For the past week heavy snowfall has left large areas of Austria paralysed and its ski areas struggling to cope.
On Saturday three men were killed in an avalanche near the resort of Lech in the Arlberg ski area – one of the places worst affected by the recent storms. The search for a fourth person was stopped due to poor conditions.
According to local police the men were skiing on a closed route, the Langerzug, accessed via one of the resort’s main gondolas, the Rüfikopf.
The off-piste itinerary route is described by the resort as “only for professionals. One of the steepest, if not the steepest ski run in Austria”. At the time, the avalanche risk in the resort was set at three, out of five, meaning slides on steep slopes are probable; today the risk is at its highest, five.
The latest deaths adds to a growing list of fatalities, with at least five more reported in Austria in the past week.
Last week 2,000 people were trapped in villages and resorts cut off from the outside world. Today again resorts have had to close access roads, with Lech Tourist Office advising "arrival to and departure from Lech Zürs is currently not possible" due to the main road into the resort, the Flexenpass, being shut for safety reasons.
Many experts have suggested this could be the most snow in the region for nearly 30 years.
While Austria had its fair share of headlines last winter - when heavy snow came to the French Alps - it was nothing compared to the current situation in many of the country’s most popular ski resorts in particular those lying to the west of the country towards Switzerland, including St Anton and Kitzbühel.
The latest reports show snow depths in St Anton, in the Austrian Tirol, are currently 330cm on the highest slopes and 95cm down in the resort, with a further 50cm expected to fall today. The avalanche risk in the resort, which shares the Arlberg ski area with Lech, St Christoph, Stuben, Zürs, Warth and Schröcken, is extremely high. The entire Tirol region around St Anton is currently covered by a risk warning of four or five out of five.
To the far east of the region in Kitzbühel, home to the legendary Hahnenkamm ski race, due to take place at the end of January, currently only 55 per cent of its ski area is open, while staff work to make pistes safe and lifts accessible. The avalanche risk here remains at four. It’s unclear as to whether the world-famous race will take place if the weather doesn’t ease.
Further west in the Voralberg region, home to Lech, the rating is the same, between four and five. The local weather advises there is a "critical amount of fresh snow on weak layers". It is expected that the number and size of avalanches will increase with further snowfall and wind during the day. The region’s forecast describes "extremely inhospitable conditions on the mountains with fog, storms and heavy snowfall".
In his latest report for The Telegraph avalanche safety expert Henry Schneiwind from Henry’s Avalanche Talk suggested Austria is set for a great season once the weather calms down, but the current risk is extreme. “With an avalanche danger rating of five, pay attention to closed roads, closed pistes and avoid the off-piste completely. In avalanche danger rating four stay a long way away from all slopes that are 30 degrees are more, only go off-piste with a qualified off-piste instructor or mountain guide,” he advises.
Weather reports shows it will also continue to snow in Innsbruck, where the surrounding areas are under the highest risk of avalanches, and also in Salzburg, home to the two main access airports for most of the country’s resorts. Visitors should expect some delays as planes are defrosted and the routes for pilots into the runways is made even more difficult that usual.
A period of such extreme weather brings mixed blessings to ski resorts, which must work tirelessly to keep visitors and staff safe and happy as well as facilities in operation both in the short and long term.
A statement from the Austrian Tirol tourist board said: “According to experts from the Regional Warning Centre, the Avalanche Warning Office, the Flood and Avalanche Prevention Service as well as representatives from the Emergency Services, Tirol is very well prepared for the current weather and snow conditions. Although the situation is an unusual one, it is absolutely under control right now.”
John Armstrong, from myweather2.com, said: “Given the forecast, and the sheer volume of new snow that’s fallen, it’s easy to see that many areas won’t be accessible to skiers again until well into the week, or even beyond. If the snowstorms finally clears as expected around Tuesday, and as resorts come to terms with the massive quantities of snow and start opening up access to more terrain, expect epic powder conditions of a level seldom seen in the Alps."
Due to the heavy snowfall, the ladies FIS Ski World Cup super-G and downhill races scheduled to take place in St Anton over the weekend was cancelled.
The Austrian Ski Federation stated “workers' safety cannot be guaranteed,” resulting in the competition being rescheduled in Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy for the upcoming weekend.
Ski Sunday presenter Ed Leigh was out in St Anton last week, where filming was due to take place – the crew have now had to move locations. “It’s heartbreaking leaving snow like this. The course workers were heartbroken too, apparently they were in tears after a 72 hour shift clearing the snow, when it got called off finally.”
Safety is the number one priority in all resorts now and many advise that while off-piste areas are to be avoided it is safe to ski or snowboard on the pistes that are open. Visitors should read the latest bulletins produced by the resorts, who prioritise making areas around the pistes safe first, before venturing into the off-piste areas.
Leigh, a former-pro snowboarder shared picture of himself enjoying the incredible conditions on his social media. “Considering there has been over 3m of snow the valley has coped incredibly well, opening the mountain sensibly,” said Leigh.
“It will be a truly monstrous base of snow here in the Arlberg once it is done,” he continued.