Search for hiker called off after deadly Swiss avalanche

27th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

Rescuers in Switzerland on Sunday called off a search for a woman missing in the Swiss Alps after a party of French hikers was swept away by an avalanche the day before, killing four.

The search was interrupted overnight for safety reasons, police in the southwestern Swiss canton of Valais said, and rescuers indicated that hopes of finding her alive faded after several hours of digging and probing on Saturday.

Patrick Torrent of the Air Glaciers rescue service said they had faced difficult conditions on Saturday with heavy snow and the risk of another avalanche.

A guide and police specialists were flown the high mountain slope near the village of Bourg-St-Pierre early Sunday to secure the site, police said.

But fresh avalanches have added a weighty layer of snow totalling 20 metres in places, hampering any digging and adding to the risks for search parties, Swiss news agency ATS reported, citing police.

Torrent told Swiss radio RSR earlier that the assessment would be based on the weather, "the remaining dangers on site and an evaluation of the chances of survival with the doctor."

The party of 11 high altitude hikers from nearby France equipped with skis or snow shoes was caught in the avalanche on Saturday.

Five of them were injured and flown to hospitals in the towns of Martigny and Sion, police said. One of them was in intensive care, police said Sunday.

Ten helicopters and more than 20 rescuers with trackers dogs were mobilised in an emergency search and rescue operation after the alarm was raised at around 12:30 pm (1130 GMT) on Sunday by one of the group who escaped unscathed.

Rescuers failed to detect a signal from the missing hiker to localise her swiftly under heavy, packed, wet and suffocating snow.

"Even with only one or two legs caught, one person on their own without a spade could not have pulled themselves out of this type of snow," said Torrent.

Police said the conditions would be reviewed through the day to see if a search could resume.

The team came from a mountaineering club in Cluses, at the foot of the Alps in nearby eastern France, a French mountaineering official said, and were equipped with avalanche detectors.

"These are very experienced people," Georges Elziere, president of the French Federation of Alpine Clubs told AFP. "They know the mountains perfectly well, they are not at all beginners.

It was the worst toll in an avalanche in Switzerland this winter, according to a count by Swiss news agency ATS.

© 2011 AFP

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