The January 2011 issue of Die Alpen reports that anyone who triggers an avalanche in Italy can be punished under the law. Under Article 426 of the Italian law, 'Whoever negligently causes a flood, landslide or avalanche is liable to be imprisoned from 5 to 12 years.' This applies whether or not any damage or injury occurs.
This is not just a theoretic possibility: in November 2000 the guide Kuno Kaserer from Partschins in Südirol triggered a windslab avalanche that covered a piste. He was arrested and spent 2 days in prison before being released on the grounds that the avalanche could not have been predicted. However the state prosecutor appealed and he was sentenced to 8 months imprisonment plus costs of 40000€.
He was accused of not taking account of the avalanche forecast; of ignoring avalanche warning notices (a stylised hand with 'STOP - AVALANCHE DANGER'); of not consulting the local parish avalanche risk map; of not taking into account the strong wind that had caused drifting sufficient to close a local road; of not having undertaken a Rütschblock test to determine the stability of the snow cover before skiing the slope. In his defence he claimed that the avalanche could not have been predicted.
The technical report to the court regarding the avalanche stated: The slope was ca. 40 degrees steep and composed of small stones that iced-up easily; there had been 90-100cm snowfall and strong wind with drifting; it was very cold so the snow had not settled; the avalanche risk level was level 3 - Considerable - windslab avalanches were to be expected in lee slopes and gullies above 2200m and could be triggered by a single skier. Most of the alarm indications from the 3 X 3 method of judging avalanche danger indicated acute danger for the slope that avalanched.
Although the Die Alpen article suggests that every skier is at risk of being put in prison if an avalanche occurs, the operative word is 'negligence'. (Die Alpen omits it in the article.) The sentence handed down makes it clear that Kaserer was considered to be negligent in skiing the slope despite all warnings, alarm indications and avalanche training that he as a guide had had. Piste workers were preparing the slopes below him though none were buried.
Although this case was in Italy, similar cases have arisen in other countries where negligence has been the deciding factor. Much as we might like to believe that mountaineering is free of bureaucracy, and whether or not we agree with the use of the law in mountaineering, ski mountaineers need to take proper note of all factors at all times on tour and not just trust to luck.
(See http://www.kunokaserer.com where copies of the court papers can be downloaded.)