Recent Ski Fatalities

A Copper Mountain Ski Patrolman, right, along with an unidentified skier, pull an injured skier up a small hill on a patrol sled on the ride down to the St. Anthony Copper Mountain Clinic at the base of the mountain Friday, March 1st, 2013.

Young ski instructors drinking outside Le White Pub as snow fell at the upmarket resort of Flaine this week were united in the condemnation of the “cult of speed”.

So reports the Times, from behind a paywall, on the reaction to recent deaths resulting from ski collisions.

Already this month there have been two high profile fatalities in the French Alps. A five-year-old British girl was killed in a what an eye witness described as a ‘high-speed’ collision whilst in ski school on a blue run above Flaine. And a famous French actor, Gaspard Ulliel, died when he collided with another skier at La Rosière.

So is skiing an inherently dangerous sport?

For many people, a lot of the pleasure of snow sports is pushing personal limits. However, this is not a solo sport. There is a duty of care to other people. I have too often seen people on the slopes who do not seem to moderate their speed sufficiently on crowded slopes. What are the guidelines?

The FIS has set explicit rules on ski slope behaviour.

They begin by stating that “a ski­er or snow­board­er must be­have in such a way that he or she does not en­dan­ger or prej­u­dice others”. The rules go on to say that ev­ery ski­er or snow­board­er must be in con­trol. “He or she must adapt the speed and man­n­er of ski­ing or snow­board­ing to his or her per­so­n­al abil­i­ty and to the pre­vail­ing con­di­tions of ter­rain, snow and weather as well as to the den­si­ty of traff­ic. ” Pretty explicit.

However I’ve had people tell me that ski accidents “just happen”, that they are a part of the sport. I disagree. I think a lot of skiers and snowboarders go as fast as the best conditions they can expect allow. And then the unexpected happens. There’s an icy patch. A skier ahead takes an unexpected line. A misjudged manoeuvre is taken at the limit of the skier’s competence. The decision to push your limits is a choice you can make, but not if you are sucking a stranger into sharing the consequences.

And the more people on the slopes, the higher the likelihood of a misjudgement impacting other people. I often ski at off-peak times. There is nothing more enjoyable than hurtling down a pristine slope as soon as the lifts open, with an empty piste ahead of you. But on a busy spring afternoon, I am often aghast as I see someone weave through a crowded throng of mixed ability adults and children as if there was nobody else about.

The FIS rules make clear the responsibility of the uphill skier or snowboarder to people downhill of them. “A ski­er or snow­board­er may over­take another ski­er or snow­board­er above or be­low and to the right or to the left pro­vid­ed that he or she leaves enough space for the over­tak­en ski­er or snow­board­er to make any vol­un­tary or in­vol­un­tary move­ment. ” An overtaking skier should always allow for the downhill skier to do the unexpected.

To be able to ski fast on crowded slopes, some skiers choose a narrow line along the edge of the piste. I wonder if that was the circumstances of the little girl’s death? By all accounts the skier was very experienced, a local volunteer fireman. The little girl was possibly nervous about making a turn and the uphill skier may have already anticipated where he expected her to turn. I can only conjecture. But I have no doubt it was completely avoidable.

The importance of personal responsibility towards downhill skiers and snowboarders is emphasised by the FIS: ” A ski­er or snow­board­er com­ing from be­hind must choose his or her route in such a way not to en­dan­ger skiers or snow­board­ers ahead “. In other words, when you overtake you need to have evaluated the situation such that you can eliminate the likelihood of collision and are sufficiently in control to complete the manoeuvre safely.

I can’t count the number of times I have seen people approach lift queues too fast and crash into the queue. Why does it happen? Usually from a failure to appreciate that the snow conditions near a lift may be different from the snow conditions on the slope above. And approaching a bunch of people far too fast.

Other FIS rules requires skiers and snow­board­ers to re­spect all signs and mark­ings, en­ter­ or cross a marked run carefully, look behind before setting off and avoid stopping on narrow places or where there is restricted visibility. I see these rules broken all the time. I remember well my four year old daughter getting wiped out, fortunately without harm, by a skier who thought a no entry sign didn’t apply to him.

Because skiing is a sport that only requires an investment of money to participate in it, there is little opportunity to ensure there is a common understanding of the “rules of the game” or how they should be interpreted. Should they be better publicised and policed. I like that rules are not enforced in a heavy-handed way, but don’t the resorts carry a responsibility to ensure their patrons ski safely?

The Times makes some observations on addressing the dangers of the ski slopes:

There are now calls for more speed cameras and “traffic lights” to be installed on busy slopes, with complaints that high-capacity ski lifts and the construction of holiday accommodation has led to dangerous overcrowding on some pistes.

Should there be speed cameras and traffic lights? I am not so sure about speed cameras. My preference would be to have more “slow slopes” and informal controls, such as have ski instructors remind speed merchants to moderate their speed. I remember when I skied in Vail they had barriers with a spotter behind them encouraging people to slow down. That seemed to strike a reasonable balance.

Traffic lights could either be at the top of a slope or at the lifts, the latter being the most practical, even if it is somewhat of a blunt instrument. Limiting the number of ski passes issued at times of high demand would be unpopular, but effective at reducing crowds on the slopes.

