It is a warm, sunny evening in the ski resort of l’Alpe d’Huez. Music pumps from the apres hangouts, places like O’Sharkeys, Crowded House and the FreeRide Café. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air like spring fog. Lubricated by beer on-tap the resort’s riders are admiring the feats of their heros on video monitors suspended from the ceiling. Guys like neo-punk Seth Morrison and Doug Coombs, filmed in the nearby freeride mecca of la Grave.
It is a scene that Eric Muller, the mayor of l’Alpe d’Huez would like to stop. France is not renowned as a “nanny state” but M. Muller has written to every bar in the resort asking them to take part in a voluntary ban on extreme freeride videos. M. Muller believes they incite some skiers to go off-piste without understanding the risks involved. Not everyone agrees, Laurent Belluard, in this month’s Skieur magazine points out that there is no proven causal link between video games/films and the subsequent actions of viewers. Just as watching Son of Chucky doesn’t turn the average adolescent into a pint-sized plastic serial killer why should watching Seth Morrison throw himself over a 30 meter cliff turn a well adjusted and sensible piste cruiser into a throwaway hero?
So are freeride videos just a convienient scapegoat? Skieur magazine highlights the Alpe d’Huez brochure, full of pictures including the front cover, of skiers and boarders off-piste. Not images we usually associate with the Isle of Sunshine. It is a point we have made a number of times on PisteHors.com. Convential wisdom dictates that no sane person would voluntarily launch themselves off a 35 meter cliff (the height of a 10 story office block) but when we see Hugo Harrison do it, and live, it suddenly enters the realm of the possible and it seems likely to inspire. After all, unlike the evil machinations of Chucky it does not have any direct consequence on other people. Improved equipment such as fatter, shaped skis, helmets and protective gear derived from that worn by motorcycle racers, have also led to greater stunts, and greater risks. Unfortunately many of the accident victims this winter in l’Alpe d’Huez were not wearing even basic safety equipment.
It is clear that jumping off cliffs at the same time as performing various tricks, is a risky business. Avalanche danger is less obvious. Most people have heard of avalanches but the vista of acres of fresh powder on a large slope rarely rings alarm bells. This weekend an off-piste skier was killed by an avalanche a few meters away from pistes in the Pyrenean resort of Gourette. There have been 13 avalanche deaths in the Savoie alone this winter, nearly all immediately following major snowfalls. Fred Jarry of the French Avalanche Research Association ([url=http://www.anena.org]http://www.anena.org[/url]) has seen what he thinks is a worrying shift to accidents involving off-piste skiers and snowboarders.
Skieur magazine has suggested that a solution is education. However research, particuarly by Ian McCammon in North America, indicates that backcountry enthusiasts with basic avalanche education are precisely the group most at risk. Even where they identify danger factors they frequently continue with their choice of route. In April Philippe Feautrier was injured by a slab avalanche near la Plagne. He was part of a group of four experienced ski group leaders and had some doubts about their route and the conditions having noted a cold wind and snow transport as well as steep ice covered rocks. He concluded that knowing when to make a U-turn is one of the most useful skills goal oriented off-piste skiers and snowboarders can learn.
Resorts pose other dangers. A PisteHors.com reader told us about a trip to the Grande Motte glacier in Tignes this autumn. Inspired by freeride videos playing in the funicular station inviting riders to taste the freedom of Tignes he immediately ducked under ropes to head off-piste. He was chased down by a worried and angry member of the piste patrol who suggested that the crevasses of the Grande Motte were not the best place to taste freedom unless he wanted to fly with angels. Commentators have also suggested that resort snowparks carry a health warning after some serious injuries, even to expert riders.
The mayor’s worries about videos are not new. Some experts think that each film should be preceeded by a safety video covering the dangers off piste, showing the amount of preparation that goes into each sequence and illustrating the accidents even the pros suffer. A sort of health warning. Groups such as the Swedish Free Radicals have produced their own safety film. Other suggestions are that the recent debate on “free mountain rescue” (we will return to this shortly) send the wrong signals to backcountry users who believe rescue if things go wrong is just a mobile phone call away.
While thankfully l’Alpe d’Huez has not suffered any avalanche deaths this season it has a number of pistes winding down through cliff bands and it is these cliffs, and skiers and snowboarders exploring off-piste without being sure of routes, that cause many accidents. The resort has clearly signposted a lot of the dangers and put up netting and ropes in a number of places but clearly this message is being ignored by some.
M.Muller’s letter to resort bars:
“It’s now the middle of a season that has been marked by too many accidents, for the most part due to the ignorance of the mountain environment and a lack of respect for basic security rules. It seems to me that “freeride” videos which you maybe show in your establishment play a large role in the lack of conscience of people faced by the dangers posed by the mountains… I ask you that if you show such videos, please to stop doing so. I sincerely believe that such a measure will avoid people who are influenced by such images to head off-piste becoming potential paralysis victims or fatalities.”
Eric Muller, Mayor of l’Alpe d’Huez (Translated by PisteHors.com from Skieur Magazine).
Posted by davidof
on Monday, 18 April, 2005 at 03:07 PM
To those who might be a bit surprised by the steps taken by the Alpe d’ Huez mayor I must point out that mayors in France must exercise ‘pouvoirs de police’ i.e. they have a duty to ensure amongst other things that any activity carried out in their area is safe for those who carry it out and others. It may initially appear a bit odd that he wrote to bars to express his concern over freeride videos but I believe he was rightly exercising his police powers there.
Posted by on Monday, 18 April, 2005 at 08:13 PM
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