Missing skiers presumed dead

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The season for so-called “top tours” on skis in Norway is off to “a tragic start” this year, enthusiasts conceded, after four tourists were officially determined to have been killed by an avalanche last week. Their deaths bring the total up to 20 just since 2014.

Topptur at Tyin

So-called “top tours” up a mountain side, to ski down it again, have become extremely popular in recent years, but they always entail elements of risk. PHOTO: Den Norske Turistforening/Hallgrim Rogn

Hans Markus Heiskel, age 25, is among those working as a guide in the valley of Tamokdalen in Troms, Northern Norway, where three young men from Finland and a young woman from Sweden disappeared last Wednesday. He said the local “top tour” community is deeply affected by the tragedy.

“We have talked a lot about it, and how good it was to see so many people taking part in the search and rescue effort,” Heiskel told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “But we all feel terrible that folks who take part in the same sport as us have become victims of it.”

Norwegian police and emergency crews had to give up hopes during the weekend of finding any of the four missing skiers alive. They’re now all believed to have been killed in an avalanche while attempting to trek on skis up to the popular summit of Blåbærtinden above Tamokdalen, and then ski down again.

Avalanche warnings were posted
Their “top tour” turned deadly when they’re believed to have been caught in the avalanche on Wednesday. Avalanche warnings were posted at the time of their disappearance.

Bad weather and the high risk of more avalanches hindered search and rescue efforts last week, with visibility so poor that helicopters had to abort several attempts to enter the area. When they finally did, they could see ski trails leading into mounds of snow and ice from an avalanche, but no trails coming out.

All four skiers were equipped with special equipment that sends out signals for their locations. Signals from two of the missing skiers were finally picked up on Friday. The weather was so bad, however, that search efforts had to be suspended once again, also on Sunday when they’d resumed as a search for their bodies.

Hopes had faded by Friday night that they’d be found alive. “There’s no knowledge or research that indicates it’s possible to survive for nearly 48 hours buried under an avalanche,” Dr Mads Gilbert, head of emergency services at the University of Northern Norway’s hospital in Tromsø, told newspaper Aftenposten. “We are therefore medically certain that the four did not survive the avalanche. An avalanche like this is so big and heavy that it’s not possible to survive inside the masses of snow.”

Military support
Efforts continued, however, to recover their bodies with additional support from a military helicopter and specially trained dogs. Those efforts also had to be suspended, however, because of the weather and the risks posed to search crews. “This is a terrible situation for the victims’ families,” Gilberg acknowledged.

More efforts to locate the bodies were expected on Monday, while a crisis team in Balsfjord was assisting the victims’ families, who arrived in Northern Norway late last week. The avalanche has been estimated to be 300 meters wide and up to 700 meters long, with still more avalanche warnings posted.

Heiskel, who told NRK he already has skied nine top tours this season, admitted that the noise from search helicopters dampened his desire to set off skiing now. Last week’s fatal avalanche is already being described as the worst ever in Norway. Troms is especially vulnerable to avalanches, with 10 of the 20 fatalities occurring there in the past five years.

A total of 238 people have also been involved in avalanches during the same period, but survived. The four killed last week were “not inexperienced,” according to the instructor of a course they’d just completed in ice climbing in nearby Lyngen, a popular destination for top tour enthusiasts. Instructor Fredrik Aspö told NRK that he couldn’t explain, however, why they had set off on the top tour last Wednesday when the avalanche danger was characterized as “considerable,” adding that the tragedy was “incredibly sad.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund