They look inviting, but off-piste ski areas in December are like a sea with jagged rocks just below the surface
December is the start of the ski season, but the accumulation of winter snow 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 undersides of skis and snowboards.
On piste there is little danger because the undersurface is normally grassy meadow or flat scree, but off piste, where Schumacher ventured, there can be fields of massive rocks and boulders obscured by fresh snow. 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 can be like a sea with jagged rocks just below the surface.
When you ski off piste, you can’t see your skis, as they are covered by snow. This snow weighs the skis down. If you hit a rock or an obstruction, your skis stop and your body is catapulted forward 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.
Even skiing on piste can be lethal. In March 2009, as the snow 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 and. She died soon afterwards. She was not wearing a helmet; one factor in Schumacher’s favour is that he was.
“Taking into consideration the very violent shock, his helmet did protect him to a certain extent, of course,” said professor Jean-Francois Payen, the chief anaesthesiologist treating Schumacher. “Somebody who would have this kind of accident without a helmet, certainly he would not have got here.”
Despite high-profile accidents and avalanche deaths, mountain sports are relatively safe. Mike 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 participants, which compares favourably with football or rugby.
“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.
“The rate of fatality converts to 0.78 per million skier/snowboarder visits. Although it’s not directly comparable, in the United States in 2009, 2,400 people drowned while swimming in public areas and 800 died while bicycle riding.”
Figures on emergency room admissions for head injuries tend to support this theory that ball sports and cycling are just as dangerous, if not more so, than mountain sports. In 2010-11, about 11 million Americans went skiing, and 16,948 ended up in hospital with head injuries, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. By comparison, about 18 million played football – and 46,948 sustained head injuries. For cycling, the figures were 46.8 million and 85,389 respectively.
According to weather reports, Méribel, where Schumacher was skiing, had had little snow until the week of Christmas when it was blessed with several dumps that would have made skiing on piste a joy and made skiing off piste deceptively attractive.
From Boxing Day, there were several deaths in the Alps from avalanches because the fresh snow had not bound well with the hard packed snow beneath. A rise in temperature made it easy for the fresh snow to break off. On Friday, less than a few miles away in Courchevel, Lionel Blanc was walking up the Avals Valley with skins attached to his skis to the off-piste mountain hostel he ran when he was killed by an avalanche.
Michael Schumacher was not in a dangerous area. Reports describe it as off-piste – which is strictly true but it is better described as by the side of the piste – easily seen and accessed by emergency services. It is the kind of area that less experienced skiers might find themselves by accident, particularly later in the season, when piste and off piste snow look very similar.
Schumacher and his son had been skiing for years and would have very comfortable in the conditions they were in. They were probably ski-ing down from the summit of the Saulire where they decided to turn right to enter Meribel Valley rather than left to go down towards Courchevel.
As they ski-ied down, above them on their right was the Grand Couloir below the Saulire gondola which is a steep wide chasm which is the target of many an aspiring off-piste skier or boarder. There were probably the clear S-marks showing the tracks of those that had dared to do it so early in the season.
They would have chosen either the Mauduit run which is difficult and often left un-managed so the fresh snow soon turns into moguls or bumps. Or they would have taken the La Biche run which is marked blue but it is steep and fast in places.
They probably decided that they liked the look of the relatively untouched powder in a pocket between the two pistes. At the top of this pocket, there is a small cliff which some people jump off but probably not this early in the season – but the Schumachers were probably just interested in making their marks on some virgin snow.