The Austrian Way — Beacon Check or Jail


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

A French man has been convicted in Austria and received a three month suspended sentence for the equivalent of negligent manslaughter in the death of his wife in an avalanche. The couple was backcountry skiing in March of 2010 near Obertauern (an Austrian resort area). According to the man’s account, his wife headed down the slope first so he could assist in case of difficulties. When the man began skiing shortly after, he set off a medium sized slab avalanche which caught his wife. Her body was recovered a few hours later by the rescue services.

Both had transceivers, but they were switched off and in their backpacks. The husband is an experienced mountaineer and his wife was inexperienced. Because of this discrepancy, the man was accused of death through negligence, by leading his wife onto a dangerous slope and failing to ensure the correct use of their transceivers. This last aspect was apparently considered as the most critical information leading to the judgement even though the wife had serious head injuries. Also, according to reports she was buried more than a meter deep — another factor that in one sense shows the necessity of a beacon, but on the other hand would have slowed down the recovery substantially due to shoveling time. In other words, it’s not clear the lack of a beacon had any real cause in this death, though we’ll never know for sure and neither could a court of law.

On the website of Austrian Mountain Rescue (link below) a large article covers this incident in detail. They write that both the OeAV (Austrian Alpine Club) and the head of the mountain rescue services criticized the judgement, which hinges upon responsibility, since in a non-guided group there is a somewhat even sharing of responsibility for personal safety (as there should be to some extent even in a guided party).

Here at WildSnow we find this a tragic but at the same time fascinating series of events. First, the strange attitude that causes people to carry safety gear but keep it inactive is worrisome. A blatant example of this is when you see a cyclist with their helmet flopping around, dangling from their handlebars. Or in the case of backcountry skiing, when someone asks “should I turn on my beacon now?”

That said, what really caused this accident was a person knocking an avalanche down on someone below them. Let’s not let beacons and such obfuscate that basic issue. Indeed, if you’re going to be triggering avalanches on other people and killing them, wife or not, beacons or not, perhaps that’s manslaughter, pure and simple. After all, one of the primary indices of good avalanche safety practice is that only one person at a time is exposed to hazard.

Beyond all that, perhaps this judgment represents the creeping cancer of the blame game. That attitude that we should always find someone to point a finger at, and that someone is else, not me.

WildSnowers, your take?

Thanks David Gerrard for help with translation from Bergsteigen.at, our primary source for this article.

Comments

22 Responses to “The Austrian Way — Beacon Check or Jail”

  1. Dimi October 18th, 2011 9:42 am

    following the 10/11 season in Norway (highest avalanche fatality rate recorded, including a friend of a friend (not wearing an ABS system, her 2 companions were, and survived)) the Norwegian authorities are considering charging the person/persons responsible for triggering the slide if deemed that they showed negligence. In other words, they will send to to jail and send you the bill for the rescue efforts.

  2. Gerry Haugen October 18th, 2011 11:53 am

    Sounds like PBS’s Agatha Christie, Murder on the Salzburg Piste. It is easy to see how a prosecutor anywhere might bring that one to trial, as one might argue that the Frenchman’s actions were intended, preplanned, hence 1st degree murder. Far fetched, maybe not so much. Nonetheless I agree with your thoughts Lou, we as individual b.c. skiers have to recognize our personal responsibility- to ourselves and others to travel safely, choose the right terrain and minimize our risks while doing what we love. Backcountry mistakes don’t happen in a vacuum, and unintended consequences often prevail.

  3. Ron Rash October 18th, 2011 1:34 pm

    Are you and Lisa skiing together this coming season?

  4. Lou October 18th, 2011 2:18 pm

    Ron, excellent question (grin).

  5. Jen Dial Santoro October 18th, 2011 3:53 pm

    I wonder how experienced he was – or perhaps he was too comfortable in his surroundings. As a scared you-know-whatless newbie, I won’t ski until I see the other person hiding in a safe spot waving at me and returning the supervision I was giving them.

    I have also laughed at times because our habit is beacons on “from the car to the bar”. But maybe those habits are much like the seat belt or bike helmet on in the garage – they are habits, but they are effective ones. Needless to say, in driving and riding you still need to be defensive so that you don’t need those pieces of equipment. That’s the point – you wear safety equipment in case all other efforts fail, not as immediate protection.

