The Swiss military has announced that it is investigating two mountain guides for negligent homicide in relation to a July incident in which six Swiss soldiers were killed on the southwest side of Jungfrau (4158m) in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland. Jungfrau is the highest point on the Jungfrau massif, which is also home to the more well known Eiger (3970m).
On July 12th, during a training exercise, five recruits and a sergeant from the Mountain Specialists Division fell almost 1000 meters down the mountainside after, experts suspect, they triggered an avalanche. The other eight members of the party, including the two guides now under investigation, were rescued unharmed. The avalanche risk on the day was three on a scale of five, with around 60 centimeters of fresh snow. The accident took place on a slope of approximately 45 degrees, a slope angle very prone to avalanche.
The military’s investigating magistrate, Christopher Huber, has stated that the guides’ decision to proceed debatably was negligent. He added that part of the investigation will be to determine if the guides had the necessary information to make the appropriate decision. Huber also pointed out that while an investigation had been opened with the guides as the sole focus, this did not mean that they were guilty: “they were innocent unless proven otherwise…. We have to see now… who is responsible for the deaths,” he said, adding that the investigation might be widened at a later date to include other people.
Families of the soldiers have demanded to know why the group attempted to scale the peak despite the recent snowfall and potential avalanche hazard.
Experts from the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research were asked to investigate the causes of the accident. Their report corroborates the accounts of the surviving members of the unit; the recruits died due to an avalanche that they had likely set off themselves. Given the low temperature at the time of the accident–10 a.m.–softening of the snow by the sun seems an unlikely contributing factor.
“It is unlikely the avalanche was set off by a third party or an animal, and it was probably not spontaneous,” the specialists noted.
Thomas Stucki, of the investigating institute, indicated that the avalanche risk is usually low in summer, even with fresh snow.
Ueli Steck, who in recent years has gained notice with his solo ascents on Cholatse, Tawoche and Ama Dablam, lives in the nearby town of Interlaken. He said that the southwest flank of the Jungfrau was the normal route up the peak, and is often described as an easy climb suitable for beginners.
“You get a lot of traffic up there. It is one of the most standard routes in the Bernese Oberland,” he said. “It is not known for being a particular hotspot for avalanches.”
According to the institute’s statistics, thirty two people have been killed in avalanches in Swiss Alps during the months of July and August over the last thirty six years.