All photos by Nick Heil

More than 100 skiers died in the Alps this winter. Was it just a bad year or is this the new norm?

The Alps are some of the most spectacular—and accessible-—high-altitude terrain on earth. But between climate change and a growing number of backcountry users, the avalanche-fatality forecast does not look good.

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Jun 25 2015, 3:55pm

All photos by Nick Heil

It takes about 20 minutes for Chamonix's Auguille du Midi cable car to hoist you 6,000 vertical feet from the valley floor to the summit—a soaring granite dagger in the heart of the French Alps. In April, I was crammed into this tram, surrounded by visitors from around the world. Some were pasty pedestrians armed with large cameras, but many were ruddy amateur adventurers dressed in a rainbow assortment of Gore-Tex outerwear, including rock and ice climbers, paragliders, speed fliers, base jumpers, and, like me, backcountry skiers.

There's a reason people refer to Chamonix as the "death-sports capital of the world." High-mountain access from the Midi is ridiculously easy, and the surrounding area is literally teeming with extreme-sports enthusiasts, many of them there for Mont Blanc, which at 15,781 feet is the highest point in the Alps.

This is Mecca for "off-piste" skiers (Europeans typically don't use the term "backcountry"). Steep-skiing junkies can drop into a handful of sphincter-clinching chutes right from the tram station, literally scrambling over the observation-deck railing and rappelling to the start. The Midi is also the jumping-off point for the world-famous Vallee Blanche ski tour, and many others, like the Haute Route, a weeklong ski along the crest of the Alps.

From the top of the tram, I followed a train of skiers through a small gate and along a knife edge—so steep on either side that a fixed rope is installed throughout the winter—and across the Geant Glacier where, within an hour, I was staring down between my ski tips at a 40-degree slope. My small guided group included a pro skier from Norway, two amateurs from Belgium and England, and my guide, a tan, friendly Swiss chap named José. I'm always nervous in the backcountry, but here I was particularly so. It had been a bad year for skiers in the Alps, and the last thing any of us wanted was to add to the statistics.

Since January, more than 100 skiers had died in the Alps, most of them buried by avalanches, including three Americans. On January 5, two junior members of the U.S. Ski Team, Ronnie Berlack, 20, and Bryce Astle, 19, were killed in an avalanche near Solden, Austria. On January 23, Dave Rosenbarger, 38, a big-mountain freeskier based in Chamonix, was also caught and killed in an avalanche while steep skiing near Mont Blanc.

The annual mortality rate for skiers in the Alps is difficult to determine mostly because the Alps span several countries and record keeping varies. But the average is fewer than 100 deaths per year. In the U.S., an average of 28 people—including snowmobilers and other recreators—die in avalanches each year. Last year, avalanches killed 11 skiers in the U.S., according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Had North America experienced a year like Europe's, it would have led the news.

Are the winter Alps a death trap? The numbers tell a story, but not quite a complete one. Putting the seemingly high number of deaths in perspective requires an understanding of off-piste skiing in Europe and how it compares to backcountry skiing in North America. There are, for example, many more folks using the winter backcountry across France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and Germany, where ski touring is a more mainstream form of winter recreation, compared to North America, where it is growing but still a fringe sport.

Entrance to the Vallee Blanche from the Aguille du Midi.

During my visit to Chamonix, I tried to find out why so many people died in the mountains this year. One afternoon, I met up with James Moreland, a British guide based in Chamonix for the past 14 years. This year was just another year in the death-sports capital of the world, he told me as we sipped espresso at the Elevation, a popular local watering hole. But he felt that the local mountains, and the Alps in general, were becoming overcrowded.

Moreland described Chamonix as an "outdoor Disneyland" where accidents were commonplace. He told me about driving into town one afternoon and watching a paraglider come crashing down onto trees along the road. Another day, he and a few friends were sitting at an outdoor cafe when a speed flier—a popular sport that combines steep skiing with paragliding—came crashing into a hedge next to the restaurant. "It's a total shit show," Moreland said.

When I asked him about this season (France had 36 deaths in the winter of 2015, up from 21 the year before), he pointed to sketchy conditions and a lot of users making an already dangerous situation worse.

"You just have more people exposing themselves to objective hazards," he said. "It also fosters this level of competition, people who want to get out first and get first tracks."

Europeans don't have "wilderness," in our sense of the term. In North America, big-mountain access is typically more challenging, often involving long approaches through remote terrain. Our wilderness ethic, and the ways we use the wilderness, has bred a high degree of self-sufficiency, and in some cases, wariness, into backcountry outings. Compare this to the Haute Route, a multi-day tour from Chamonix to Zermatt, where the high alpine terrain is studded with dozens of large, comfy chalets, some that sleep more than a hundred guests, with full-service restaurants and beer on tap.

In the U.S., we also have fewer opportunities for guided excursions than in the Alps. In Chamonix, for example, you can walk into the Guides Bureau downtown and hire a guide [1] on the spot. No matter your level of experience, your guide will take into terrain that's epic on a global scale. You simply follow along, doing as your told, and everything will be fine. Most of the time.

