The Ski Helmet debate

In the wake of the sad news about Michael Schumacher, inevitably a debate is being sparked off (again) about the pros and cons of wearing ski helmets whilst skiing or snowboarding.

Or, as one famous boxer put it, “There are pros and cons for, and pros and cons against”.

Let’s recap on what happened. Michael Schumacher was skiing in Meribel on the area between two pistes, somwhere between the red La Biche, the red Chamois and the blue Mauduit runs, below Saulire.

Meribel piste map
Piste Map of Meribel – click to enlarge
Apparently he slipped and hit his head on some rocks hidden in the snow.

I am going to conjecture that he was skiing relatively fast – he has a reputation as an adrenalin junkie, and a smack as hard as he got suggests some speed of impact. It broke his helmet in two after all. Although he was off-piste, the area is probably more accurately referred to as “between pistes”, those areas that are unprepared but within the bounds of the ski area, and are usually well tracked out by a multitude of skiers and snowboarders wanting unprepared, lift-served snow. If you hit these areas after fresh snow you can make fresh tracks, and it sounds like that is what Michael had in mind. These areas are normally within sight of the pistes, so if anything untoward happens there is usually help on hand very soon, as was the case for Michael. Only yesterday I saw a helicopter airlift someone off the slopes at Engelberg – technically it was off-piste, but within easy sight of the surrounding pistes.

Now we are not having a great ski season so far in terms of snowfall. The lower runs of most resorts are short of good snow and the pistes are thin and icy. Further up the runs are generally fairly good, but only because they have been prepared. Off-piste, however, the conditions are poor. Even where fresh snow falls, it has not yet established a decent base for you to be confident that there aren’t hidden rocks that can make you throw a ski or worse. And of course, fresh snow on a hard base is a recipe for avalanches. Early season off-piste is inherently risky and, unless you wish to court disaster, requires some caution.

In Engelberg yesterday many of the off-piste areas around the main slopes were extremely patchy, with exposed rock at various places. You could see people gingerly navigating around the exposed rock, which is of course what you should do, and some going faster than I thought safe given the risk of hidden rocks. Me and my companion decided not to venture far off-piste, the only ungroomed run we tried was the yellow trail off Titlis down to Stand, and there were plenty of exposed rocks round the edge. I saw a number of competent skiers and snowboarders slip and fall, but in all cases their speed was controlled and the falls were light, with no one needing to take advantage of the protection of a ski helmet – although most people had them.

So the question is, was Michael Schumacher unlucky or was he skiing recklessly? I don’t know, but I do know that a lot of skiers and snowboarders at Engelberg yesterday were going too fast for the conditions. I even found myself narrowing my line of descent because I knew people overtaking me would not be able to adjust their line if I skied in their way – remember the uphill skier must always give way to the downhill skier. From time to time I would also stop on the side of the piste to allow a knot of skiers or snowboarders pass before me, so I could feel comfortable about the area uphill of where I was turning.

The valley run was mayhem at the end of the day. Tired skiers and snowboarders, large areas of ice, lots of people and far too many going too fast. Inevitably there were falls and crashes.
Engelberg slopes
So what has this to do with helmets? Michael Schumacher was wearing one, and reports are that he would have probably been killed if he had not been wearing one. It sounds like wearing one didn’t help him as much as one might expect, but perhaps if his behaviour on the slopes was different he would not have needed to put his helmet to the test.

On the whole, I am a cautious skier. Falling over can happen, but if you are following the FIS rules and are skiing or snowboarding within your limits – adjusting for the conditions – it is unlikely. And certainly unlikely to result in serious injury. The likelihood of a head injury is remote, but personally I don’t want to break a leg or sustain any sort of injury.

And there is the rub. I believe wearing helmets can give you a false sense of security. It does not protect you from other serious injuries and may not even adequately protect you from a head injury. If people went on the slopes dressed like hockey players, I am sure there would be far more collisions – you need only compare the manner in which people play ice hockey in a scrimmage if they are fully kitted up compared to just having skates and gloves. In a perverse sort of way, helmets may even contribute to more accidents on the slopes. Now they are cool, boy racers on the slopes act like their helmets make them piste warriors.

No, for me the best way to be safe on the slopes is to be prepared for the conditions, navigate the slopes in a manner appropriate for your skill level and constantly be aware of your surroundings.

I am not arguing against helmets. For freeriders, beginners and children they should be considered essential, and I would have few issues with them being made compulsory for children. I don’t like compulsion though, for me it is an ugly concept and seems to be too easily abused. I find education is a far more attractive option – perhaps also there could be incentives. For example, if wearing a helmet had an appreciable impact on how much insurance companies fork out, then they should offer premiums to people who wear helmets (although I have to say, I doubt that is the case). Indeed, in my experience more people get injured slipping on the ice on the streets in the resorts than get injured on the slopes – the main difference to outcomes is that they are not going fast. Interestingly the Dutch almost never wear helmets on bicycles at any age – I wonder if they werar ski helmets less too?

