A Spate of Fatal Ski Accidents Has People Wondering if the Alps Are Safe
Climate change has led to sudden snow melt followed by harsh freezes, making this European ski season one of the deadliest on record.
ROME—A 5-year-old girl and a famous French actor are the latest fatalities in an increasingly dangerous sport: alpine skiing.
Last week a 40-year-old French man was charged with manslaughter after plowing into a 5-year-old girl at full speed as she was taking part in a lesson organized by the French Ski school near Chamonix, which is sometimes known by its nickname–the “death sports capital of the world.” Her injuries were so severe she was airlifted to a nearby hospital but died en route. A week later, French actor and upcoming star of the Marvel TV series Moon Knight Gaspard Ulliel died in a freak accident on the piste in La Rosiere, Savoie.
The twin deaths have proved untimely for the ski industry, which is just coming back online after two years of harsh restrictions driven by the pandemic. Prior to the COVID fiasco, eight people died in the shortened 2020/2021 season, according to the French tourism ministry. That same year 100,000 people were injured, some with near-fatal head injuries and serious broken bones. Around 5 percent of those who were injured required airlifted to hospitals. Some years, the number of people who have died skiing in the Alps hits triple digits.
Authorities fault those who ski the best and who don’t follow recommendations to slow down in certain areas where slower skiers might be or in residential areas along the slopes. Ulliel died from injuries he suffered after crashing into another skier who remained unharmed on a blue piste. Police charged the man who killed the 5-year-old child with using “excessive speed” and ignoring a sign that warned skiers to slow down due to the presence of the French ski school. However, collisions between skiers or ski groups make up just 5 percent of all Alpine accidents. The main cause of these deaths is human error and most deaths are caused by single skier accidents. French authorities say they are investigating whether or not helmets should be required for all skiers.
The famous accident involving Formula One racer Michael Schumacher, who is still in serious rehabilitation after a ski accident in Meribel in the French Alps in December 2013, had for a time brought the issue of ski safety in the Alps to the forefront. Those who argue against a helmet requirement point out that the German was wearing a helmet when he fell and hit his head on a rock and that the helmet did not stop serious brain injury.
Ski safety aside, authorities say that there is an even bigger threat to skiers on the horizon. Avalanches fueled by climate change are starting to pose the biggest threat to snow lovers. The number of avalanches in the 2020/21 season more than doubled over the previous year. Between December 2020 and April 2021—when many slopes were closed due to the pandemic—27 fatal avalanches killed 37 cross-country skiers without warning.
This winter has marked one of the warmest in years in normally chilly ski areas. In Italy, the popular ski area of Cortina d’Ampezzo was 15 degrees centigrade above normal on New Year's Day, making it almost impossible to ski. Melting snow that didn’t even freeze overnight at altitudes lower than 4,000 meters also meant it was too warm to produce artificial snow. Luca Mercalli, a meteorologist who studies the Italian alpine region said that the warm weather and high winds were a perfect recipe for avalanches since accumulated snow that is heavier as it melts could easily slide down the mountain in those warm temperatures. “We can’t warn everyone off the mountain during the height of ski season, but this is a particularly worrying phenomenon,” he told The Daily Beast. “It is hard to say it is safe out there.”