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Return to Galtür

Fall Line
posted: 11/08/2000

The chute isn't dangerous, but the snow is, so my guide decides we should traverse above it one at a time and ski something else. I'm following his track when the snow settles under me. It makes the same hollow "whoomping" sound my heart does a split second later. Having been raised on skis, I've had the experience often enough that my pulse might not have red-lined if it wasn't for where I was-and when.

Just a few minutes before, as we had gotten off the highest lift in Galtür, Austria, my guide, Manfred Lorenz, had pointed to one of several small slides off-piste. "The avalanche that killed nine Germans in the backcountry last month was no bigger than that," he said, shaking his head.

Lorenz is a certified Austrian mountain guide and an avalanche expert. Dark-haired and lithe, he has the deep-set eyes of someone who knows both the majesty and danger of visiting nature on her own terms. Lorenz has been around big mountains and bad slides (called lawine in German) his whole life, but lately it's become personal. Just a year before, Galtür was struck by a massive avalanche, the likes of which had never been seen in this mountain town's 600-year history.

"For 10 days before, we had been in a storm and couldn't see the snow loading up on the southeast face of the Grieskogel," Lorenz tells me. The 8,856-foot peak is one of several high mountains that enfold Galtür. Later, computer models revealed the conditions to be so freakish they could barely be simulated. At 4 p.m., the Grieskogel slid from its summit. A 300-foot-high wall of snow reached speeds of 200 mph and roared into Galtür, as one survivor says, "like a tidal wave." Seventeen buildings were damaged or destroyed, and 31 lives were lost.

Among the victims were Lorenz's mother and sister-in-law. "For four generations we have always been very careful up in the mountains because we know the risks," Manfred's father Franz tells me, his eyes moist. "And then for this to happen, here in the village where we thought we were safe ... "

The community of 700 decided to rebuild immediately-tourism is its only industry. Residents were determined to prevent another catastrophe, no matter how unlikely. By summer, Manfred Lorenz was helping design and build new snow-fencing systems to supplement the many already in place. Two walls were erected to deflect future slides. More snow-monitoring stations were built and tougher avalanche-resistant building codes were passed.

By last winter, Galtür was one of the most avalanche-proofed resorts in the world. But only time would tell if its efforts were enough to woo back tourists, especially nearby Germans, badly scared by the previous winter's killer slides.

Then disaster struck. Last December, nine German skiers, far from lift-served slopes, were killed by a small slide, and it made the news worldwide. "Death Visits Galtür Again" was the angle worked by the international press. By the time I arrive, the village is still bustling, but the whole town seems to be holding its breath-waiting for what will happen next. Just like I was when the snow shifted under my feet.

I finish the traverse without the chute sliding. But a terrifying feeling jolts my body during that moment when I don't know what will happen next. Galtür has lived with that feeling for almost two years. Carrying on in the face of repeated tragedy is tough, and then waiting to see if it will mean the end of your community is almost diabolically cruel. But Galtür's friends have stuck by the town, and last year's skier numbers were only off slightly. Several avalanche survivors even returned. So, in one of the most beautiful places on earth, the struggle to rebuild a village is nearly over. The struggle by these remarkable people to rebuild their lives will take a little longer.

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