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 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.