Blood on the snow: If there were no spills there would be no thrills. But is it too dangerous? After the deaths of four British skiers in just a few days, Doug Sager looks at safety in the Alps and finds that Europe could learn a lot from America

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RIDING down in the telecabine last week in Verbier, it took me some moments to realise that my fellow passenger was not wearing war-paint, a ski fashion now rather passe. The red stains were blood. It was oozing down his face, seeping into his jacket and dripping on to the floor.

It wasn't my only sight of blood last week. I came across two accident scenes: the skis set up in crosses to warn oncoming skiers; the huddle of rescue workers; the pale-faced victim being strapped into the sledge-like 'bloodwagon' for the ride down the piste to the hospital helicopter; the red stain in the snow.

Skiing is dangerous. If it wasn't, it would not be so much fun. The mountains may be beautiful, the sun may shine and the air may be sharp, but these are the added extras of the sport. The real thrill lies in speed and the challenge of a difficult descent. Even a beginner feels it, and as he masters the turns he sets himself ever-tougher tests, hurrying from easy blue runs to intermediate red runs, from red to difficult black. If he didn't fall over when he got it wrong, he wouldn't get a kick out of getting it right. If he falls when he is going fast, it hurts.

So every skier falls, and inevitably some falls cause injuries. Back home, the victims are often treated as figures of fun: they spend their honeymoon up to their waists in plaster; they return home after a collision while waiting for the first chairlift on the first morning; they have a tumble on the last afternoon and end up taking three extra weeks off work.

Last week, however, safety on the slopes was not a joke. Four British skiers were killed in the Alps in just a few days. At Tignes, near Val d'Isere in France, Nicola Jones, 18, described by her mother as an excellent skier, was killed in a collision with a young Frenchman, alleged to have been skiing out of control. At Les Arcs, Annabel Paradise, 34, slipped from a high-altitude trail marked for experts only and died after an uncontrolled slide over a cliff. At La Plagne, Norma Sunderland, 46, described by her husband as an experienced skier, died after breaking her back in a fall on piste. In Austria, Martin Taylor, 26, died in Soll after slipping across rocks and over an unfenced cliff. Mr Taylor and his companion were trying to make their way back to the pistes after their skilift broke down.

Riding up a chairlift in Verbier, I asked my companion if she had heard about the deaths. 'I'm scared enough as it is,' she replied, 'I don't even want to think about it.'

Once you do think about it, everything seems different. I watched small children sliding on uncontrollable plastic sledges down the middle of the piste. On an easy slope favoured by beginners, race-training courses were set up with no barriers to prevent the inept from wandering into the path of the hell-bent. At the mid- station, skiers on the left were removing their skis to enter the restaurant while skiers on the right were removing their skis to enter the lift; through the narrow passage between them passed a jetstream of show-offs on their vertiginous way to the pistes below. And this is the area where parents put their toddlers to play while they lunch on the terrace nearby. Sometimes you wonder why there are not more accidents.

According to the Ski Club of Great Britain, 700,000 Britons travelled to the Alps last year with tour operators, while many more came out independently and uncounted. It is an annual migration of long standing, for the British virtually invented the Alpine winter sports holiday at the turn of the century and in the Twenties they turned it into a fashion. The jet, the package trip and the shared chalet holiday (another British invention) opened the slopes to the masses and now the international ski industry is worth dollars 20bn ( pounds 13bn) annually on both sides of the Atlantic. In Switzerland winter tourism brings in 10bn Swiss francs ( pounds 4.5bn) a year.

HOW many people get injured? We don't really know. The Ski Club says there are no reliable statistics and views as 'dubious' figures put forward last week suggesting that 100,000 skiers of all nationalities suffered serious injury each season and 200 died, while 50 Britons a week were flown home by air ambulance.

One body that does keep records is the lift company in Verbier, and that gives a snapshot of what happens in one resort. Last year 12.4 million passengers were taken up the mountain in Verbier; 627 skiers were treated for injuries serious enough to need help from resort staff.

