TRAVEL / SKI SPECIAL: Controls to thrill: New hardware will maximise safety on the slopes without spoiling the fun

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THE SKI dream turned sour last winter; in January alone, the rock-hard pistes claimed the lives of 30 skiers. With such statistics uppermost in their minds, enthusiasts about to book a winter break are asking themselves: 'Is skiing safe?'

The short answer is, yes. Ski lifts, piste grooming and patrolling - and skis, boots and bindings themselves - are constantly improving. The average skier's standard of fitness and ability is far higher than a decade ago. Indeed, it is exactly this greater feeling of security that inspires skiers to dare more.

'Safe doesn't sell ski holidays,' says one of Britain's major tour operators, who prefers to remain anonymous. 'Fun does.' Some safe skiing suggestions patently run the risk of killing off the fun factor for good. Imagine a ski holiday where adults would not be allowed on-piste without a certificate.

Requiring all skiers to wear helmets, breathalysing skiers on the slopes after lunch, banning snowboards, seeding the pistes with posses of 'ski police' armed with radar guns to trap speeders . . . at least these proposals are somewhat less obviously self- serving than one ski teacher's suggestion that no beginner be allowed on the mountain unless accompanied by a certified ski school instructor.

Skiing is a sport that thrives on thrills. Prohibition will not work. Last winter's accidents were an inevitable consequence of extraordinary concrete-hard snow conditions. Sensible skiing, adapted to snow conditions, isn't going to be legislated. Wearing a helmet won't force a skier to use his head.

Hardware, though, can help. New materials and computer design now allow the ordinary skier to wield significantly longer and stiffer sticks, with no compromise in ease of turning. This means far greater stability. When you lean over on the edge of a ski like the Volkl P10 slalom, for example, the ski will curve like a razor through flesh, even on the hardest ice. Soon, bindings will adjust electronically. For the moment, the most advanced binding system is unquestionably Marker's Selective Control.

The Selective Control binding is perhaps the most important development since metal skis replaced hickory sticks. The Marker binding has three positions, corresponding to ice, normal piste and soft snow. In practice, it's like having three different skis for different snow conditions.

Avalanchedanger was obscured last year in the publicity over piste fatalities. But skiing away from the marked and groomed pistes is currently all the rage. Going off-piste, ideally with a certified mountain guide, requires an additional investment in hardware.

Most skiers are delighted at the prospect of acquiring new toys, especially off-piste items that bolster one's ski cred. Although the Ski Club of Great Britain still does not require all skiers going off-piste with its ski reps to carry avalanche transceivers, all mountain guides do.

The Austrian-made Pieps transceiver sends and receives signals on the new international standard of 457kHz. The lightest and most durable model on the market for the price, around pounds 125, the Pieps is a literal lifesaver. Many holiday skiers make the mistake of thinking they are protected by passive devices attached to ski boots or sewn into jackets.

Only a two-way transceiver like the Pieps provides immediate on-scene capability to search for victimsburied by an avalanche. Passive reflectors are useless in an emergency, unless a helicopter with the appropriate transmitter is immediately available. Survival rates drop below 50 per cent for victims buried more than half an hour.

So why get buried? The ABS rucksack is a new anti-avalanche device that fits air bags like those in cars into a backpack. It workedin 20 real-life slides last winter. The German inventor is afraid that the ABS might be used irresponsibly by thrill- seekers, so it's sold only through a few certified mountain guides (contact Bergfuhrer John Hogg, tel 01041 446 8353).

Finally, the ultimate panacea for off-piste skiers: wide-body skis the size of water skis. Originally developed by Atomic for the helicopter skiing and deep powder snow terrain of British Columbia, 'fat boy' skis from several other manufacturers should appear soon in the shops. But beware: there is a catch.

Off-piste in deep snow the fat boys are a dream. Skiing in powder and even in difficult 'crud' or breakable crust snow is suddenly possible for skiers of very limited ability. But sooner or later resort skiers return to the hard-packed piste, where those of ordinary ability may find even minimal control difficult.

Despite their magical properties in the powder, the wide- body skis are unlikely to find favour with hard-core skiers. They can't abide being seen to be doing it the easy way.