  6. Chris Beh October 18th, 2011 8:20 pm

    The man killed his wife. Regardless of what punishment the authorities meted out he will suffer a lifetime punishment of guilt living with that. What a nightmare. If I did that to my wife and didn’t have my kids to care for I’d probably off myself.

  7. Will October 18th, 2011 10:45 pm

    This sounds like an interesting hypothetical on prosecutorial discretion and causation for a first year criminal law class . . . and a true tragedy in the real world.

  8. Jernej October 19th, 2011 1:34 am

    a small typo: Obertauern

    As far as resorts go I’d say it’s one of the top 5 in Austria (with lots of sidecountry potential) but also a great starting point for backcountry travel with several huts within easy reach.

  9. Wookie1974 October 19th, 2011 2:10 am

    Worrying. Sure – these people did lots wrong, but this is kind of a slippery slope problem. Here in Europe, the prevailing attitudes towards backcountry skiers is that we are all nuts, and reckless. Our going off the piste is irresponsible and makes us marginally criminal.
    Naturally – the “snow community” doesn’t see things this way – but tourists from Hamburg sure do – and they vote.
    At the end of the day – everyone is responsible for themselves in the BC. No buts. Anything else is just wishful thinking.

  10. Lou October 19th, 2011 6:05 am

    Jern, thanks. All, good comments. I’d agree that it seems ridiculous to prosecute this guy. On the other hand, I’m most certainly seen a lot of basic avalanche safety rules being broken over and over again, here and over the pond. If this sort of thing is going to happen (courts and such), perhaps it’ll at least remind people of the basics. Got me thinking, anyway…

  11. Matt October 19th, 2011 11:42 am

    Nice commentary, Lou. We follow a very similar chain of logic when looking at this accident. It was certainly a mistake not to turn the beacons on and wear them but it was not the greatest blunder of the day. First, the deceased is responsible for herself and safe skiing practices. Before heading into avalanche terrain even having read a basic primer would have instructed her to wait outside of a potential run out zone. The husband certainly should have noticed her waiting in the run out and potentially skied another line if possible. I’ve always found it interesting that the beacon is considered our first line of defense against avalanches. When leaving a resort boundary or skiing with a guide they always want to see the transceiver. I feel it’s a kind of “pay to play” mentality. Certainly no stranger in the EU.

  12. Lou October 19th, 2011 1:09 pm

    Transceiver as lucky charm, basically.

  13. Jack October 19th, 2011 3:04 pm

    This, to my mind, shows a distressing trend of legally apportioning blame in all places and types of accident.

    What’s next? Bringing criminal charges against avalanche survivors who don’t dig fast enough? I’m just a novice randonee skier, but a long time (>50 year) alpine skier. if I am the most experienced member of a ski party, do I have an automatic legal responsibility for everyone’s safety?

    What happened to Freedom of the Hills?

  14. John October 19th, 2011 10:24 pm

    There are too many details left out. Did the victim think she was out of harms way? Was the avalanche remotely triggered? Did it appear the victim was well out of harms way but a huge slab broke away?

    I know if I talked to my wife about a plan she would say “Yeah yeah yeah, I’ll be fine! I know what to do!” (No, my wife doesn’t ski the backcountry with me or anyone else)

    They say to ski with a partner, maybe it would be better to ski alone in Austria.

  15. Wookie1974 October 20th, 2011 1:51 am

    I think it’s no coincidence that this guy was french, John. I’ve lived in the Alps on the German-Austrian border for 15 years, and the amount of localism is impressive. (even when compared to some hot spots in the States like Jackson.)
    There is an attitude that no one from outside could ever be a real mountaineer skier, whatever….Locals here routinely kill and get killed doing just these sorts of things, but I’ve never seen a case resulting in litigation EXCEPT in those cases where the accused was an outsider.
    I have to rant, I guess. The closed nature of many of our mountain communities is shameful, and damaging….its the only thing that keeps me from being certain I will stay here for good.

    On another note: Any local link to the story? I’d like to do a little fact-checking. I couldn’t find anything in a quick google search.

  16. Jernej October 20th, 2011 2:16 am

    for Wookie: News @ Bergsteigen.at
    http://www.bergsteigen.at/de/bericht.aspx?ID=14340

  17. phil October 23rd, 2011 11:54 am

    The litigation is surely adding more than insult to injury. What if an old schooler was surfing on a long board without a leash, because he liked to walk to the nose and hang toes, and he lost his board, if the board hit some one in the water as it was washed in would that make him criminaly culpable and if so are the judges or juries surfers or as in the mentioned case bc skiers.
    It seems these days there is no place left where one can go without breaking some kind of law.

