Travel: Conditions poor and deadly: Skiers and ski resorts must take safety seriously, says Chris Gill

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The Independent Travel
SOUL-SEARCHING on a grand scale has followed the deaths of several British skiers this month. How can the risk of collision be reduced? Why are British skiers so persistently ignorant of International Ski Federation rules? Should inexperienced skiers be forced to ski in the company of instructors? Do we need American- style speed restrictions and piste police? Should consumption of alcohol be limited or banned? Should resorts limit the numbers of skiers on the piste, as Lech in Austria has begun to do?

All these questions miss the main point, which is that skiing becomes more dangerous when snow conditions are poor, as they are now in most alpine resorts. Even skiers who know that they should always be in control are occasionally out of control when the piste is rock-hard. (See Colin Brown's report, below.)

Falls on hard pistes present two hazards that those on soft pistes do not. First, the initial impact can be damaging and, second, the fallen skier will continue down the mountain until he or she is stopped by an immovable object.

Skiers do not attach sufficient importance to these dangers. I include myself in this indictment. A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I spoilt an excellent sunny day's skiing by finishing on a black woodland mogul field at low altitude. At 1pm, in warm sunshine, it must have been harmless. Two hours later it had been in the shade for some time and was deadly.

With the village tantalisingly close, we inched our way down, aware that a fall would be halted by a tree if it was halted at all. It was the most unnerving 15 minutes I have spent for some time.

Clearly, what was needed was greater awareness of the weather and the resulting snow conditions. But I am much more concerned about the complacent view taken by most resort authorities, who are far too ready when accidents happen to talk about the need for lowlanders to respect the mountains and the risks they present.

Skiing is now an industry, and most skiers are buying the holiday products that the industry delivers. They are entitled to expect a reasonable level of safety. I believe the attempts of many European resorts to provide that safety are half-hearted. Runs are left open when they should be closed. Danger spots on runs go unmarked. And (an old complaint of mine) precipitous drops beside easy pistes rarely get the protective fencing they need.

Resorts will readily spend vast amounts on lifts and snow-making to maintain their competitive position in the market-place. Which alpine resort will be the first to make safety a part of its marketing strategy? The dividends could be considerable.

PATSIE GOULDING writes to suggest that I presented a rather rosy picture of the Snowtrain a couple of weeks ago. She says that she and her family believe they were treated like cattle on the Channel ferry, being last on board and, therefore, without seats for the whole crossing; that the signposting at Calais Maritime station was appalling; that they were caught out by the lack of a buffet on the train; that the temperature on the train was uncontrollable; that there was a limit on personal baggage; and that passengers' chances of skiing on the first and last days of the trip depend on finding somewhere to change.

Supporting or conflicting reports are welcome.