Unfortunate incident exposes concealed hazards on slopes of off-piste skiing in early part of season
The Dent de Burgin peak in the French ski resort of Meribel, under which German retired Formula One driver Michael Schumacher reportedly had a skiing accident. Photograph: Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP/Getty Images
December is the start of the ski season but the accumulation of snow that builds through the winter months has only just begun. Lower slopes can be bare and in need of artificial snow and even on higher slopes it is common to hear the scrape of stones tearing gashes on the underside of skis and boards.
On pistes, there is little danger because the undersurface is normally grassy meadow or flat scree but off piste, where Michael Schumacher had ventured, there can be fields of massive rocks and boulders that are obscured by fresh snow but not safely covered.
Off-piste ski areas
By the end of the season, these rocks are covered in several metres of compacted snow but by the end of December it may only be less than one metre. Off-piste ski areas in December are like a sea with
rocks just below the surface.
When you ski off piste, you can’t see your skis as they are covered by snow. This snow also weighs the skis down. If you hit a rock or an obstruction, your skis stick where they are and the body is catapulted from the skis, head first. You can fly quite far, depending on speed and slope. If you land on soft snow it’s exhilarating, if you land on something else, it can be deadly.
This can apply equally to skiing on piste. In March 2009, as the snow cover was beginning to melt, the actor Natasha Richardson fell during a lesson on a nursery slope at the Canadian resort of Mount Tremblant and hit her head on a rock. She died soon afterwards.
One factor in Schumacher’s favour is that he was wearing a helmet. Richardson was not.
“Taking into consideration the very violent shock, his helmet did protect him to a certain extent, of course,” said Prof Jean-Francois Payen, chief anaesthesiologist in Grenoble treating Schumacher. “Somebody who would have this kind of accident without a helmet, certainly he would not have got to here.”
But despite high-profile accidents and avalanche deaths, mountain sports are relatively safe. Mile Langran, an Aviemore-based doctor who is president of the international society for skiing safety, says snow sports have an average injury rate of two to three per 1,000, which compares favourably with football or rugby.
Low mortality rate
“With regard to fatalities, in the US during the past 10 years 41.5 people have died skiing or snowboarding each year on average. During the 2010-11 season, 47 fatalities occurred out of the 60.5 million skier/snowboarder days reported for the season,” he told CNN.