• Caitlin Kennedy

Remembering the UCPA Avalanche

We look back at a tragedy that beset the town, 50 years on.

50 years ago this week, on 10th February 1970, Mother Nature struck Val d’Isère causing one of the most deadly avalanches the Alps had seen in recent history. The extremely heavy snowfall from the preceding week had accumulated two meters of fresh snow on the South facing slopes of Le Grand Gorge at the top of town. At 8am, the slope released its burden at an altitude of 2,960 meters from the Pointe du Front, causing a colossal avalanche that rampaged down into the valley, across the Isère river, and into the UCPA building. The breakfast room, where over a hundred young people were eating, was instantaneously filled with snow as the windows smashed, unable to withstand the gigantic force.

Some people were thrown down hallways and through windows. Others were buried so deep that they could not move at all. Outside, the snow pushed cars right off the road and blocked access to the hotel. The snow was almost 10m high in some places. 39 people couldn’t escape the grips of the snow and lost their lives. A further 40 were badly injured. Approximately 75,000 cubic meters of snow had come down the mountain and three trail workers up on the hill, were also swept away and killed.

The first to arrive onsite back in 1970 was Jean-Lou Costerg, a young ski patrol, who went on to become head of the Val Pisteurs. This week in an interview with Radio Val d’Isère, he pensively remembered the moment when he first saw the devastation.

“Even as a mountain-patroller, when you arrive at the site of the avalanche (...) when you hear the screaming, the calls for help in all directions, there is a moment of disbelief. It is traumatic. We could see the snow coming out of windows, doors, everywhere (...) it was hard to react. It’s an emotion that is very strong. These are images that come back” he concludes.

French President Georges Pompidou declared it a national tragedy, and authorities ordered evacuations of other resorts in the region. This proved to be a wise move, as other avalanches followed in the next few days. In fact, the abandoned hotel in Val was struck again two days later.

A huge landslide and consequent avalanche occurred just two weeks later in Plateau d’Assy, killing 76 people. The shockwave of these two natural disasters led to the formation of ANENA, the National Research Association for Snow and Avalanche Studies to try and prevent such a tremendous loss of life occurring in the mountains again. It is to this organisation and the research it has carried out that we owe the huge amounts of protection in place to keep the town safe. Obviously it is impossible to prevent all avalanches but spare a thought on Monday for the security services and all the work they do.

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