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The avalanche accident on 10 February 1961 in Lenzerheide

Updated: Jan 7

On 10 February 1961, a snow slab swept away a Glarus school class on Lenzerheide. Ten young people died. Four survived, the rest of the 19-member group managed to get to safety. Nothing was the same any more.

Even today, anyone who remembers the silent return home is heartbroken. Of the coffins that were transported in a baggage car of a scheduled train. Thousands attended the funeral procession to the church. The surviving students walked in front of the coffins. The picture appeared in the media all over Switzerland - the relatives have kept the pages with the harrowing photos. Every anniversary they are reminded of the great loss of 10 February 1961 and on many other occasions too. The disaster has totally changed the lives of the families concerned. What happened is still subliminally present today. This is shown by conversations with almost 20 relatives and survivors.

"The greatest disaster that has ever happened"

"The avalanche accident of 10 February 1961 in the Lenzerheide area is the biggest that has ever happened to a group of tourists in our Alps. The fact that it was an organised school ski camp and affected children who, like tens of thousands of their kind, cheerfully leave their families every year to find joy and recreation in the wintry mountains, made this tragic event penetrate the whole nation more than any other case. Every mother and father of a school-age child saw themselves in the position of one day having to mourn a child who had died in similar circumstances. (Winter Report of the Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research 1960/61)

A strong storm rages through the night

Since Sunday, 5 February 1961, 13 girls and 14 boys from the Glarus Cantonal School have been on a ski camp in the Raschianas ski house above Lenzerheide. The camp is run by Erna Brandenberger, holder of the Swiss Ski Instructor Brevet. Every day, the students go on smaller ski tours in the partly wooded area towards Crap la Pala. On Friday, the last day of the camp, the same route is taken as the day before. Overnight, however, an exceptionally strong westerly storm led to large drifts and thus to an aggravation of the avalanche situation.

No criminal investigation

This development was not recognised by the camp director, according to the winter report of the aforementioned avalanche research institute. "But many unsolved problems remain. Above all, nothing has ever been done to officially answer the frequently discussed question of guilt. Opinions differed on this question, often within one and the same family. Everyone expected a judicial assessment of what had happened and thus an open weighing of the often extreme views. But the public prosecutor's office of the canton of Graubünden did not see any culpability in the behaviour of the responsible camp manager and therefore refused to open a criminal investigation. This decision was surprising and fundamentally regrettable. With regard to the preliminary investigation, we would only like to note the fact that no expert was called in as an avalanche expert."

Rescued alive after three hours

On the flat eastern shoulder, the skins are taken away. With the first group, the better skiers, the assistant leader Hans Jenny enters the Porclas slope, which he knows, in a left traverse. Erna Brandenberger follows about a hundred metres behind with the second group. What happens next was recorded by Kurt Brunner, a pupil at the time (see following page). He himself narrowly escaped the catastrophe and went for help together with Fritz Künzli, who later became a football star. The accident occurred at 12.15 pm. With the most primitive means, with broken ski tips and their hands, first Rosmarie Dürst and then Ernst Nägeli can be saved. The leader's father, whose upper body remained free, was able to free himself. Urs Bachofen is rescued alive after three hours with the help of an avalanche dog, which tracks him down under a layer of snow one and a half metres thick.

On Saturday, the last girl to be rescued was dead

For the time being, the extent of the catastrophe is not yet clear. Three quarters of an hour after the avalanche went down, the first few ski instructors arrived on the scene. They use the ski lift and approach the accident site from above. Then, at short intervals, 30 to 40 ski instructors and other helpers follow, among them doctors and guides with avalanche dogs. The avalanche cone is systematically searched. Swiss Air-Rescue is also called in immediately. Helicopters and Piper planes dropped important rescue material at the accident site. The rescue teams and the military units called in work all night under the spotlight. They dig deep trenches through the avalanche cone and search for the victims with sounding poles. At noon on Saturday, the last missing girl is also found dead. She is transported to Glarus and her coffin arrives just as the funeral procession reaches the church.

"I have been given a new life"

Today Urs Bachofen lives in Schwändi and Australia. In the avalanche of 10 February 1961 in Lenzerheide, he was the only one of the eleven completely buried who could be rescued. He lay buried in the snow for three hours.

