using expensive and highly sophisticated equipment, the experts will put into practice all they have learnt in recent months. Digging deep trenches on the snow down to soil or rock level, the snow-testers measure density, resistance, structure and the condition of individual snow flakes.
Their findings are fed back to the Centre of Snow Studies at Grenoble where the information is examined and assessed. It is hoped that the scientific research will enable the scientists to give ample warning of an impending snow slide, thus enabling any townships or settlements in the predicted path of the avalanche to be evacuated.
Avalanches are not uncommon occurrences in the French Alps. More often than not they present little danger to persons or property. But sometimes the cascading were of snow leaves a trail of death and destruction in its wake.
One such occasion was in February of this year. Val d'Isere, a popular ski resort 6,000 feet (1840 metres) up in the Alps near the Italian border, was full of winter vacationers. The date was February 10. Hotel and hostels were packed with sportsmen and women waiting for a break in the blinding snowstorms and blizzards which were raging.
Then the avalanche began its dread journey down the mountain towards the unsuspecting resort.
Forty-two people were killed when a deadly wave of fine, powdery snow smashed into a youth hostel where 190 young people and 40 ski instructors were staying.
Survivors spoke of the dizzying speed of the avalanche, its terrible roaring sound -- and of their luck in being alive.
Miraculously the death toll was not higher. There were over 10,000 people in Val d'Isere when the avalanche struck.
Since that terrible day the French authorities have worked rapidly towards averting a similar catastrophe. This year will be a time of test. The anti-avalanche team will keep an hour-by-hour check on the state of the snow. Any changes in its temperature and structure will be noted. If there are any signs of impending danger early warnings will be given to all those liable to be affected.
This season the hope is that the snow will not bring death to the unsuspecting who have gone to the mountains for pleasure -- modern technology, perhaps will be the life-saver.