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Heavy snow traps thousands of tourists

THOUSANDS of tourists have spent two days stranded in the Swiss Alps amid an extreme avalanche warning that has not been seen in the last decade.

A train packed with tourists left from a resort town near Switzerland’s famed Matterhorn peak today, the first line to leave after the railways were halted because of avalanche risks, which left around 13,000 people trapped.

Guests at the Zermatt resort, near the Italian border, could only leave by being flown via helicopter after the snow closed mountain lifts, ski runs, walking paths and train services to the village.

The Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn train, with a capacity for 250 people, eased out of Zermatt station after teams cleared huge snowdrifts from the more than a meter (39 inches) of snow that blanketed the region, coating railways and roads.

“After being cut off for almost two days, Zermatt can now be accessed by train again,” the local tourism office said.

Teams were working “as a matter of urgency” to try to open roads to the bucolic Swiss Alpine town.

The move came as Switzerland’s avalanche institute, SLF, lowered the avalanche risk from the highest level, five, to four earlier on Wednesday.

Local officials had initially hoped to get trains moving earlier, but the timetable was delayed after helicopter crews spotted a new snow mass left over from an avalanche days earlier.

Mayor Romy Biner-Hauser said “heavier machinery was needed … and that’s why the operation is live only now again.”

She said she expected roads to be passable sometime Thursday.

A helicopter “air bridge” ferried down hundreds of passengers Tuesday and early Wednesday as ground travel became all but impossible, and other helicopter teams were also deployed to trigger controlled avalanches to release snow build-up.

Frank Techel, an SLF avalanche forecaster, said roughly three to four meters (about 10-13 feet) of snow had been dumped on the Zermatt area so far this year, which he called an “extraordinary” amount for the region in such a short span.

Local officials said no lives were ever in danger and the situation was calm, with cafes open and many streets walkable.

“The guests and local residents weren’t placed in any danger at any time — they had power and supplies,” the tourism office said.

Some visitors were more upset that nearby ski slopes were closed than getting stranded in the posh, picturesque resort town.

“Unfortunately, no skiing today,” said Kurt Tulleners, a visitor from Hong Kong, before the train service resumed.

“So yeah, we’re just kind of stuck.”

Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.

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