Michael Schumacher injury: How dangerous is off-piste skiing?

Skiing, generic

Former F1 champion Michael Schumacher is fighting for his life in a French hospital after suffering a head injury in an off-piste skiing accident. How dangerous is off-piste skiing, asks Tom de Castella.

Schumacher was wearing a helmet, which experts say may have prevented him dying in the immediate aftermath.

Skiing itself has proportionately fewer fatalities than cycling or swimming, says Dr Mike Langran, a GP who founded the website ski-injury.com. When it comes to injuries, there are about "2-4 injuries per 1,000 days spent on the slopes", he says.

But is venturing off-piste more dangerous? There are no comprehensive statistics as it's impossible to know how many people are skiing off-piste at any one time, experts say. Off-piste refers to any area not marked out and maintained for use by skiers.

Off-piste slopes are not groomed by snow ploughs, so rocks, precipices and cliffs may not be easy to spot, especially in poor visibility. But the biggest risk is avalanches.

In the past two days alone, seven people have died in the Alps from avalanches. Nigel Shepherd, the Ski Club of Great Britain's safety adviser, says between 24 to 26 people die each winter in France from avalanches. Pistes are usually protected by controlled explosions and snow ploughs. But ski resorts do not have the same responsibilities for off-piste areas.

Schumacher hit his head and there's no evidence to suggest this is more likely off-piste. In 2009, the actress Natasha Richardson died after hitting her head on a beginner's piste. She was not wearing a helmet and since then there has been a boom in helmets.

Tom Robbins, Financial Times travel editor, was recently near the spot in Meribel where Schumacher's accident is thought to have occurred. Schumacher was off-piste but in very gentle terrain and within view of a blue [relatively easy] run. He was not going off "into the wilderness", says Robbins. The avalanche risk would have been low.

However, head injuries can happen whenever there is a fall. And the risk of hitting a rock would probably have been greater here than on the marked piste.

Insurance policies often demand a supplement be paid for skiing holidays and may explicitly rule out off-piste, or demand it take place with a guide. But Langran thinks that when you weigh up all the factors, proportionately fewer accidents may take place off-piste.

"This is probably because most off-piste skiers have more experience and use better equipment." That, and the fact there are fewer people to collide with - collisions on the piste are a regular occurrence and part of the reason helmets have become so popular.

There has been a big change in how people ski, says Robbins. Once the preserve of a few adventurous experts, going off-piste has become mainstream in the past decade. And whereas you can plan for avalanches by taking good local advice and safety equipment, the Schumacher case seems more like a "freak" accident, he says.

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