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Evolène is a municipality in the district of Hérens in the canton of Valaismarker in Switzerlandmarker.

It is located south of Sionmarker in the Penninemarker Alpsmarker. It is one of the last strongholds of the Franco-Provençal language.

The commune of Evolène is situated in the Val d'Hérensmarker. At , Evolène is the 4th largest commune in Switzerland despite having no more than 1600 inhabitants. This is due to the broken nature of its surrounding alpine terrain, which includes the highest point in the commune, la Dent Blanchemarker (white tooth) at . Due to its mountain terrain Evolène is subjected to a number of natural dangers such as avalanches and aggressive erosion of its main river due to the recession of three surrounding glaciers.

Val d'Hérens


The commune is made up of several close-lying villages. The main village is Evolène, fortunately situated on a plateau above the river (to avoid flooding of the river), as well as being protected from avalanches by a surrounding forest. Thanks to its favourable position, Evolène was quickly established as the safest village to expand and therefore has become the biggest village in the commune. Other villages that make up the Evolène commune, such as Arolla, les Haudères, La Sage and Villaz do not benefit from the same level of natural protection as Evolène and are therefore exposed to more risks and have thus become less desirable to develop. The small village of les Haudères is closely situated to Evolène, at the very extremity of Val d'Hérens. The even smaller villages of Villaz and La Sage are found about up from Evolène. Orientated towards the South, Villaz and La Sage benefit from generous sunlight hours. They are also situated near large Swiss mountain meadows which extend up to an altitude of .

The commune is a popular area for nature lovers and winter sports seekers as well as a popular resort for writers and artists due to its tranquil settings.

Traditional annual cow fights are held around the beginning of May each year (signalling the release of cows after spending the winter indoors) and jointly shared between Evolène, les Haudères and La Sage.

Language

The official language is French, but the locals, both young and old, still use a variety of Franco-Provençal for oral communication. Evolène is one of the last strongholds of the Franco-Provençal patois across its historical domain. However, as children are schooled in French only, only about a third of all children regularly use patois among themselves. All the same, Franco-Provençal is still spoken spontaneously by people of all ages, which means that the language is alive and well, something which is quite unique in Swiss Romandie.

Avalanches of the 21st of February, 1999

On the 21 February, 1999, Evolène was the place of a number of fatal avalanches that caused the deaths of 12 people. This was due to a substantial amount of snow which fell on the Alps during the winter of 1999.

Evolution of the climatic conditions

The amount of snow that fell during the end of January and the month of February was huge. In spite of this, the snow was able to retain cohesion due to favourable, relatively constant temperature. The situation, however, worsened on the Thursday the 18th, three days before the drama. Weather reports indicated that temperatures were set to rise and between Thursday night and Friday morning, the temperature rose 5 degrees Celsius. This rapid rise caused a mixing between the old, and the new layers of snow. In this state, the risk of an avalanche was considered to be at level 3, on a scale of 5. The situation was still not considered to be critical and therefore it was not seen as necessary to instigate any emergency measures. On Saturday the 20th of February, the avalanche danger was increased to level 4 due to between of fresh snow that fell on the older, established layers. Meaning the possibility of the new layer literally sliding off the older layer (after slight melting) increased. The temperature remained constant between Saturday (20th) and Sunday the 21st of February, until midday on Sunday when it began to rapidly rise due to prolonged exposure to the sun.

Unfolding of events

At precisely 8.27 pm, the first two avalanches were set off on the slopes above Villaz, at an altitude around . They were a combination of fresh powder snow and established spring snow and demolished all trees and chalets in their path, as well as the people unlucky enough to be in the chalets at the time. The two avalanches continued to run along the extremities of Villaz and eventually formed as one massive fusion of snow and debris reaching up to high that came to rest down the slope, after taking 12 lives and cutting off the main road between Evolène and des Haudères.

Les Haudères, Val d'Hérens, Valais, Suisse (sept. 2007)


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