Ski Accidentology

It’s said that journalists “never let the facts get in the way of a good story”. When the facts concern snow, avalanches, swanky Alpine ski resorts and junketting doctors the press pack is out in force. The office phone was ringing hot last week as British journalists tried to find an interesting angle on the death of a 40 year old doctor in Val d’Isère.

The Telegraph wondered about the “the rise of snowsports injuries” and put it down to cheap flights and unfit British skiers who see a week in the Alps in the same light as sitting on the beach. Booze, food, apres and a chance to work on that ski tan. The Guardian bemoaned that “off-piste casualties cast a shadow over Alpine ski resorts”. The Mail’s thoughts were closer to home. In an article amusingly by-lined “Sloping Off”, they wondered if a meeting of 500 British NHS Doctors in Val d’Isere had left hospitals short staffed costing the taxpayer a guestimated £400,000. Last week’s victim was part of this group. Another journalist wanted to play the climate change card “couldn’t the rise in accidents be attributed to global warming”, he asked, somewhat hopefully. The very cheap flights that are getting unfit skiers to the slopes are also killing them.

The Guardian’s piece quoted Val d’Isere instructor James Fisher as saying, “if this were happening in a holiday resort in Spain or Portugal there would be outrage”. Well it might interest Mr Fisher and the Guardian that it is, it just doesn’t interest the press. The French government publishes an annual report on the dangers faced by holiday makers. Ski injuries are significant, 140 thousand injuries for 8.5 million skiers, with around 9% requiring hospital treatment. In 2006-7 there were 12 deaths on piste and 10 off piste including 5 avalanche victims. However the number of deaths swimming in French holiday resorts and pools for the period June to August runs at over 300 with children, the middle aged and elderly forming a large part of the statistics.

The Guardian can’t let Dr Bruce’s death go and suggests that he was pushed over the cliff by an avalanche, as if a simple route finding error and tragic fall wasn’t interesting enough for their piece. The article claims that at current rates, 8 deaths over the last three months with allusions to “countless near misses”, will exceed last year. It continues with the statement that “attempts to educate mountain users in the dangers of ‘hors piste’ are falling on deaf ears” and that the overall European figure of 29 deaths is seen as “worryingly high by ski professionals”. Now there is nothing wrong with articles about safety, it is a major part of this website. However we want to present a more rounded picture of the risks.

Lets look at the claims for avalanche fatalities first. Switzerland has suffered 6 deaths to date (11 February 2008). The average over the last ten years is 10.3. In France there is a similar picture. 9 deaths including 3 where the circumstances are unclear. Almost the same as last year which saw the lowest number of avalanche deaths on record in France. As highlighted in our analysis for the 2005-6 season overall fatality rates depend greatly on snow conditions. The last couple of years have been characterised by lack of snow and warmer winter temperatures stabilizing the snow-pack. If there is a link with climate change then more extreme but warmer weather may result in a lower number of deaths as we experience spring skiing conditions throughout the winter. So far the 2005-06 season, which also got the press thundering about “skiers dicing with death off-piste” with 57 deaths looks like being an exception. It was the result of very thin snow-cover at the start of the winter and very cold temperatures over a sustained period followed by some large snowfalls in January and February 2006. There is a linkage between falls and avalanche deaths. The spring conditions which stabilize slopes also increases the risk of falls due to hard snow and ice. Warm conditions and poor snow means weakly bridged crevasses on glaciers.

Looking at the last 17 years of French statistics we see that the average ski tourer fatality is a male aged 37 year compared to 32 years for off-piste. 28% of victims are foreigners (Swedish, Spanish and British skiers and climbers featuring prominently). Last year 55% of people involved in avalanches had a working beacon, however none of the off-piste skiers or climbers were equipped. Beacon wearers have about an evens chance of being dug out of an avalanche alive compared to 10% for non-wearers. Around 90% of avalanche fatalities occur between 1st of December and the 30th April and 83% are slab avalanches. Barring a sudden change in the weather we are already half way through the current avalanche season.

The only overall trend that can be observed in France is a move from avalanche deaths involving people in their homes or on the road to skiing. This is due to better zoning and avalanche prediction in mountain areas and a marked increase in off piste skiing and more recently ski touring. The overall fatality rate for France has been pretty much stable at around 30 per year since 1970 with a reduction over the last few years. This despite a large increase in the number of participants and a move to skiing in winter conditions. The message about rescue equipment seems to be getting through, to ski tourers at least.

Mountain Doctors (Medecins du Montagne) are a very good source of ski accident information for French ski resorts.

Over the last decade they have observed the following trends.

