As strong winds continued to pound much of Southern Norway on Wednesday, the rough weather also dramatically raised the risk of avalanches in the mountains. A German skier was missing Wednesday afternoon after slides around Hardangervidda, but later found alive, while a group of high school students had a frightening experience during the night.
“Avoid any areas bounded by steep mountainsides until the weather calms down,” warned Tommy Skårholen of the state avalanche warning service Snøskredvarslingen. He told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) the avalanche danger had risen “considerably” during the day.
‘Demanding conditions’ and ‘unstable snow’
“There are demanding conditions in the mountains right now,” Skårholen told NRK. “There’s been a lot of sleet, new snow and wind in the last 24 hours, and that has led to lots of unstable snow.”
Police received a report Wednesday afternoon that a German tourist was caught in an avalanche west of Haugastøl in Hardanger. The weather created major problems for search and rescue crews trying to get to the scene of the slide, because it was impossible to use helicopters, the RV7 highway over Hardangervidda was among mountain passes closed by the storm and even the Bergensbanen train was halted by the weather.
It took an hour before the crews could reach the scene with more than 20 search and rescue personnel trying to find the missing skier. A special train plowed through the drifts to bring reinforcements. Police said the missing person was part of a group of six German tourists who were skiing from Haugastøl to Finse. The five others were evacuated from the scene with a train back to Haugastøl.
Local sheriff Torstein Seim told NRK that it was snowing heavily, visibility was poor and the high avalanche danger was posing risks for the rescue crews. “This is terribly difficult, after nearly 50 centimeters of heavy, wet snow has fallen during the day,” said police operations leader Odd Halvard Seterdal. “We have to think about the safety of the crews, too. We need to find a safe way in and out.”
The search crews aided by specially trained dogs eventually located the German woman late in the afternoon and dug her out after four hours under the snow. She was immediately attended to by health care personnel and then taken by train to Geilo, where the weather wasn’t as bad and a Sea King helicopter was waiting to fly her to hospital. Her condition was not immediately known.
High school students caught in Ål
As the drama played out on Hardangervidda, a group of 55 people including many high school students and teachers from Lørenskog northeast of Oslo had to be evacuated after another avalanche at Ål in Hallingdal. NRK reported that the group had planned to experience winter camping but they were all but buried by the heavy snow and wind and, ultimately, a minor avalanche in the area where they were staying.
It’s common for Norwegian high-school students to have class trips to the mountains in winter and summer, to ski or hike and learn how to build natural shelters, but no one was prepared for the extreme conditions this week. Their trip started out well on Monday “but then the wind really began to increase during the night,” teacher Carina Berg told NRK. As conditions worsened it was “too late” to try to return to lower elevation. They considered staying in the snow caves they’d dug, but the strong winds kept clogging their entrances. That’s when calls went out for help that fortunately were received.
Rescue crews arrived at 5am and evacuated the frightened students with snow tractors and other machinery. They were taken to the Bergsjøstølen mountain lodge and were “very grateful for the good help we got from the Red Cross,” one of the students, Simon Bjørn Kristiansen, told NRK. “We also had some experienced teachers who helped us get through this.” No one was injured and the group was due to be driven by bus down to Hallingdal and back to Lørenskog when the weather cleared.