Broken bones accounted for 29 per cent of Verbier's injuries, and dislocations 28 per cent. Cuts and bruises from encounters with hard snow made up another 25 per cent. Only 2 per cent of injuries were the result of collision with another skier. (This echoes the conclusion of a recent Austrian study, which found that skiers are three times more likely to die of heart attack than by collision.)

Far fewer injuries were reported on black runs than on the easier blue and red slopes. And, as every skier knows, the time of greatest risk is at the end of the day, when everybody is going home. The lower pistes are seldom free of rocks and patches of ice. They are always clogged with tired skiers, many unsure of the route, thinking nothing of sudden forays horizontally across the fall line. And there is always somebody who just gives up and lies down in the middle of the traffic.

Last week, however, there was an additional hazard. In each of the fatal accidents the determining factor, although not the sole cause, was hard, hard snow. Many British skiers would use the term ice. True ice does exist in patches. But everywhere in the Alps, thanks to the recent dearth of new snow, the old snow is packed hard, part-thawed and then re- frozen: the slopes are as rough and unyielding as a cement floor.

Are British skiers particularly at risk? The answer is probably yes, if only marginally more than others. Few British skiers have much experience of these conditions and it is no coincidence that two of the latest deaths occurred on the first day of the holiday, before the new arrivals had had time to adjust their technique to the unfamiliar surface.

British skiers are also more likely to be injured in the present conditions simply because most Britons fall into the intermediate skier category. The skiers most at risk now are not rank beginners or established experts, but the average intermediate with four or five ski holidays' experience.

The beginner is ideally tucked away on a gentle learner's slope; when he falls he will stay put instead of sliding hundreds of metres downhill, faster and faster. The expert is high up the mountain where the snow is lighter and drier. When he falls, he knows how to look after himself and is less likely to be bumped into.

It is the skier who knows how to schuss downhill but may not have a real mastery of turning and stopping on a difficult surface who is likely to fall the hardest. Red runs are made for cruising, straight, with no bumps or other reasons to slow down. They are not steep, so the build-up of speed is gradual and insidious. Red runs also tend to be at a lower altitude, where snow conditions deteriorate first.

Intermediate skiers, moreover, do not have the rigid racing skis that help when driving the ski edge into a safe, carving turn. Bendy skis with poor edges can be a quick route to a cliffside exit.

What can be done to make skiing safer? There was a flurry of suggestions last week. A ski instructor in Zermatt suggested banning beginners from all resorts unless accompanied by a qualified teacher, a profitable idea for ski schools but one which ignores the fact that none of the British fatalities involved debutant skiers. The director of one of Britain's leading ski insurance firms suggested a card-entry system, whereby expert and intermediate skiers would have to present an identification card to gain entry to the more difficult pistes.

But the loudest cry, heard most poignantly from the mother of Nicola Jones, whose death was the only one to involve another skier, was for American-style piste policing.

MORE AND MORE British skiers have been going to North America - the market has grown from 2,000 to 25,000 skiers in the past four years. And no one who has skied there would deny that North American skiing is more polite and safety-conscious.

In lift queues, Americans wait patiently. The American chairlifts inch gently up to the skier so no loading accidents can occur. Children are segregated into areas where no adult can run them down. Pistes and maps are blazoned with Go Slow signs wherever traffic is heavy. And there are piste police - volunteers, resort employees or in some cases local sheriffs - to keep order.

North Americans can also be puritanical about alcohol. At the mountaintop restaurant in Whistler, Canada, the bartender withheld my second beer while he asked, 'I assume you are riding down the lift rather than skiing, sir?' Contrast that with the schnapps bars built right on the piste in the Alps.

Like the British, Americans rarely grow up skiing and learn the sport on occasional holidays. Consequently, Americans in general are mediocre skiers. They like well-groomed red runs, and that is what they get.

American ski resorts all have legally defined borders. In most cases they are operated under lease agreements with federal or state forest commissions. By law, and above all by the fear of litigation, they are under pressure to ensure that even the most accident-prone idiot cannot come to grief within their boundaries.

