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The Avalanche

In an excerpt from the book „The White Danger“ by Martin Engler, we read: When it started to snow in February, 1999 and didn‘t seem to want to stop, the people in the Alpine Valleys suddenly found themselves imprisoned behind a „white curtain“.

Cut off from the rest of the world, despite all the professional and high technology rescue possibilities, they were on their own.  It was total helplessness in the 20th century!  The history of the Alps shows us that it has always been like this:  Snowstorms that cause avalanches, prevent rescue operations for the victims.  How much did the people have to suffer in the olden days?  One of the biggest catastrophes during the 20th century took place in 1954 in the Great Walser Valley.  The village of Blons was the worst hit with 56 casualties.   

The principal of the elementary school in Blons, Eugen Dobler, was an eye witness to those events.  He lost his house and his sister in the avalanche and during the first 36 hours, he and a handful of villagers dug with their bare hands to try to save the lives of the people buried beneath the snow.  Eugen Dobler wrote a touching chronicle about the catastrophe in 1954.  

The book by Eugen Dobler is titled: „Leusorg“ - Leu means avalanche and sorg means sorrow.  It is about the sorrow and fear an avalanche can bring with it.  The book is available in the municipal offices.

Eugen Dobler was an eyewitness to the avalanche disaster in 1954 in the Great Walser Valley.  He gives a haunting and authentic account of how the disaster slowly evolved, the fight for his life and the inhuman rescue operations that the villagers had to carry out all alone.

From the book:

Up until Christmas day in 1953 we enjoyed an unparalleled Indian summer.  One sunny day after the other and flowers were blooming in the meadows.  In the last week before Christmas, there was a bouquet of colourful flowers on the teacher‘s desk.  Once the Autumn chores done, some of the Spring chores could be seen to.  Still, some people didn‘t trust the unusual sunny weather and you often heard people wondering out loud if we would have to pay for all those beautiful days.  And in the end, they were right!

The first snow flakes fell on Christmas eve.  At first it didn‘t seem to be bad.  Up until the 9th of January, 1954, the snow was only about a half a shoe high (15cm -16cm).  It was a Saturday.  A light snow fall began.  Sunday morning, the 10th of January, the snow was already 2 shoes or 60cm - 65cm high and was growing steadily.  The light snowfall at the beginning turned into a big snow storm.  Even so, most of the people went to mass that morning.  On the way to church, and more on the way home again, a few church goers were surprised by snow skirmishes and pushed off the paths.  At about lunch time, the feathery light powder snow at the church was already 70 to 80 cm high.  The farmers left the restaurant earlier than usual and headed for home.  The scent of danger was in the air, but nobody believed the kind of surprise we were in for.  Some of us would never set foot alive in the church again.  The weather report talked about heavy snow falls west of the Brandner Valley in the direction of the Great Walser Valley and a possibility of avalanches.  I almost wanted to believe the favourably manipulated danger alarm for the Brandner Valley, but the next few hours proved the danger alarm to be right.  The snow storm grew stronger and stronger, and by evening the snow was over a metre high.

Read the exciting book by Eugen Dobler.

The Swiss Avalanche chronicle wrote about the catastrophe in Blons in the chapter: A look across the border: In the winter of 1954 the damages from avalanches in Vorarlberg, especially in the Great Walser Valley took on devastating dimensions.  A similar catastrophe occurred only once in Austria in 1689, while in the Swiss Alps, only the big avalanche year of 1720 claimed a similar amount of victims.

It is unimaginable what it means when in a remote village in a mountain valley, like in the Great Walser Valley, 164 people are buried in snow with their houses and their animals.  Or what it means when alone in the small village of Blons with a population of 365, 118 people are buried,16 of them twice, with 55 lives lost and 22 people injured and 2 people, never found again.  Blons had other devastating avalanches in the years 1497, 1689, 1717, 1806, 1808, and 1853. All of the roads in and out of Blons were completely cut off and the telephone lines were also down.


Today‘s lessons

Many historic avalanches caused a lot of damage in the lower regions.  These areas are hardly paid attention to in today‘s avalanche prognoses.  It has been shown, however, that extreme situations with low temperatures and low lying snow fall boundaries, regions under 1000 metres can be affected by big avalanches.  It has also been seen that in extreme conditions avalanches can happen in in hilly areas, places that are not very steep at all.   These situations are very rare and statistics show that they only occur every 50 to 100 years.  But just because of what the statistics say doesn‘t mean that there is always a time span of 50 to 100 years between the events.  It can be longer or shorter, which is clearly shown in the avalanche winters of 1951 and 1954.

On the 50 year anniversary of the avalanche in Blons, the townspeople were reminded of the event and a permanent exhibition was opened.  

During the past 50 years, the Great Walser Valley has invested a lot in avalanche protection constructions.  The protection forest is of great significance.  Forests that are not maintained or regenerated mean high risk.  In order for it to protect, the forest must be farmed

This is why concepts that make utilization of the forest possible are very welcome.  The LEADER + project „Mountain Timber“ has hit the bulls eye and makes regeneration of the forest possible by utilizing mountain timber.

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