Heavy snow, then rain and milder temperatures spell disaster for off-piste skiers.

The bodies of five Britons caught in the path of avalanches have been recovered in Chamonix and Monte Cinto in France and on the mountains of Ben Nevis and Liathach in Scotland the last week in December.

The avalanche danger across many parts of the Alps is three on a scale of five which means the danger is 'considerable'.

The thick snowfalls in Europe before Christmas were followed by heavy rains, weighing it down and destabilising it, causing an increase in avalanches. If this cold-then-mild temperature pattern continues, some fear another "winter of terror" like that of 1950/51 when 265 people died in avalanches in just three months.

However, Christine Pielmeier at Switzerland's Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) told On The Snow, "The victims in the catastrophic winter of 1950/51 were mostly in the valleys, on roads or in buildings. This is a different situation, and cannot be compared to backcountry skiing accidents of recent weeks."

In fact, the SLF say there has actually been a significant reduction in the number of people killed by avalanches in the backcountry each year due to better gear and improved awareness. This decline in deaths is also remarkable seeing as people are more likely today to leave marked ski slopes and hiking trails.

Pielmeier added, "Off-piste skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers are better equipped nowadays, more likely to inform themselves about local snow conditions, and know how to react to free colleagues trapped in an avalanche."

The Chamonix High Mountain Office (OHM) told On The Snow: "Skiing on piste and off-piste are two very difference activities. Going under the rope marking the limit of a ski run implies that you take responsibility for yourself and accept the risks."

Chamonix, notable for its excellent off-piste, is currently flying a chequered black/yellow flag above 2100 metres, signalling a ‘considerable/high' degree of hazard. For most of last week, the col des Montets in Chamonix was shut due to avalanche risk, and Tuesday saw a large avalanche - 50 metres wide and 1.5 metres high - engulf the red Charlanon piste, which is thought to have been caused by off-pisters.

Safety precautions for off-piste skiers, such as avalanche transceivers, airbags, and shovels, do help lessen the risk but do not eliminate it. The avalanche in Les Arcs last week killed a professional mountain guide and two of his clients, all of whom were wearing the latest equipment.

It seems the only safe approach to off-piste skiing in many parts of Europe at present, is to simply avoid it all together. Météo France, the national meteorological service, has just raised the avalanche risk to level four out of five, meaning 'high risk' and strongly advises against any off-piste skiing or snowboarding in the current conditions. 

The European Avalanche Hazard Scale classifies the different degrees of danger from one to five: one is low; two is moderate; three is considerable; four is high; and five is very high.

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