Our deadly penchant for sliding downhill with a smile
Skiing, like so many activities – some economies, for example – can survive only by gliding on an ocean of denial
PRINCE JOHAN Friso of the Netherlands was seriously injured in an avalanche in Austria last Friday. At the time of writing he is still in hospital, having passed “a calm and stable night”. His biggest medical problems, according to a neurosurgeon at the Innsbruck hospital, will probably be the result of oxygen deprivation. The prince was buried under the snow for about 20 minutes. He was found only because he was wearing an avalanche alarm. It is reported that his resuscitation took some time.
According to the Dutch government, Prince Johan Friso’s life is still in danger. I hope his family and his nation will not take it amiss if, while wishing him a speedy recovery, we use the prince’s misfortune to talk about danger.
Skiing is a terrifying business, though everyone pretends that it isn’t. Even those of us who do not belong to European royalty are regularly hurt on the slopes – indeed, we can suffer a great deal on the nursery slopes. And, as we cowards never tire of pointing out, Natasha Richardson died on them.
However, fewer Irish hearts – and bones – are being broken these days. The Central Statistics Office figures released last week, which were gathered back at the end of the second quarter of last year, when everyone was even more depressed than they are now, showed that half the households surveyed had cut down on holidays abroad. Considering how many holidays we took during the good times, not even the gloomiest among us can say that this altogether a bad thing.
And I do take Colm McCarthy’s point, made in this paper recently, that the large numbers of people in Ireland who are doing very nicely do not usually phone Livelineto let the country know their good news; we have the most silent rich people in the world.
But skiing had become very popular in Ireland, and not just at the luxury end of the market.
The first sight that greeted us as we were bussed into our idyllic Alpine village at two o’clock in the morning some years ago was a man staggering up the deserted main street in an Ireland T-shirt singing The Fields Of Athenry. Yes, it was a lovely moment.
But perhaps those mass tourism days are gone. Three men of my acquaintance flew out this month , mid-week, to Austria from Dublin on a virtually empty plane. They found their ski resort so quiet that they had to travel to a neighbouring village in order to chase women. This is a sorry state of affairs for the skiing industry, and also for the women of Europe, who do not know what they are missing. Or maybe they do . . . Anyway, it was quiet. Very quiet. The five bars in the town were deserted.
Their hotel, which had offered them a Wednesday to Saturday deal in December, had been anticipating a poor season. Their flight back to Dublin, on a Saturday, which is the changeover day for package deals, was also half-empty.
However, no matter how quiet it is in a ski resort, you’ll never hear anyone talk about avalanches; it is extraordinary. And the ambulances are always kept in a discreet corner of the town, out of the way, so that stumbling upon their hiding place almost gives you a fright.
God knows where they keep the helicopters – “Oh God,” said one man who had ripped his leg in several places, and been choppered to hospital, in an episode of medical glamour which one suspects he rather enjoyed, and which was reminiscent of the television series M*A*S*H, and also of those arguments about health budgets: “You know you’re bad when you’re glad to see the helicopter”. They must house the helicopters underground.
Of avalanches there is not a whisper. Even when the worst skier in your party – and that would be me – has been leafing through English language newspapers and, by sheer diligence, finds some avalanche news. ( The Daily Telegraphis much the best newspaper for this.)
I was so pleased to be able to show how speedy and well co-ordinated I am at finding fascinating nuggets of information in the newspaper, even when working off-piste, that I rushed to share what I had imagined to be rather pertinent news. But, even when the British skiers have been killed only 10km away, and are actually named in the newspaper, there in black and white, no local person in your ski resort has heard about an accident.
No matter how much fascinating information you might have about the avalanche, somehow you can’t find anyone knowledgeable for an informed chat.
It is very disappointing. But, for those of us whose skiing careers were marred by the fact that we never could break out of the remedial classes, it does not come as too much of a surprise.
Skiing, like so many human activities – some economies, for example – can survive only by gliding on an ocean of denial.
Since Prince Johan Friso’s accident on Friday afternoon, the mayor of Leck, the west Austrian ski resort in the vicinity where it occurred, has made the point that at the time of the accident there was a high avalanche alert in operation.
We wish the prince and all the other skiing casualties a speedy recovery, and we wonder still about risk-taking, and what makes humans happy.