Photo courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik

Global warming or just plain bad luck? Either way, rescuers in the Alps are gearing up for one of the worst avalanche seasons on record.

‘Tis the season to hit the slopes, but in the last week, dozens of people have been caught in avalanches across the European Alps. Hikers, skiers, snowboarders and rescuers are falling victim to the avalanches, even though many of these people are seasoned winter navigators.

Though stats vary about how many people visit the Alps every year, the number hovers somewhere around 120 million people annually. That’s a lot of people spread out across the 600 miles of mountains, which span six countries and one independent state. When conditions are perfect for skiing and snowboarding, it can be difficult to convince people to stay off the slopes.

Many of these adrenaline junkies specifically look for backcountry skiing, which makes keeping track of—and finding—skiers particularly challenging, despite the pleas by avalanche forecasters to would-be off-piste skiers to stay on established trails.

Despite these warnings, however, people are still searching for their own space in the mountains. In one instance, an avalanche triggered by off-piste skiers forced a ski resort in Chamonix, France, to close. A similar occurrence in Switzerland forced a snow slide onto the established slopes of the resort.

The disastrous start to the season may or may not be linked directly to global warming. Though rising temperatures and melting permafrost contribute to create the perfect conditions for avalanches, a few of the avalanche-related deaths occurred during colder-than-usual temperatures.

Rescue crews fear a repeat of the dreaded “winter of terror” when, over the course of three months in 1950-1951, more than 265 people died in avalanches. A similar scenario played out in 1999 when 75 people died in three weeks from avalanche-related incidents.

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