There are times when some ski slopes are simply too busy to accommodate the volume of people on them, especially given the level of indiscipline and excessive speed of some skiers and snowboarders. If resorts choose to allow skiers and snowboarders to have passes issued in such number that the risk of injury in the prevailing conditions is greater, I think they carry responsibility for mitigating the consequences.

The skier who killed the little girl has now been charged with her manslaughter. I do ask myself whether the resort shares some culpability by not doing enough to create a safe environment. Is it to be considered part of the sport that excessive speed around children is acceptable?

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Ski Movies – Part 2

Streif- One Hello of a Ride (2014)

This film is about the famous annual Hahnenkamm race, the toughest on the FIS downhill circuit. It takes place in Kitzbühel, Austria. You can see the movie at the Red Bull web site, and it’s probably the best ski documentary out there.

Frozen (2010)

No, not that Frozen. This one is about three skiers trapped on a ski lift in Snowbasin, Utah, after the resort has closed for the night. Enough to put you off that crazy run to catch the last chairlift before the mountain closes.

Low budget it may be, but it is definitely watchable and pretty scary.

Eddie the Eagle (2016)

If you can take clichés and sentimentality, you will probably like this story of Britain’s most famous ski jumper.

Fly like an eagle

SKI School (1990)/Ski School 2 (1994)

Judge for yourself whether the antics of a bunch of ski instructors, mainly filmed in Whistler, is to your taste. However the first of the two does enjoy something of a cult following amongst people of a certain age.

Extreme Ops (2002)

In what is probably not Rupert Graves’s finest outing, a film crew and three snowboarders go on a trip to a remote part of the Austrian Alps to film some stunts. Unbeknown to them they stumble across the hideout of a thuggish Serbian war criminal. What could possibly go wrong? Although the ski scenes are staged as being on the former Yugoslavian border, filming seems to have taken place at various locations, including Verbier.

More winter sports movies to come…

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Best restaurants in Zermatt

Diners at the restaurant at Matterhorn Glacier Palace.
The restaurant at Matterhorn Glacier Palace has great views, but the toilets are not free!

The winter season officially opens in Zermatt on 5th December with lifts on the Rothorn and Gornergrat adding to the ski area already open above Furgg.

Sadly the mountain restaurants won’t open fully until 13th December because of covid restrictions, but six mountain restaurants are offering a take-away service during this period. Annoyingly all the seats have also been removed up the mountains, so you need to find a nice rock to sit on to enjoy your fare. My experience so far during this lockdown period is alcohol is not generally served as part of the take-way service.

Socially distanced tables at Trockener Steg under the Matterhorn.
Restaurant at Trockener Steg before lockdown, but with socially distanced tables.

When the restaurants do open up, Zermatt probably offers the best culinary options in the Alps – both on the slopes and in the town. Gault Millau, who rate the best culinary experiences in Switzerland identified 15 in Zermatt out of 830 throughout Switzerland to deserve special note.

The marking system is as follows:
17 points: mark for the best quality and high consistency
16 and 15 points: high level of the culinary arts and quality
14 and 13 points: very good cuisine and offering much more than everyday dining
12 points: conventional, good cuisine without special ambitions

The restaurants are:

PointsName of the restaurants
17After Seven (Backstage Hotel)
17Ristorante Capri (Mont Cervin Palace)
16Alpine Gourmet Prato Borni (Grand Hotel Zermatterhof)
15The Omnia
14Chez Heini
14Chez Vrony
14China Garden
14Findlerhof bei Franz und Heidi
14Grill le Cervin (Mont Cervin Palace)
14Restaurant Saveurs (Chalet Hotel Schönegg)
14Zum See bei Max und Greti
13Lusi Brasserie & Lounge (Grand Hotel Zermatterhof)
13Myoko
13Restaurant Sonnmatten
13Restaurant 1818
Simon Hughes enjoying the fabulous fish stew at Chalet Etoile.

Not included in the list, of course, are the restaurants on the Cervinia side – sadly off-limits for the time being due to covid. At the web site, SwissWinterSports.co.uk, I opine that “the small serving of fish soup in Chalet Etoile off Plain Maison in Cervinia is not only an inexpensive and filling repast, it is probably the best fish soup you will experience anywhere in the world, at least above 2000m.” 

So now you know.

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Early Season Skiing in the USA

US West Coast Ski Resorts
Faced with the prospect of Autumn in the USA, I was interested to know if early season skiing was going to be a possibility. Generally European resorts don’t open until December, and often not until Christmas week. This last season there wasn’t enough snow for some well known resorts to open even for Christmas.

I have managed to track down opening dates in North America for last season, and it looks pretty encouraging. Most major resorts seem to open in November. In Colorado Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Keystone and Loveland opened on 7th November with Winter Park opening on 11th and Aspen, Vail and Beaver Creek later in the month. Arapahoe Basin opened on 17th October and Wolf Creek is a perennial early season opener.

Timberline Lodge on Mt Hood in Oregon seems to have a history of opening early.

The major resorts in Canada, on the East Coast and around Lake Tahoe open during November, as does Jackson Hole in Wyoming. Utah resorts open a little later, in late November through early December. Typically resorts have opened when they have enough snow to ski on, so season opening dates are pretty fluid.

I need to do some more research on opening dates for the upcoming season and find out a little more about early season snow and weather conditions, but the prospects of getting some turns in during the Fall look promising!

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