As Olivier Gardet piloted the drone around the mountain, his colleague, who was looking through goggles connected to its infrared camera, could see the avalanche clearly: a long tongue of debris, visible from 2 kilometers away. Then he noticed the heat signature of a person moving across it, digging frantically in the churned up snow. “I got on the radio,” Gardet remembers, “and I said to dispatch: ‘There must be someone alive under there.’”
As an experienced pisteur in the French ski resort of Val Thorens, it’s Gardet’s job to keep the slopes safe. But that day he had his work cut out. “It had been snowing heavily the evening before and through the night, so we’d had a lot of calls about avalanches,” he remembers. As part of a newly launched pilot scheme, he and his colleague had been responding to some of these calls using the latest addition to their slope-safety toolbox: a DJI Matrice 210 drone. “Of course, the majority of the time, there’s nothing; the avalanches are nowhere near people,” Gardet says. But in the case of this particular slide, off the back of a 2,804-meter-high peak called Pointe de la Masse, the drone instantly proved its worth.
From receiving the initial radio alert to having “eyes” on the debris, Gardet estimates that the scouting mission took less than a minute—far less than it would to survey an avalanche using traditional methods. The closest pisteurs were dispatched in double-quick time, and less than seven minutes after he’d raised the alarm they’d pulled the grateful skier, a 70-year-old Belgian man, out of the snow.
Val Thorens’ pioneering drone program—launched in 2019, but still the only one of its kind—is just one of the ways that skiers throughout the Alps are embracing new technology to meet the rising threat of avalanches. With the climate crisis causing increasingly wild swings in winter temperatures, slides are becoming harder to predict, according to Patrick Nairz of the European Avalanche Warning Services (EAWS). “It’s become more challenging for avalanche forecasters, the situation right now,” he says. “You don’t see those long cold periods so often anymore, and then you see more often rain high up, which leads to development of weak layers in the snowpack.”
At the same time, the number of people skiing in uncontrolled backcountry terrain, where avalanches are most likely, has exploded in the past 20 years. Wider skis, which float better in powder snow, have made it easier for less-experienced skiers to venture off the beaten piste, and although the nature of exploring outside resort boundaries means that data on participant numbers is difficult to come by, Nairz guesses that in Austria, where he’s based, “there are something like five to 10 times more [backcountry skiers] than 20 years ago.”
Equipment sales figures also indicate an upward trend. In the US, sales of touring gear, which allows skiers to explore where there are no lifts, have grown exponentially, making it the fastest-growing segment of the market in the past decade. The discipline was given a further boost during the outdoor exercise boom of the pandemic, with sales of backcountry accessories up 150 percent, according to Snowsports Industries America, a research body. In Europe, where most ski lifts were closed for the best part of two winters, many shops sold out of ski touring equipment.
These factors might be expected to combine into a perfect storm. But despite the growing unpredictability of winter and the increase in backcountry skiers, the number of avalanche fatalities in Europe has remained largely unchanged. EAWS data shows that although yearly death tolls fluctuate, the 10-year mean average has stayed static since the mid-’90s. “Yes it’s more or less the same,” says Patrick Nairz, “and if you check the last 40 years, or the last 20 years, there’s actually a downward trend.”
Various technologies have helped play their part in this, he believes, not least improvements in the avalanche forecasting that he and his colleagues undertake. “In the beginning, you just had some observers outside in the field who dug pits to look at snow profiles and conducted stability tests. Then they called by phone and they told you about the snow in that spot,” he says. These days, however, forecasters work with sophisticated snowpack simulation models, allowing them to predict risks with increasing accuracy all over the Alps.