It had snowed a lot all week. We were getting fed up with the eternal games in the accommodation. That's why we were actually quite happy when, on the day of the accident, the decision was made to finally go on a ski hike. So off we went, with the teachers and leaders of course. The authorities had issued a warning. You had to be very careful, the avalanche danger was very high. As we climbed, I kept noticing noises I didn't recognise. It sounded like "whoosh". Sometimes we slipped back a bit in the process. Today, of course, I know that this indicates a very high danger level.

We waved to each other

After a rest, we got ready for the descent. Not all of us were experienced skiers. I was one of the less experienced ones. We had to cross into a slope at the top, turn and then ski back out of the slope. The inexperienced were advised to make a hairpin turn. Because it was not that easy, a traffic jam formed at the turning point. Just as I arrived at this point, there was a huge bang and a violent jolt. We were all suddenly sitting in the snow and the whole slope started moving as far as you could see. We found the "aberiite" on the snow quite funny. We were not aware of the danger we were in. We were still waving to each other. But the fun soon stopped. What at first looked like a surface sliding down the slope quickly developed into waves that took on ever more threatening proportions.

Impact came with full force

I managed to turn my feet with my skis in the direction of the fall to at least see what was coming. I saw the other comrades struggling with the huge waves of snow and trees whizzing past me at an unearthly speed and bending backwards. It was only a matter of time before one of the firs caught me too. The impact came with full force. It was so strong that I immediately lost consciousness. The forces at work are unimaginable. A piece of my ski, which they found later, was about ten centimetres long and broke off along with the steel edges. The backpack and the shoes were never found again. Perhaps the fir tree was my salvation. Together with it, I was buried deep in a valley basin. Through the hollows, which had not filled up with snow, I was at least supplied with some oxygen. Otherwise I would certainly not have survived. I woke up from unconsciousness because my whole body was aching. And the pain increased.

As if cast in a mould

I lay in the snow as if cast into a fit and could not tell whether I was lying on my stomach, on my side or on my back. I also did not realise that I was several metres below the surface. It was very cold and impossible to move even a millimetre. The snow was as hard as concrete. And even worse: this "fit" all around me was getting tighter and tighter. The pressure on the body increased. Once again I lost consciousness. When I regained consciousness, at least the snow had calmed down. It was no longer moving. It was absolutely dark and, in contrast to the huge noise before, eerily quiet.

Yes, one panics

I felt that in front of my face the snow had melted a little through the air I breathed. But breathing was very laborious because I couldn't move my chest. Yes, one panics. You try to scream, but you can't really because you don't have enough air. You try to calm down because you know that oxygen is very scarce and you have to use it sparingly. You try to brace yourself against the snow in the hope that the snow cover might give way. But of course it's no use. You are trapped and you can only hope that you will be found in time. Then it's good to be unconscious again for a while. One has absolutely no sense of time any more. The next waking state was then completely different. I no longer felt the body, pain and cold were gone. I felt like I was floating in cotton wool and fell asleep slowly and calmly. From then on I knew nothing more until I woke up again at the doctor's in Lenzerheide.

Everyone spoke of a miracle

All I know about my rescue is what I was told. An avalanche dog found me. I must have been buried deep in the snow and for an unusually long time. Everyone spoke of a miracle to have found me alive. I had been severely hypothermic and had dangerous carbon dioxide poisoning. It was also a miracle that I had not broken anything, but only had sprains and bruises on my feet and back. The rescuers only took me to the village by helicopter and not to the hospital in Chur. They were afraid that I would not survive the journey there. I was incredibly lucky.

Ski camp participants of the 2nd grade of the Cantonal School Glarus

Victims (list not exhaustive)

Aebli Daniel (25.2.1946 - 10.2.1961)

Jenny Johannes Heinrich (6.2.1941-10.2.1961) - assistant leader of the ski camp / chemistry student at ETH Zurich

Landolt Ruth Anna (12.6.1946 - 10.2.1961)

Survivors (list not exhaustive)

Brandenberger Erna - camp leader

Bachofen Urs

Brunner Kurt

Dürst Rosmarie (5.4.1945 -)

Heer Fritz Georg (20.5.1946 - 19.2.2002) - escaped unhurt from the avalanche

Künzli Fritz (8.1.1946 - 22.12.2019) - former national football player

Nägeli Ernst

Source: Irène Hunold Straub in Südostschweiz 2011

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