* Fewer knee injuries - probably due to better ski gear. However women over 25 are 2.5 times more likely to suffer this injury compared to other groups. MdM say this is due to poorer physical condition. They also advise that bindings should be checked by a ski shop before each winter break as incorrect binding settings are major source of injury. One can also imagine middle aged ladies being dragged down black slopes by their husbands!

* More leg breakages

* More head injuries (despite 90% helmet usage by children)

The risk of injury following a collisions with an object has dropped. There is stricter legislation regarding padding and signposting of obstacles and the increase use of chicanes at dangerous sections of ski slopes. However it is an important cause of death, 6 in 2007.

Risk of collisions with other piste user has increased, especially for under 11s and over 55s. MdM don’t give any reason for this. It has been on an upward trend since 2001 with 1 in 10 accidents now involving collisions. The following reasons have been advanced by experts: Better ski gear leading to higher speeds. Use of safety equipment such as helmets may make some piste users feel invulnerable and they are sharing the slopes with unprotected users. Faster ski lifts mean more people skiing on the slopes rather than queuing. Poor winters can lead to slope overcrowding and can mean hard snow and faster speeds with a less forgiving surface if you fall. Snowboarders are 1.5 times more likely to have an accident than a skier. They are major users of snowparks which require high skill levels. Collisions between snowboarders in these concentrated spots are also a major risk.

Resorts and professionals are not complacent in face of these risks. Ski resorts pad or signpost obstacles. Education is a big factor with campaigns on piste safety each winter. Controlling speed, getting gear serviced or replaced, wearing helmets for children. Off piste there is better awareness of search and rescue gear such as avalanche beacons which improved enormously in user friendliness. Freeriders are increasingly using safety gear such as the Snowpulse and ABS Airbags. Both are sacks that can be inflated in case of an avalanche keeping the skier on the surface and preventing injury from collisions with rocks and ice during the slide. Another factor is improved training and response times for the rescue services. For example the French mountain rescue has been deploying the new EC145 helicopter to replace the aging Allouette III, some are over 30 years old. The EC145 has a higher payload and can fly twice as fast as the Alouette with better night flying capabilities.

Devices such as Recco reflectors are increasingly being included in clothing. These can be detected by special receivers carried by the rescue services to give a location of an accident victim, they are especially useful in case of avalanche but can also help when searching for missing people during the night when using a helicopter equipped with the receiver. Primark was recently selling budget ski gear equipped with Recco. Mobile phone triangulation has been used to find a missing skier (sadly dead) as has tracking users around the ski area using their hands free lift pass to give a rough search area. All interesting developments.

Further Information

An Analysis of French Avalanche Accidents for 2005-2006

Medecins du Montagne 2007 Report (link in French)

Other information from the Système National d’Observation de la Sécurité en Montagne and ANENA

The Rise of Snowsports Injuries:

NHS doctors hit slopes on ‘education course’ that could cost taxpayer £400,000:

Off-piste casualties cast a shadow over Alpine ski resorts:

Posted by davidof on Tuesday, 12 February, 2008 at 10:19 AM

Thanks for some of the comments. Yes we are only half way through the season - not 2/3rds as I originally stated.

Regarding the beacon wearers. Of the people killed last year 55% had beacons but these were exclusively ski tourers. No one who was off piste skiing or climbing (which is normal for them) was wearing a beacon.

We are not talking huge figures so there is quite a bit of deviation from one season to another. However as a general rule off piste skiers are less well equipped than ski tourers.

Posted by davidof on  Tuesday, 12 February, 2008  at 06:38 PM

I’m sure at some avalanche awareness presentation I was at a few years back it was stated that no-one had actually been saved from an avalanche as a result of solely wearing a Recco reflector.  Is this right ? Any other comments on this ?  I just think people may fall into the trap of thinking that they don’t need a transceiver if they are venturing off-piste

Posted by  on  Wednesday, 13 February, 2008  at 01:38 PM

Good informative article David. Still shocking stats regarding off-piste skier deaths and their lack of safety equipment. The mind boggles.

Posted by  on  Wednesday, 13 February, 2008  at 01:54 PM

> I was at a few years back it was stated that no-one had actually been saved from an avalanche as a result of solely wearing a Recco reflector.  Is this right ?

You are right, a Recco is just a little extra joker but has been more use for body recovery. There have been a couple of live rescues in France recently. One an les Deux Alpes. However you are waiting for the rescue services to arrive and that delay is usually fatal.

Posted by davidof on  Wednesday, 13 February, 2008  at 02:17 PM

Re your comment : “One can also imagine middle aged ladies being dragged down black slopes by their husbands! “

Only one comment - how very patronising and sexist you are

Two of the strongest skiers I have ever skiied with are female and well past middle age

Posted by  on  Wednesday, 13 February, 2008  at 03:40 PM
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