look back at a tragedy that changed mountain risk prevention

look back at a tragedy that changed mountain risk prevention

On February 10, 1970, an avalanche fell on a holiday center in Val d’Isère in Savoie. Balance sheet: 39 dead, mainly children and adolescents. In his documentary “Val d’Isère, the lessons of a disaster”, Julien Guéraud tells how this tragedy has changed the management of risks in the mountains.

It’s well known: the mountains win you over! And sometimes it kills you. Like this February 10, 1970 in Val d’Isère. It is 8 am, breakfast time for the children and teenagers of the UCPA holiday centre. They are in the refectory and 39 of them will not come out alive. A gigantic flow of snow blew up the bay window of the building and rushed in, blocking everything in its path.

“I had seen things but at this point, never. It was a terrible day. “

Jean-Lou Costerg, first to arrive at the scene of the tragedy

At the time, Jean-Lou Costerg was a ski-rescue instructor. A neighbor of the UCPA, he was the first on the scene. He remembers : “The snow was coming out of the openings in the building. A person was calling for help and then there were screams coming from everywhere. I called the emergency services. I was so shocked by what I saw and heard that my first instinct was to turn around…I had seen some things but at this point…Never. It was a terrible day.”

The drama makes the opening of the television news. It is, in 250 years, the biggest catastrophe due to an avalanche. A national trauma in a country which since 1964 has been rolling out its snow plan. The ski resorts are multiplying, the houses to welcome the tourists too. Concrete grows wherever there is room: ” We built ski factories and we were proud of them, says the former director of Les Arcs slopes. In the context of the time, that’s what we did best.”

The families of the victims are turning to justice. The mayor, the department, the national education have neglected the safety instructions. The State and the municipality are recognized jointly and severally liable. The holiday center was built where the risks of avalanches were known. What no one had ever reported.

The disaster shook people’s minds and acted like an electric shock: a national policy for the prevention of mountain risks was launched. The idea is that it doesn’t happen again.

Avalanche dikes are built, wooden, metal or rock-cut racks flourish on the slopes. But prevention comes up against land pressure until February 9, 1999. That day, an avalanche hits the hamlet of Montroc, near Chamonix. Balance sheet: 12 dead including the son of Jean-Claude Bourdais: “Val d’Isère in 70 and Montroc in 99, it’s the same thing. We knew it was dangerous. We built anyway and we warned no one.” The mayor of Chamonix is ​​found guilty by the courts.

In 2005, Jean-Claude Bourdais and other relatives of victims, founded the AIRAP (association for information on the risks of urban avalanches). The objective is to oblige the State to take into account in the urban plans, the avalanches of which one finds the trace up to 300 years behind. At the time, in France, it was only 100 years old.

Today in the French Alps, 161 municipalities are affected by these exceptional avalanche risks. So Jean-Claude Bourdais makes the rounds of municipal meals to remind the necessary and mandatory standards of avalanche corridors.

“Today we have to manage the behavior of people who come to consume the mountains…”

Jérémy Vallas, Mayor of Vallorcine

In Vallorcine in Haute-Savoie, only 20% of the territory is avalanche-free. The mayor’s statement is without appeal: ” Total safety is impossible. The best is anticipation, educating people to lead them to the least risky behavior possible. So today we manage the behavior of people who come to consume the mountains. Zero risk does not exist and it will never exist.

So much for the valley bottoms. Because on the sides of the mountains it is up to the trackers and snow experts to prevent the risk. The former regularly measure the stability of the snowpack, which is less and less stable with global warming. Measures which make it possible to better anticipate avalanches, or even to trigger them when necessary. What do the latter who are responsible for the safety of the slopes do?

“You can go anywhere but you have to do it intelligently.”

Laurent Langueur, tracker-rescuer at Grands Montets

For Laurent Langueur, tracker-rescuer at Grands Montets in Haute-Savoie, there is no question of banning: “We have cross-country skiers who leave when the avalanche risk is 4. It’s a shame not to find out. It could avoid accidents. It’s important to keep the mountain free. We can go everywhere but it’s you have to do it intelligently, with common sense. When you don’t know, you ask.” Frédéric Jarry of ANENA (national association for the study of snow and avalanches) notes for his part that the average number of deaths due to avalanches has increased from 30 to 26 deaths per year. year in a decade. “A decrease due to prevention, to less risk taking by practitioners and above all to the improvement of on-board rescue means and the speed of intervention of mountain rescue services.”

On the other hand, to better prepare skiers-hikers, the association “La Chamoniarde” regularly organizes courses to learn to read the mountain.

Perhaps the solution lies with the ancients, those who knew how to listen and observe.

Anne and Erik Lapied are among them. Documentary filmmakers and animal photographers, they live in a hamlet in the heart of the mountains. They explain that it is built on a rocky outcrop that avalanches bypass. And to add: “We trust the ibexes. When they are at the foot of the big rocks, we say to ourselves that we shouldn’t go there.” And they don’t go…

The mountain wins you over and to prevent it from killing you it is important to behave with common sense. There is the responsibility of politicians, local authorities, mountain professionals and that of each and everyone.

“Val d’Isère, the lessons of a catastrophe” gives voice to those who fight to ensure that the mountains remain the safest possible space of freedom.

“Val d’Isère, the lessons of a disaster” by Julien Guéraud, a co-production Mona Lisa Production and francetv AURA, to discover on Thursday May 25 at 10:45 p.m. in the documentary box La France en Vrai, on France3 Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and already available on france.tv

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