World's Worst Avalanches

The majestic mountains and cliffs of the Earth's surface can break free and become deadly torrents of mud, rock or ice. Here are the world's worst avalanches.

1970: Yungay, Peru

remnants of Yungay's cathedral landslide
The remnants of Yungay's cathedral after the landslide. (Zafiroblue05/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

On May 31, 1970, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck offshore near Chimbite, a major Peruvian fishing port. The earthquake itself caused a few thousand deaths from building collapses in the coastal town near the epicenter. But the temblor touched off an avalanche when a glacier was destabilized on Mount Huascarán in the steep Andes mountains. The town of Yungay was entirely lost as it was buried under a 120 mph onslaught of tens of feet of mud, earth, water, boulders, and debris. Most of the town's 25,000 residents were also lost in the avalanche; most were watching an Italy-Brazil World Cup match when the quake struck and went to the church to pray after the temblor. Only about 350 residents survived, a few by climbing to the one elevated place in town, the cemetery. About 300 survivors were children who were outside of town at a circus and led to safety after the quake by a clown. The smaller village of Ranrahirca was buried as well. The Peruvian government has preserved the area as a national cemetery, and excavation of the site is forbidden. A new Yungay was built a few kilometers away. All told, about 80,000 people were killed and a million were left homeless that day.​

1916: White Friday

armed men on a mountain

The Italian campaign was fought between Austria-Hungary and Italy between 1915 and 1918 in northern Italy. On Dec. 13, 1916, a day that would become known as White Friday, 10,000 soldiers were killed by avalanches in the Dolomites. One was the Austrian encampment in barracks below the Gran Poz summit of Monte Marmolada, which was defended well from direct fire and out of mortar range above the timberline but at which more than 500 men were buried alive. Entire companies of men, as well as their equipment and mules, were swept away by the hundreds of thousands of tons of snow and ice, buried until bodies were found in the spring. Both sides were also using avalanches as a weapon during the Great War, purposely setting them off with explosives at times to kill enemies downhill.

1962: Ranrahirca, Peru

avalanche in Peru
(U.S. Geological Survey)

On Jan. 10, 1962, millions of tons of snow, rocks, mud and debris came crashing down during strong storms from the extinct volcano Huascaran, also Peru's highest mountain in the Andes. Only about 50 of the 500 residents of the village of Ranrahirca survived as it and eight other towns were destroyed by the slide. Peruvian authorities tried desperately to save those trapped and buried by the avalanche, but access was made difficult by blocked roads in the region. Carrying the wall of ice and rocks, the River Santa rose 26 feet as the avalanche cut its path and bodies were found 60 miles away, where the river met the ocean. Estimates of the death toll range from 2,700 to 4,000. In 1970, Ranrahirca would be destroyed a second time by the Yungay avalanche.

1618: Plurs, Switzerland

avalanche in Switzerland

Living in these majestic mountains is bound to present risks, as Alps settlers learned where the paths of avalanches were. On Sept. 4, the Rodi avalanche buried the town of Plurs and all of its residents. The death toll would be 2,427, with four surviving residents who happened to be out of the village that day.

1950-1951: Winter of Terror

Andermatt
Andermatt in 2005. The town was hit by six avalanches within one hour during the Winter of Terror. (Lutz Fischer-Lamprecht/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Swiss-Austrian Alps were inundated with far more precipitation than normal during this season, thanks to an unusual weather pattern. Over a three-month period, a series of nearly 650 avalanches killed more than 265 people and destroyed many villages. The region also took an economic hit from destroyed forests. One town in Switzerland, Andermatt, was hit by six avalanches in one hour alone; 13 were killed there.