Irish skiing: downhill since 2008
There is a core of Irish skiers who make an annual pilgrimage to the slopes and are aware of the risks
Ski safe: a skier wearing a helmet in the Tyrolean ski resort of Ochsengarten. Photograph: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters
Michael Schumacher’s life-threatening accident might give pause for thought to some of the 30,000-plus Irish people who take an annual ski holiday, but it’s unlikely to lead to any cancellations.
The Irish ski market has proved resilient since its pre-2008 days, when up to 60,000 Irish of varying levels of expertise made an annual pilgrimage to the slopes.
There may be fewer skiers in 2014, but the ones that remain are committed enthusiasts and loyal repeat customers.
According to Michael Collins, spokesman for Ireland’s biggest ski operator CrystalSki, up to one-third of all Irish skiers book next year’s holiday immediately after returning from this year’s break to guarantee the same experience. Collins believes most Irish skiers are experienced and know the associated risks, which are far greater once they go off-piste: most Irish skiers stick to the designated trails. They also know that the risks for beginners are low – usually ankle twists or, if terribly unlucky, the occasional break – as they don’t develop enough speed to do real damage.
However, it is by no means a risk-free activity, and Schumacher is not the only recent victim. There were 12 avalanche fatalities in the Alps and Pyrenees during Christmas week, including a 27-year-old Irishman, Michael Clifford, who died in an avalanche in Uri, Switzerland.
Many non-skiers see a holiday on the slopes as dangerous, which is understandable given that skiing is about as natural to the Irish as scuba-diving. On the continent, organised ski holidays – known as a “white week” – are built into the school curriculum, and many European children learn to ski as soon as they can walk.
Until about two decades ago, Irish people, if they skied at all, learned as adults. These novices had to suffer the mortification of stumbling about on a bunny slope like a newborn foal while an unruffled three-year-old whizzed past with frivolous grace. In the 1980s a generation of skiers dragged their own kids to the Alps, ensuring that when they grew up they would not be ridiculed for their pathetic efforts by groups of snotty Swiss teenagers. They’ve done the same with their children, resulting in an intergenerational core of devotees committed to their own “white week”.
Although some Irish skiers will book their own holiday, the majority still use one of the operators that sell flight-and-accommodation packages. CrystalSki accounts for roughly half of all bookings: the other two operators are Topflight, responsible for around 30 per cent of ski packages, and the more exclusive Highlife.
Price is the other big stumbling block for the non-skier. A ski holiday can be very expensive if you rent a top-end chalet but they’re not as pricey as some assume. Responding to the changing economic realities, operators have priced their packages more competitively, with flights and accommodation no dearer than an average sun holiday: you can spend a week in Kitzbühel, Austria, for about €300, staying in a self-catering apartment.
The extras that add cost: lift passes and equipment rental can add €400 per person for a week, but even then some resorts throw in incentives such as two-for-one deals on lift passes. Skiing is big business, and they want to keep it that way.
Ski smart, ski safe
Taking these appropriate precautions can minimise the risk of injury or accident for skiers:
Skiing is something of a counter-intuitive sport: untrained your natural instincts actually tell you to do the wrong thing on the slopes. A handful of solid lessons – a full week’s worth for beginners – will exponentially improve your skills and enjoyment.
Use proper equipment
Make sure your skis and boots are properly fitted by an expert. Wear proper ski goggles.
Wear a helmet
They’re not compulsory but they should be, especially for children.
Don’t ski alone
It’s always safer to ski with a friend; prearrange a meeting if you get separated.
Respect your limits
Don’t ski trails beyond your skill level.
Follow the rules
Don’t go off-piste. Warning signs are there for a reason. Remember that skiers in front of and below you have the right of way.
Winter-sports cover is an absolute must: even a sprained ankle on the mountain could end up costing you a fortune if you need to be transported.