How thrillseekers have made skiing a more dangerous sport
Inspired by daring online videos, more people are taking silly risks on the slopes
Published 07/01/2014 | 02:30
Whether it's on a groomed slope or off-piste, a growing number of skiers believe the sport has become just too dangerous.
As Formula One legend Michael Schumacher spent his 45th birthday last week in critical condition in hospital in an induced coma after hitting his head on rocks while skiing off-piste in the French Alps, even veteran skiiers are now turning their backs on the increasingly popular sport.
Last Friday, Michael Clifford, a 32-year-old Limerick native who was based in Horgen, Switzerland, was buried in Charleville, Co Cork, after he died while skiing in the Swiss Alps on St Stephen's Day.
Described by his heartbroken family as a "courageous free spirit" who loved skiing and rock-climbing, the experienced skiier was struck by a slab of ice in an avalanche while skiing by himself.
But he was just one of the five people who died in the Alps over the Christmas holidays and one of two who died in skiing accidents in Switzerland on St Stephen's Day.
In February, 2009, a 36-year-old Irish tourist died of severe head injuries after he crashed while skiing at the Austrian resort of Schmittenhöhe, near Salzburg .
Last August, Prince Friso of the Netherlands, the younger brother of the Dutch king, died after spending 18 months in a coma after being buried in snow by an avalanche while skiing in western Austria.
And Sonny Bono, the former husband of actress and singer Cher, died from injuries after hitting a tree while skiing in Nevada in 1998.
Even skiing on a relatively tame learner's slope or "bunny hill" at the Canadian resort of Mont Tremblant, near Montreal, claimed the life of Natasha Richardson, (45), in March 2009.
The actress and wife of Irish actor Liam Neeson slipped backwards and knocked her head on the hard-packed snow during a private ski lesson. She walked away from the accident but died in hospital two days later of head injuries.
And even nordic or cross-country skiing, which is popular in Europe and North America and typically involves backcountry skiing on less demanding terrain and more gentle slopes, is believed to account for about 20pc of ski-related injuries -- although the most typical injuries are sprains and fractures from falling.
Welsh GP Alan Griffiths, who gave up his practice in North Wales 15 years ago to run a medical centre in the Val d'lsere resort in the French Alps so he could be closer to the slopes, has long abandoned the sport.
"To be quite honest, I thought it was too dangerous. I have seen too many people with much more experience than me at reading the off-piste conditions -- local guides who were born and bred here -- get it wrong. And skiing on piste, after so long, is just like going for a walk, so I don't ski or snowboard any more," he said.
While many skiiers are now wearing helmets, Medecins de Montagne, a group of French Alpine doctors, say the kind of injuries they are seeing are now more serious, noting a jump in "heavily wounded" casualties from 3.95pc in 2001 to 5.3pc last year.
Dr Griffiths, meanwhile, said he has dealt with 49 ski-related injuries at his clinic since Mr Schumacher's accident on December 29.
"I see everything that comes off the slopes," he said. "Yesterday, I saw somebody with a very unusual fracture to his jaw; the other day I saw somebody with a ruptured spleen. On Thursday, I sent four [patients] down to the hospital."
Marc-Herve Binet, (65), a doctor at the medical centre in the French ski resort of Avoriaz for the past 40 years, said he now treats an average of 45 ski-related injuries a day.
While resorts are now better at grooming slopes leading to fewer accidents caused by people tripping over obstacles, the groomed slopes mean "not very good skiers are still able to ski very fast. They are not able to control their speed, and so we have more collisions," he said.
Collisions with other skiers account for a third of all head injuries, according to Medecins de Montagne, which they blame on the increasing popularity of the sport and subsequently crowded slopes.
And while helmets are now worn by a third of skiers in France -- which in Mr Schumacher's case saved his life after his helmet was cracked in half by the sheer force of his collision -- some veteran skiiers believe they give people a false sense of security and skiers are more likely to take risks.
Fabrice Jolly, a paramedic at Val d'Isere ski patrol for the last 15 years, has witnessed such a rise in thrill-seeking, especially among young skiers inspired by the daring exploits they see in online videos.
"People are skiing way too fast and don't respect the limits on the piste. We call them blue-run world champions -- which is why we see more injuries on those kind of [basic] slopes than even on black runs. If you want to be safe, you need to put a bit of humility in your backpack," he said.
Veteran British skier Fred Foxon, who has skied at 70 resorts and is often called as an expert witness in ski-injury lawsuits, said skiiers are putting themselves at greater risk.
"When things do go wrong, they go wrong spectacularly," he said. "We are seeing more chest, arm, collarbone and head injuries because people are hitting the deck harder," he said.
Part of the reason is the design of skis themselves, which is encouraging more skiers to venture off-piste, he said. "Skis used to be long, skinny things that steered the same way as large sections of skirting board," he said.
"Now they are shorter and wider, so rather than sinking deeply into the snow pack when you are off-piste, they 'float' nearer to the surface. It means it is possible for people who have very little mountain awareness to get themselves into lethal terrain where they are subject to avalanche risk."
Even the most experienced skier is not immune to the dangers of avalanches, which claimed the lives of seven skiers in two days after Christmas in the Alps.
But despite the inherent dangers, the statistics are still on the side of experienced skiers.
Medecins de Montagne figures reveal an average skier can expect to be injured around three times for every 1,000 days on the slope, while death is even less probable: in the Austrian Alps, 38 people were killed last season, compared with around 20 each year in France.
Elsewhere in the Alps, 7pc of 43,000 ski injuries in Germany last year were head injuries.
However, the German Ski Association reported that the number of head injuries last season actually decreased by 25pc in the past four years, largely due to the increased use of helmets.
According to Peter Hamlyn, a consultant neurosurgeon at the Snowsports Injuries Centre in London, risk can be reduced if skiiers simply ski within their level of ability and know their limits.
"Per hour of participation, skiing is dwarfed by point-to-point horse riding," he said of serious injury and fatalities.
* Additional reporting by Allison Bray