Touring above Le Grand Montet, Argentiere, France.

To help me understand the differences between American and European guiding culture, I met with Jean Marie Olianti, 67, a life-long Chamonix native. Olianti has been guiding for more than 40 years, including 40 trips on the Haute Route and more than 180 ascents of Mont Blanc. He is an esteemed member of the Compagnie des Guides, the oldest organization of its kind in the world. The Compagnie offers anyone who walks through their doors any kind of guided mountain activity they wish, from an easy hike to skiing the 45-degree Cosmic Couloir.

"The European guides, the French guides, we are very safe," Olianti told me over a glass of wine one evening. "But [guiding] can be tricky. The French don't talk much. The Americans, they need more attention. Sometimes, they need someone right next to them telling them how good they are."

Oliante was joking, somewhat, but he was also hitting on some important distinctions. Most backcountry skiers in the U.S. pay close attention to the conditions and the terrain, a diligence required by the do-it-yourself attitude and approach to American wilderness. In the Alps, easy access invites beginners and intermediate skiers, many of them with little or no backcountry experience, into the mountains. Thus the conventional mantra: Do as the guide says and you'll be fine.

Unfortunately, that's not always how it shakes out. A particularly troubling period dogged the French guiding community a decade ago, when there was a notable spike in fatalities—not just among clients but guides. In 2004, nine guides died skiing and climbing, double the long-term average. That number was reached again in 2009, prompting the highly respected Ecole Nationale de Ski et d'Alpinism (ENSA), a national organization for guide training, to temporarily suspend its certification program and overhaul its training program.

Despite the serious, far-reaching implications—the Chamonix-based ENSA certifies dozens of instructors and guides each year— the shutdown barely got noticed. Ultimately, the consensus was that, while ENSA was hiring skilled athletes, the kind of decision-making that needed to accompany mountaineering ability was falling short. A revised training curriculum was drafted to ensure better judgment, and, accordingly, the rate of accidents declined.

Regardless of your guide's experience level, their conservative decision-making, or their country of origin, the weather and snow in the Alps have become more difficult to predict because of the increasingly dynamic weather patterns. Can you ski the same line now that you've safely skied a few dozen times during the past decade? Maybe. But then, again, maybe not.

Skier heading off piste at Le Grand Montets, Argentiere, France. Mont Blanc rises in the background.

Climate change has hit the Alps hard. Average winter temperatures are warming at an accelerating pace; storm systems are more volatile and erratic. This year was particularly tricky. Most of the people I spoke with mentioned a persistent weak layer of snow that set up early, deep in the snowpack. As more snow piled on top of the weak layer, and temperatures remained warm, the upper, moisture-laden layers became vulnerable to sliding, and it created a delicate situation that required extra vigilance.

During a particularly volatile weather cycle in March, I heard unconfirmed reports that as many as 15 people may have died in a three-week period. Skiers were stranded in the Haute Route refugios; some trying to escape to the valleys were reportedly swept over cliffs.

"It was terrifyingly unstable," says Tyler Jones, an American currently living in Norway who was ski touring the Haute Route at the time. "When the snow hit, it kind of caught a lot of groups. It was nuts how quickly people were getting taken out."

During the intense storm cycle in March that caught skiers in the backcountry, conditions were so bad that some guides either bailed or didn't go at all.

"There were five days or so where the entire valley was shut down," says Welshman Dougal Tavener, a Chamonix-based guide, and a professional skier and climber. "I've never seen anything like it. You should be able to see these systems approaching. And you always have the choice not to go."

Problem is, snow conditions and weather information isn't shared as aggressively or in as much detail in Europe as it is in North America. There aren't independent avalanche organizations, like the heavily relied-on CAIC in the U.S. While basic conditions are posted at places like the French Guides Bureau, in downtown Chamonix, that beta may be thin. Despite the long history of high-mountain guiding in the area—or perhaps because of it—avalanche forecasting lags behind North America.

That's one reason why Tavener and a handful of others, including American guide Miles Smart, created a private Facebook page to exchange information, trip reports, photos, and snow conditions. "It helps us make decisions, especially when the weather looks bad in town, but may be good up high. Or the other way around."

Nearly everyone I spoke with agreed that the winter of 2015 was a troubling one, fraught with unusual conditions. But no one I spoke with could point to any single factor leading to all the problems.

A few more winters will need to unfold before it's known if 100-plus deaths in a season is the new normal for the Alps. Locals in Chamonix tended to respond to this kind of speculation with a shrug: There are good years, and there are bad years. This was a bad year. On the bad years, extra vigilance may be what keeps a backcountry skier alive.

When American Tyler Jones and his group encountered dangerous conditions on the Haute Route, they managed it by bailing off the mountain and spending a few days sipping cappuccinos in town. The mountains could wait. A few days later they eased carefully back into the alpine environment and found some good skiing. "You just had to know where to go," he says.