Avalanche rattles skiers in French Alps, none hurt

Sabine COLPART with Sophie LAUTIER in Grenoble
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The French resort of Tignes was also hit by a deadly avalanche on February 13

An avalanche forced skiers to jump out of their skis Tuesday at the popular French Alps resort of Tignes but no one was seriously injured, a local official said.

Twenty-five "more or less shocked" people sought help from rescue workers, Nicolas Martrenchard told a news conference.

"Four skiers were buffeted by the impact" of the rush of snow and had to abandon their equipment on the slope, added Martrenchard, deputy prefect of nearby Albertville.

An initial report that several skiers were engulfed by the avalanche sent alarm bells ringing through the sprawling resort just three weeks after an avalanche claimed four lives nearby.

Up to 200 people took part in search efforts, all arriving overland because poor visibility prevented the use of helicopters.

Rescue workers and sniffer dogs were deployed along with firefighters' vehicles and ambulances.

The slopes gradually began reopening after the rescue operations.

The fast-moving "powder snow" avalanche was made of light, recently fallen snow that fell away "naturally", experts said.

Tuesday's avalanche risk -- which is normally assessed only for off-piste and closed slopes -- was at four on a scale of five.

At level five, all slopes are closed.

The area had 50 centimetres (nearly 20 inches) of snow overnight following regular snowfalls since Saturday, avalanche risk expert Cecile Coleou told AFP.

- Holiday tragedy -

"That meant an accumulation of a metre over three days, which represents a thick layer of unstable snow," she said, adding however that it was "extremely rare" for an avalanche to reach an active ski slope.

Coleou said the avalanche risk would remain high at least until Wednesday.

Tignes is one of the biggest ski stations in the Alps, offering 480 hectares (1,200 acres) of slopes served by around 80 ski lifts.

The avalanche on February 13, which hit during school holidays, was a "slab" avalanche, caused when dense wind-packed snow breaks off from a slope.

Rescuers quickly retrieved the bodies because the victims were carrying transmitters designed to assist in locating them.

They had been only a few dozen metres from a ski lift when the 400-metre-wide avalanche ripped down the mountain.

That incident brought to 14 the number of accidents recorded in the French Alps and Pyrenees so far this winter, claiming a total of seven lives.

Last winter there were 45 accidents and 21 fatalities.

One of the worst avalanches in the Alps in the past decade took place in the summer of 2012 in the Mont-Blanc range. Nine climbers from Britain, Germany, Spain and Switzerland were killed as they tried to scale the north face of Mont Maudit, which translates as Cursed Mountain.

Avalanches can travel at speeds of up to 400 kilometres (250 miles) per hour.

In January, 29 people died in Italy after an avalanche buried a hotel in the central town of Rigopiano.

The force of that impact was calculated by police as being equivalent to the three-storey stone and wood structure being hit by 4,000 fully loaded trucks.