What are conditions like in Meribel, the scene of Schumi’s accident?

Conditions have made off-piste skiing in Les 3 Vallees a challenge so far this winter season

Former Formula One champion Michael Schumacher  waits his turn to take part on a skiing race in 2008  in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy. Photograph: Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images

Former Formula One champion Michael Schumacher waits his turn to take part on a skiing race in 2008 in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy. Photograph: Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images

Mon, Dec 30, 2013, 18:48

I was sitting in Lyon airport on Sunday afternoon, waiting for a flight back to Dublin, when I heard the news of Michael Schumacher’s skiing accident.

Initial details were sketchy but reports said the legendary Formula One driver had been off-piste in the Meribel valley when he fell and his head hit a rock.

I had just spent a week with my family in St Martin de Belleville in the next valley over and had regularly skied over to Meribel in the days before and after Christmas.

Although Meribel is considered a high-end resort, both it and St Martin are part of the 3 Vallees interconnected ski area in the northern Alps, which attracts skiers and snowboarders from across Europe, not just the well-heeled.

It also includes resorts such as Courchevel, which is popular with Russian visitors and Val Thorens, which at 2,300m is one of the highest resorts in the Alps. Les 3 Vallees claims to be the largest ski area in the world, with over 600km of runs which can be accessed using a single pass.

The area where Schumacher’s accident occurred is below the 2,739m Dent de Bergin peak. It can be accessed using the massive Sauliere gondola from Courchevel or the popular Sauliere Express lift from Meribel, as we did last Saturday morning about 24 hours before Schumacher’s accident.

On Saturday it was a bright winter’s morning and the peak was extremely busy. It is possible to descend on steep but relatively easy blue runs or more challenging red pistes.

More experienced skiers who want a taste of off-piste action take the Grand Colouir or Colour Tournier. However, these steep and narrow gashes in the rock weren’t in operation on Saturday due to the high winds and light snow cover.

Those conditions have made off-piste skiing in Les 3 Vallees a challenge so far this winter season. While there was heavy snow at the end of November, there hadn’t been any more in the run up to Christmas which meant only the marked pistes were suitable for skiing. There was a heavy dump of snow on Christmas night but the high winds and high daytime temperatures meant rocks were exposed beside the slopes. Even on the groomed pistes, particularly the steeper ones, loose stones were adding to the hazards.

Skiers of Schumacher’s ability would have been keen to test their abilities off-piste and the 10cm of snow which fell on Saturday night are likely to have tempted his group on to the fresh powder beside the main slopes. The reported scene of the accident was in sight of both a blue and a red piste rather than in a remote area and would have been extremely busy on Sunday morning, traditionally the first day of the holiday for people visiting for a week.

Far less than half the skiers and boarders I saw in France last week wore helmets. However, in Schumacher’s case it seems to have ensured he has survived the initial impact.

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