'If you trip on a pebble on the piste in the States,' says Mark Nickless, a veteran California skier, 'you can retire for life.' Liability hysteria has helped to force more than 40 Colorado ski resorts out of business in recent years.

European resorts, almost impossible to sue successfully, lack the motivation, and the manpower, for American-style policing.

Only one European resort is experimenting with piste police: the tiny Austrian area of Axamer Lizum. Few British skiers go there, but it is close to Innsbruck and popular with Austrian weekend skiers, apparently just as badly behaved as the worst British or French ski hooligans.

The Axamer Lizum project, paid for by the local ski school and the lift company, is testing the idea of piste police for the whole country. Two 'Piste Angels' cruise the slopes, issuing warnings to irresponsible skiers and, in extreme cases, confiscating ski passes. Unlike America's skiing sheriffs, they have no powers to arrest skiers or issue summonses.

The differences between skiing in America and Europe are not merely legal; there is a culture gap. Mountain guide John Hogg insists: 'Europeans would no more accept a restriction on their skiing than they would a 55mph national speed limit.' Christian Corthay, one of Verbier's most adventurous skiers, said: 'For us, off-piste skiing up on the glaciers and in the couloirs is to be in the last wilderness in Europe.'

European skiers are far more exposed to ski sauvage or skiing snow in its natural state. They appear to accept avalanches and accidents as an inevitable part of skiing, without in any way courting either. The Swiss federal constitution, for example, guarantees the right of any citizen to go anywhere in the mountains, a right which is zealously guarded.

This means that the resorts are often powerless to control the skiers. Last winter, when exposed rocks made conditions far more dangerous than at present, the Verbier authorities erected a huge plastic fence to stop skiers from entering the notorious Tortin 'wall' off-piste route. Skiers crawled and cut their way through. In extreme cases, when avalanche danger is at its highest, men are stationed by large fences closing off areas at threat. Skiers argue with the security personnel or track around them.

One sure way to reduce the number of accidents is to reduce the number of skiers. Studies by the American forest service show that accidents rise exponentially with skier density. Lech, in Austria, is the only resort in the Alps to be willing to shut down the cash registers in order to provide a safer, and more environmentally sound, skiing experience. Once 14,000 lift tickets are sold, roads to the resort are closed. Obviously, when there are fewer skiers to run into, and less erosion of snow cover, skiing will be less hazardous. No other resort in Europe has followed the example of Lech, but then most of the clients at Lech can afford to pay any price for exclusivity.

In all the soul-searching for ways to make skiing safer it is important to realise that there is no way to eliminate risk from a sport that thrives on speed and the challenge of the difficult and dangerous. Off-piste skiing, with its forays into unpatrolled, unknown terrain, is the skier's ultimate challenge and the biggest growth area by far.

But America shows that resorts can do more, and it would be in their interests: blood on the piste is a sorry advert for skiing.

Skiing's ten commandments

THE International Ski Federation lays down rules for skiers. Skiers who break them can be punished in criminal suits for reckless skiing and civil suits for damages. These are the rules:

1. A skier must behave in such a way that he does not endanger or prejudice others.

2. A skier must ski in control. He must adapt his speed and manner of skiing to his personal ability and to the prevailing conditions of terrain, snow and weather as well as to the density of traffic.

3. A skier coming from behind must choose his route in such a way that he does not endanger skiers ahead.

4. A skier may overtake another skier above or below and to the right or the left, provided he leaves space for the overtaken skier to make any voluntary or involuntary movement.

5. A skier entering a marked run or starting again after stopping must look up and down the run to make sure that he can do so without endangering himself or others.

6. Unless absolutely necessary, skiers must avoid stopping on the piste in narrow places or where visibility is restricted. After a fall in such a place, a skier must move clear of the piste as soon as possible.

7. Skiers on foot must keep to the side of the piste.

8. Skiers must respect all signs and markings.

9. At accidents, every skier ts is duty bound to assist.

10. Following an accident, every skier and witness must exchange names and addresses.

(Photographs omitted)