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Stranded on a free ski holiday

JANUARY 14 – There you are, sitting in a bar high in the snowy mountains, looking out over glittering peaks and relaxing by an open fire with a drink in your hand and a warming rustic meal of freshly-baked bread and melted cheese planned for the evening.

That’s a nice enough scene, isn’t it? So now can you imagine your distress when the news breaks that you’re not going home. In fact, you’re not even allowed to go home.

You have to stay here, indefinitely, tucked away inside this winter wonderland retreat with all expenses paid by your insurance company.

That is the “sorry” fate to have befallen thousands of holidaymakers (not me, unfortunately) this week in the Alps, where exceptionally heavy snowfall closed the access routes into several ski resorts, leaving 13,000 people stuck in Zermatt, Switzerland, to name just one.

Skiing is a huge business in Europe. The Alpine mountain range stretching across Italy, France, Switzerland and Austria offers an array of destinations, supplemented by smaller but still extremely popular resorts in other areas such as the Pyrenees in Spain and Andorra, the Pirin mountains in Bulgaria and the Julian Alps in Slovenia.

Nearly 30 million people in France, Germany and the UK alone are active skiers, and the world’s busiest ski resort is La Plagne in France, which welcomes around 2.5 million visitors every year.

Tourists at a ski resort in Zermatt being evacuated by helicopter on Wednesday. ― Picture by AFP
Tourists at a ski resort in Zermatt being evacuated by helicopter on Wednesday. ― Picture by AFP

Nearly a half of the world’s total ski resorts are in Europe, with a third of them in the Alps, but perhaps my favourite statistic to illustrate just how hard the skiing bug has bitten is the fact that the Netherlands, a country which contains no mountains, has one million regular skiers.

The appeal is easy to understand. Skiing itself, when you’ve navigated the first few days of being useless and frustrated by falling over all the time, is an exhilarating, thrilling feeling.

The experience of flying down a slope, maintaining balance and knowing that you have perfect control, is more than a little addictive — even if you’re probably actually traversing the slopes much more slowly and with far less elegance than you might like to imagine (or is that just me?).

The environment is also captivating, especially on a sunny day when mile after mile of snow-capped peaks open up in front of you to present a scene of majestic, serene beauty. It can be hard to beat a chair lift for views.

And, of course, there’s the apres-ski entertainment. After a long day on the slopes, it’s immensely satisfying to settle down and rest your tired limbs in front of a roaring fire with a cold beer or a hot chocolate, and the huge number of resorts means it’s very easy to find evening fun for everyone from relaxed families to full-blown partying hedonists.

With all this going on, it can be easy to forget how dangerous the mountains can be. We can be fooled by the comfort of the hotels and hostels into believing the natural world outside is placid and benign.

But as the thousands of trapped holidaymakers have discovered this week, the uplands are actually very hostile places, indifferent to human needs and liable to unleash their full power at any time.

Skiing injuries, for starters, are very common, with a constant risk of anything from minor sprains to major bone breaks or even more serious head injuries of the type which put former racing driver Michael Schumacher in a coma when he collided with a rock in the French Alps four years ago.

A British skier is believed to have died in this week’s snowfall, and I know from sad experience that kind of tragedy is not uncommon: my best friend from junior school, Jamie, died in a mountain accident in his early 20s.

Avalanches are a constant hazard during the winter months, killing one skier in the Pyrenees this week, and the closure of all ski slopes throughout much of the Alps following the fall of more than a metre of snow in just 24 hours on Monday was another reminder of the precariousness of high altitude life.

Still, though, the tourists will keep on coming in droves. Part of human nature is that most of us assume the worst will always happen to someone else, throwing ourselves happily into risky situations in the belief that nothing nasty will happen.

Most of the time, of course, that’s a safe bet. The odds really are heavily stacked against the probability of any one individual finding themselves involved in a serious incident. If, say, five people die every year skiing out of a total of 10 million skiers, those are pretty good odds to take.

And, of course, the resorts are perfectly prepared for the worst to happen, with a sizeable industry devoted to preparing and maintaining the pistes, and ensuring everything is as safe as possible.

Most of the time, that process works smoothly and a skiing holiday is about as safe as an active outdoor pursuit could be. And as we’ve seen this week, even a rare bout of severe weather doesn’t necessarily have to be dangerous, with some tourists in Zermatt air-lifted out of the area while others waited for the train lines to be re-opened.

But although it’s not so bad to be holed up in a well-stocked modern hotel with central heating and plentiful supplies of food and drink, you certainly wouldn’t want the situation to persist and find yourself trapped at the top of a mountain for days on end.

That knowledge of potential danger, even if it stays in the back of our minds, is probably one of the attractions of a skiing holiday: it’s safe, but it isn’t. It’s a beautiful environment, but it’s also pretty scary.

It’s a little bit of living on the edge for people who normally live in a comfortable cocoon.

And as long as the supplies don’t run out and the log fire remains alight, there’s no harm in that.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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