Saas-Fee: Deathly trap for skiers

Saas Fee is a famous ski-station in Switzerland: A nice town where only little electric cars are allowed, surrounded by seven 4.000-meter peaks and, apparently the right place to ski. Nobody could suspect that in the heart of Switzerland a deathly danger is hidden due to negligence, greed or a mix of both.

Past December 3th, I arrived with my family to Saas Fee. The taxi driver was happy and told us that we brought the snow since that day started a heavy snowfall that should remain for several days. Ski station was immediatly opened: Snow was arriving later than expected and a sense of urgency drove them to a fast opening,  even though one of the cabins and many slopes were out-of-service. To reach the beginners’ slopes it was only an available access: It was a cabin ascending from the town level -about 2.000 mts.- to the 2.900 meters level where the easiest slopes where serviceable.

After two days skying, our nightmare started on Wednesday 7th: Our 6-year old child died but I would like to show the facts: Nothing is going to return the life of my son but perhaps this warning message could avoid others getting trapped by similar facts. That is why I ask my friends to spread this message.

At 10 a.m. the kid had an individual ski-lesson programmed; it was individual only because the ski-station had been so recently opened that no groups were still available. We do not have any objection to a group of little skiers but, if so, an individual class should be supposed to be even safer. At the moment of the class, I was ready to go up but I knew that the boy would want to remain with me instead of going with the instructor becoming unmanageable. That is why I decided to wait a few minutes to go up in the next cabin instead of going with them.

The instalation has some clear shortcomings: After leaving the cabin, loading the skies, it is required to go out of the building only to access another one and, inside it, to walk with ski-boots and skies on the shoulders around 200 mts. getting finally outside.  Once there, everyone had to advance a few more meters to find a wide place where to wear the skies. Not a good starting point. All of this only to go to the easiest slope available there, marked with blue color.

When I arrived outside, it was clear that an avalanche had happened at a moment that I could not determine but the path from the building to the blue slope simply had dissapeared. The absence of rescue services or machines made me think that the avalanche could have been provoked in the night and the place had to be cleaned. I heard some skiers who came in the same cabin and coming from Spain complaining about the conditions of the way.  Only 4 hours after that, I would know that two friends, arrived about 30 minutes before me, found their way clean. In other words, the avalanche that I saw had not been provoked the night before but happened a few minutes ago.

It was a soft snowfall and the day was a bit foggy. Around noon, wind started to blow, not very hardly but enough to make an ugly -but apparently safe- day for skying. Since my arrival, I never saw the boy and the instructor even though not many people were at the ski-station and they were supposed to be in the only blue slope at the place. Since the day was not especially nice, I only could think at that moment that the instructor decided to go down to practice in little slopes near to the town.

When the time for the end of the class was near and we were supposed to meet at the coffee-shop in the ski-station, I phoned my wife to tell her that, instead of going up to meet me, they should remain down because the day was ugly enough not to have the boy skying with me as we made the two former days after his class. Finally, when my wife did not find them in the place we both supposed they had to be, we should get notice about the fact that an avalanche, supposedly happened at 11:45 had trapped them.

I want to emphasize the fact that it was a way, marked as a blue slope. However, it cannot be even properly considered as a slope but simply as the exit of the cabin station.

Station managers say that the avalanche happened at 11:45. Perhaps, but the plain truth is that around 10:30 another one had happened. In my opinion, that is the one that trapped them, perhaps while wearing the skies. That should explain why I did not see them in a place little enough to find each other a lot of times -as it happened the previous two days- and not very crowded,

From the point of view of survivability, that is extremely important: Nobody in the station seems to have perceived the first avalanche starting the rescue only after the second one, that is, more than an hour after.

However, if a strange miracle made the instructor and the boy to be hidden enough to not see them, a single fact remains: An avalanche happened around 10:30 and someone decided to keep way and station opened in the presence of a clear avalanche danger.

Since only one cabin was working -the one where the avalanche happened at 10:30 in the exit way- closing that way was almost equivalent to closing the station. Could this be the cause to keep it opened even with the evidence of the risk?

We cannot avoid trusting people that we do not know everytime we board a plane or a bus or a boat or visit the doctor or take the car to be repaired or…almost anything. After something like this, we cannot avoid checking every simple fact: We cannot find a single fact from our side that could be named as risky behavior. As far as we know -except in the case that the instructor could have some privileged information about the real risk or any new finding that could appear in the investigation- we cannot find either risky behavior from her part.

There is a single fact: The whole station or, at least, the specific place where even beginners were supposed to go safely, had to be closed. Who and why decided not to do it? The answer to this question is not going to return Rodrigo to us but the question itself can invite many of you to think if Saas-Fee people deserve the trust you put over their shoulders when you decide to go there. My answer is clear: I went with a 6-year child full of joy and came back with his little dead body inside a box.

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Un Comentario

  1. Cristina Garcia Del Villar

    Me he quedado impresionada con tu historia. Muy impresionada. LLevo casi 40 años esquiando y tengo 2 hijos que tambien esquian, por eso me ha impactado. He intentado dar contigo por correo electronico pero no lo he conseguido, para decirte que seria bueno que escribas este articulo en castellano y lo publiques en la web http://www.nevasport.com donde los amantes del esqui compartimos anecdotas, historias y noticias. Este articulo merece una pagina de portada en un periodico. No se puede jugar con la seguridad de los esquiadores. Tiene que conocerse para que todos estemos al tanto de como se actua en las estaciones de esqui.
    Un fuerte abrazo.
    Cristina Garcia.

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