A large avalanche 200 meters wide near Barentsburg on Monday afternoon apparently triggered by a snowmobiling group missed two people in the group by about 10 meters, according to officials and another member of the group who said he was certain his two friends had been killed.
The avalanche is the latest of several in popular spring travel areas in Svalbard and officials on Tuesday issued an alert waring of extreme danger in many of those areas Wednesday and Thursday.
Monday’s avalanche occurred shortly after 2 p.m. near the dog kennels a few kilometers outside the Russian settlement, covering the snowmobile trail at the base of the mountain, according to The Governor of Svalbard. A six-person snowmobiling group was nearing the end of a trip from Longyearbyen to the settlement when four people paused at the helicopter port a short distance before the kennels, while two others continued on when the snow slide occurred.
“I was sure that my colleagues had been taken by an avalanche and we were preparing to start digging,” Emil Aspen Stensløkken, who had paused with his father and two children, told NRK. But despite his frantic intentions “if they had been taken by the avalanche we would not have found them alive. I’m sure of that.”
To his relief, he saw his two colleges standing at the far end of the avalanche area when the snow cleared.
“They were lucky,” Police Chief Lt. Anders Haugerud told NRK, adding it appears the avalanche apparently was triggered by the snowmobilers.
There have been numerous avalanche in Svalbard during the past couple of weeks due to significant snow accumulation combined with some severe wind storms. Twice parts of Nybyen have been evacuated, and a traffic ban implemented there and in Lia, but so far nobody has been caught in avalanches and no property damage reported.
However, the governor has been issuing virtually identically worded advisories on a near-daily basis.
“There is a significant risk of avalanches out in the terrain now, and we ask everyone who is on the trip to take their precautions and not travel in avalanche-prone areas,” Haugerud said in a statement issued by the governor’s office Monday.
A Level Four risk level (“high”) is forecast for Wednesday and Thursday for the most popularly travelled areas of Svalbard, according to the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate. That is one level higher than when the evacuations occurred in Nybyen and experts urge avoiding any unnecessary mountainous terrain during such conditions.