Police: 6 backcountry skiers dead in Italian Alps avalanche

Rescuers prepare to board helicopters in Valle Aurina, in the Italian Alps, in order to reach the spot in Monte Nevoso where six backcountry skiers have died in an avalanche Saturday, March 12, 2016. The dead were in a group of backcountry excursionists who climb above tree line to the mountain crest and then ski down. (ANSA via AP Photo) ITALY OUT

MILAN (AP) — An avalanche struck high in the Italian Alps on Saturday, killing six backcountry skiers and injuring another as a swath of snow hundreds of meters (yards) wide cascaded down.

Helicopters ferried both survivors and the bodies back to the valley floor from the avalanche site, located not far below Monte Nevoso’s 3,358-meter (11,017-foot) peak. The mountain is close to the Austrian border in Italy’s Alto Adige region.

The dead were among a group of backcountry skiers climbing above tree line to the mountain crest and then skiing down but the dynamics of the midday avalanche were still not yet clear.

Italian financial police, among the helicopter responders, and the Carabinieri national police confirmed the six deaths, one Austrian and five Italians from the area. In addition, one person was injured, while another eight escaped unharmed, they said.

“Some were partly covered or under the snow and able to free themselves, and some clearly just saw it happen,” said financial police Brig. Albert Castlunger.

The survivors summoned rescuers, who responded with three helicopters and dozens of search-and-rescue workers who used poles and sniffer dogs to probe the snow for more possible victims, he said. The operation ended by late afternoon.

The high altitude and the number of people involved complicated the rescue, Rafael Kostner, the head of the rescue operation, told ANSA.

“The helicopters are having difficulty safely reaching altitudes above 3,000 meters,” Kostner said. “They fly with very little fuel and all unnecessary gear is left on the ground.”

According to Bolzano province’s avalanche report, the avalanche risk forecast for Saturday was moderate, a two on 1-to-5 scale.

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