Snow and Avalanche Center 2011 Avalanche News

3 months suspended sentence for forgetting beacon, October 10, 2011

An Austrian ski tourer has received a three month [suspended] prison sentence for the manslaughter of his wife. The case centered around the use of avalanche beacons. According to the Salzburg court he was touring with his supposedly inexperienced wife with their beacons switched off and in their rucksacks.

Fresh snow had fallen on the 17th March 2010 when the couple undertook a tour to Radstadt near Obertauern. The man told Austrian radio “We thought we’d go down a safe route. We were sure that we would not need our beacons. My wife has always trusted me”. After testing the snow-pack with other tourers the woman went on ahead with the man following behind to help in case of problems. He apparently triggered a slab measuring 80 by 250 meters which buried his wife. The slide occurred on a 35° slope the risk was given as Considerable (3/5). The lack of beacon seriously delayed finding the victim even when rescue services arrived on the scene. The 58 year old woman had suffered from serious head injuries after being buried over a meter in dense snow. The defendant’s lawyer was stunned by the verdict and said he and his client needed time to decide whether to appeal.

If the sentence is not appealed it will add to case law putting additional responsibilities on more experienced members of backcountry groups (already established in France) and could effectively mandate trail head transceiver checks, at least in Austria. One might think that losing his wife was punishment enough but the ruling may leave the man open to additional civil claims by the victim’s family.

The verdict has surprised experts

Michael Larcher, director of education of the Austrian Alpine Association has questioned the verdict. He points out that although the woman was less experienced than her husband they had been touring together for years, “she was no beginner but had enough personal knowledge to know to turn on her beacon. Given that the lack of beacon was the main reason for the verdict, in my opinion, you cannot put all the responsibility on the husband, it is an issue of personal responsibility”

Estolf Müller, representing the Austrian Mountain Rescue Service said that “judging who is experienced is legally very difficult, I’m really sceptical when the courts intervene in a private sport so long as innocent bystanders are not endangered. When you go into the backcountry everyone has to be responsible for themselves.”

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