  18. Pcervantes15 October 23rd, 2011 6:55 pm

    This is a very interesting topic to talk about. I agree with Phil, this definitely adds insult to injury because now not only does he have to deal with the fact that he murdered his wife but also now he is going to do jail time for his negligence. I agree with the Austrian authorities because they both had beacons on them but failed to activate them this was obviously someone who was very negligent or someone who was overconfident in his mountaineering abilities. But on the other hand avalanches are freaks of nature and can occur at any time. This is a very debatable topic, but I think that the Austrian authorities should let him walk free instead of charge him with negligent manslaughter, because now he has to deal with the guilt of “killing” his wife.

  19. Dave November 4th, 2011 10:57 am

    Consider the following scenarios:

    1. You are climbing up a slope, a group of heliskiers unloads above you, they all start skiing down, you are buried and suffer a brain injury or die from the slide they cut out above you.

    2. You are climbing up a skin put in by a prior party who, unknown to you, is on the ridge and you cannot see, the party who put in the skin track knows you are there and descends the slope adjacent to you, they cause a slide, you are KIA or suffer lasting debilitating injuries.

    3. You are touring with your one friend only. You go first, then stop at a semi-safe spot, so you aren’t too far down the slope so you can help in case your buddy is caught in a small pockety slide that only descends the first pitch or upper bowl of the run you are on. An unusually big slide rips out, taking you off of your semi safe feature that you were on, you are killed or permanently disabled.

    In #1, I would hope my wife and kids would file for damages, #2 although the stage is routinely set for this type of accident, is no different than #1 really, just easier to villify a business in the bc. #3 The first rider consented to having the second rider drop above him. Regarding #2, I think different parties in the bc need to communicate exactly what they agree to when mobbing a particular bowl or connected wall of snow

  20. Dave November 4th, 2011 11:10 am

    Also #1 and #2 would both leave the parties open to some level of criminal prosecution arising from the knowing disregard for the safety of those below you. And I think it should, but not for someone in your party who has on some level consented to your practices-(lack of) leadership or ability as a touring party and not a guided situation, as is the case in Austria here.

    If people cannot act with respect for the safety of others, wherever they are, the courts will and should end up involved. It can’t be a free for all, just because there are some risks that cannot be 100% managed. I mean you can’t ride your bike into a 5 year old hiker at 35mph just because you are in the woods and you thought you could probably pass her safely.

  21. Rudi November 14th, 2011 3:54 pm

    First of all, while I do agree with Wookie1974 that localism is prevalent over here (I’m Austrian), Lou’s post is the first to mention that the accused man is French. I followed the case loosely here in the news and never heard of that fact. I was under the impression that the guy was from Salzburg. An article in a local newspaper supports the fact that he is a local [1].

    In Austrian law, the person leading a group in the outdoors is responsible for that group. “Leading” doesn’t need to be in any professional sense, basically it’s always the most experienced person in a group, especially if the difference in experience and knowledge to the other group members is high. This fact has long been criticized by outdoor enthusiatsts, but currently that’s a given.

    According to local media [2], the man was convicted because it was a steep slope (more than 35 degrees), natural avalanche warning indications were present (can someone translate “Windgangeln”?), wind conditions of the days preceding the incident were unfavorably and the avalanche warning level was at 3 (considerable) out of 5, so entering this particular slope was very risky.

    The man’s wife was less experienced, so the court assumed the man was responsible for selecting this particular slope despite the clear warning signs. The accused man received a sentence of three months on probation for negligent manslaughter. The fact that the beacons were turned off, was an additional indication for his negligent behaviour.

    The media also report, that the judge didn’t decide lightly, so it is not clear at all from the law and the facts of an incident if someone is guilty under such circumstances.

    My understanding is also that this sentence has been handed out at the first level of jurisdiction and the convicted has a possibility to appeal against it, which I hope he does so that in the end the supreme court can settle this and give a clearer indication as to what responsibility someone leading a group out there has.

    Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, so I hope I didn’t mix any facts. Don’t sue me if anything is wrong :-)

    [1] http://search.salzburg.com/articles/21810382 in German
    [2] s. also http://derstandard.at/1317019530348/Salzburg-Frau-getoetet-Schuldspruch-fuer-Lawinenausloeser in German

  22. Wookie1974 November 15th, 2011 1:09 am

    Windgangeln = Sastrugi

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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