Engelberg-TitlisI do think education has the most significant part to play, though. I saw most of the FIS rules flouted yesterday at various times of the day. Perhaps lift companies could offer discounts to people who passed a “ski and snowboard riding test”, and their piste patrols could be a little more pro-active in advising people who flout them of what the rules are.

And in the meantime I wish Michael the very best chances of recovery, and my thoughts are with his family.

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The Cutest Village Ski Resorts

Zermatt
The Daily Telegraph has just identified what it thinks are the 15 cutest village ski resorts, and I have to disagree with their choice. For instance, Zermatt “cute”? Hardly. Car-free, rocking, beautiful, busy… but cute? And hardly a village. In my opinion most of the cutest villages have limited pistes and antiquated lifts – which is maybe how they tend to stay cute.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s my list of villages in Switzerland that are both cute and have access to plenty of the white stuff, in no particular order (click on the links for more info):

Adelboden
Adelboden
Gstaad
Gstaad
Mürren
Muerren
Wengen
Wengen
Andermatt
Andermatt
Stoos
Stoos
Briel (Brigels)
Brigels
Celerina
Celerina
Klosters
Klosters
Lenzerheide
Lenzerheide
Pontresina
Pontresina
Samnaun
Samnaun
Silvaplana
Silvaplana
Les Diablerets
Les Diablerets
Champéry
Champery
Saas-Fee
Saas-Fee
St Luc/Chandolin
St Luc
Grimentz
Grimentz

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A Festive Christmas Snowfall

It was starting to look a little grim, with some resorts having seen no new snow since November and temperatures looking decidedly unseasonal. And then on Christmas Day it snowed. And it snowed and it snowed. Boxing Day or St Stephen’s Day, whatever you call it, continued the festive snowfall. According to the folk at J2Ski powder snow is reported by 38 Swiss Ski Resorts. Andermatt and Zermatt now have a base of over 3 metres on the higher slopes.Blind skier at Zermatt

More snow is forecast, with the Jura and Black Forest resorts starting to get fresh snow, although I am sure many of those people who went skiing for the holiday period will be pleased to hear that there will be sunny skies for most of the next couple of weeks in the Alps with the snow mainly falling overnight.

With all the fresh snow the avalanche risk has heightened and is now registered as level 3, considerable risk, by the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research. If you go off-piste, be careful and be prepared.

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Christmas Skiing and Snowboarding

There has been precious little new snow in the Alps in December. Some resorts have not seen fresh snow since last month, although some precipitation is expected Thursday and Friday. For most resorts that should mean fresh snow, but temperature are unseasonably warm after a chilly start to the season. Indeed Meteo Swiss expect temperatures to remain above average well into the New Year.

The good news, however, is that the Christmas skiing and snowboarding prospects look reasonably good, at least on-piste.  Resorts took advantage of the early season snowfalls and their snow cannons to create a good base, and nearly everywhere has resort runs open. Generally upper slopes have around half a metre of snow but steeper, lower slopes are patchy and, with the temperatures above freezing, get very heavy in the afternoon. If you are considering your first foray of the season, do not join the many skiers and snowboarders I have already seen becoming tired victims of an afternoon run too far.

Looking around the Swiss resorts, Zermatt is in the rudest health with 240km piste open. Samnaun/Ischgl, with 190km, is virtually fully open now. The Engadine also has over 100km of piste open, and has a reasonable extent of cross-country skiing open also – at last report 30km of classic and 65 km of skating.
Gondolas at Adelboden
Verbier (and the rest of the Four Valleys), the Jungfrau resorts, Davos/Klosters, Adelboden, Saas-Fee, Engelberg and Andermatt all look promising for the holiday period and have good snow on the higher runs with even a little (but mostly tracked-out) off-piste around.

Although many of the smaller resorts have not opened yet, I would be surprised to see the warm weather prevent them having most of their lifts in operation by next weekend. However some of my favourite, more low-lying resorts look distinctly thin, especially the resorts around Gstaad and in Vaud. Flims/Laax has been later than I expected to open up its runs, but should be in full swing come this weekend.

For non-skiers there are a handful of toboggan runs already open, but the best prospect for you is probably the extensive circuit of winter walks found in most resorts, especially in the glorious sunshine we currently seem to be experiencing. The entertainment program in winter resorts is also ramping up, with the Spengler Cup in Davos probably my highlight, where CSKA Moscow and Team Canada amongst the teams vying for this most prestigious of ice hockey tournaments.

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