Saturday, April 13, 2013

"It's a really wonderful sport", said Margaret Thatcher

MT on skis in the 1960s
There can't be much about Margaret Thatcher's life that hasn't been thoroughly written about in the days since her death. Although I am one of those who virulently opposed her ideas, policies and all that she stood for, she eclipsed most of my adult life from leaving university to the creeping decay of middle-age. However, I was fascinated to find that MT was a keen skier. She was introduced to the sport by her millionaire husband Denis, who regularly sojourned in Switzerland when the  going got a bit tough in the business world.

MT hated foreign travel and especially holidays (she famously came back from a 10-day trip to Corsica after 4 days saying she had 'done' the island and was missing work), but she was prepared to overcome her dislike of 'abroad' to enjoy skiing holidays, and to enable her twins Carol and Mark to develop a passion for the sport. Lenzerheide, in the Graubunden area of Switzerland, was a favourite destination. 

Carol and Marco  in 1996
Carol became an accomplished skier, and for a time worked as a ski journalist.  She's been in an 'on-off' relationship with Swiss ski instructor Marco Grass since 1992, and lives part of the time with him in Klosters.

MTs enthusiasm for skiing appears to have been at its height in the early 1960s, before the pressures of opposition, government and eventually the premiership were to dominate her existence. She attended the opening of Britain's first dry ski slope, at Battersea Park in London in December 1962. The occasion was presided over by her friend the hotelier and restauranteur Charles Forte. Despite being a good skier himself he didn't actually ski down the bakelite slope on that opening day:  instead he persuaded Mrs Thatcher to share a toboggan for the 60ft descent.

MT with Charles Forte on Britain's first dry ski slope
The picture, from the London Evening News, shows MT actually appearing to enjoy herself!
She told the Evening News reporter:

“Last year the children were eight and we decided it was time they learned.  Now we are all tremendous enthusiasts, in fact we are spending Christmas in Switzerland this year."

"It will be my first Christmas away from doing the turkey and all that sort of thing. It's a really wonderful sport.”

Mrs. Thatcher's period as British prime-minister coincided with rapid growth in the winter sports industry, notably with the emergence of the independent chalet operator (largely in response the widespread customer dissatisfaction with the winter sports packages offered by mass tour operators like Clarksons and Swan Holidays, who were only really concerned about getting extra profit out of their aeroplane fleets). Crystal Holidays was started in 1980, and went on to be the largest 'chalet holiday' operator, largely defining the chalet industry that we know today.

MT seems to have lost interest in skiing as her political career accelerated, and the savage spending cuts of the 1980s saw an end to funding for professional competitive ski training that has never been redressed.

There's a wonderful Pathé newsreel video of the opening of the Battersea Slope, including a few jumps and tricks. Didn't they dress well in those days!

Many thanks to my friend Robert Balchin (the man who introduced me to skiing!) for digging out MTs words about skiing.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Avalanche tragedy: could your lift pass save your life?

location of fatal avalance, 2 days earlier
Everyone in and around Les Arcs was deeply shocked by the death of a 41 year old Russian skier who was avalanched on the Grand Renard piste  above Arc 2000 on March 30th.  She was skiing with her husband, child and an instructor when an avalanche, some 50m long and 15m wide spontaneously released from the steep slope above the piste. The avalanche was only 1.5m deep, but the heavy, wet snow pulled her over and dragged her under. 20 rescuers were soon on the scene, and she was discovered alive half an hour later, in a state of cardiac arrest. She was helicoptered to Grenoble CHR, where tragically she died the following morning.

Avalanches on the piste are perhaps the event most feared by ski resorts, who employ dozens of people and spend lots of money on a variety of techniques and methods whose aim is to release safely any accumulation of snow that could threaten the resort, the pistes or the skiers below. Strangely, hearing the distant booms and bangs of avalanche release at breakfast time in the chalet is invigorating: it means plenty of fresh show has fallen during the night, and it's also reassuring to know the resort is already being made safe by the pisteurs.

Gasex avalanche release system
Permamanet 'Gasex' (uses compressed gas to cause an explosion, triggered remotely) and 'Catex' (transports dynamite on wires to specific location where its detonated) installations ensure that snow is swept safely from the gullies, cliffs and slopes known to pose avalanche danger. A skier on a piste in a ski resort has a reasonable right to expect safety from natural hazards, in the same way that someone in an city park is protected from traffic and other potential dangers such as unsafe trees. That's why a fatal on-piste avalanche soon passes into the hands of the judiciary: the Magistrates Court in Albertville immediately began an inquiry by questioning those responsible for piste safety and sending an expert nivologist to ascertain whether the avalanche could, or should, have been prevented. If it turns out to be the case that it could have been prevented, a criminal prosecution could ensue. I suppose in that case the Russian woman's relatives would  be able to press a civil case for negligence and expect substantial damages....

Aftermath of St Francois avalanche last season
Thankfully, such accidents are incredibly rare. Last season, according to the annual Pistehors avalanche survey there were 23 avalanche death in France, in 15 separate incidents. None of these happened on piste. The type of avalanche which occurred on Grand Renard was described  as a 'wet snow slide' release, which are notoriously difficult to predict and impossible to pre-release by the methods described above. This is the same type of avalanche, typically occurring later in the season when temperatures rise, that destroyed an entire chair lift in St Francois de Longchamp last season (fortunately no casualties due to the brave and timely actions of the lift operator) and took the life of Les Arcs founder Robert Blanc in 1980.

Piste skiers can't be expected to carry an ARVA (avalanche transceiver which transmits the location of a buried skier and enable sesrchers to detect and localise that transmission signal), or the attendant probes and shovels without which the ARVA is fairly pointless. Anybody, however, who goes off the piste at all (even staying within sight of the piste) should have an ARVA and know how to use it. Les Arcs has an 'Avalanche Park' at the Col de la Chal (top of Transarc Lift) where a pisteur will train you for free to use one correctly. I often point out to my guests that apart from increasing the chances of surviving an avalanche yourself,  you are also reducing the risk to those who come to rescue you (often amounting to dozens of people) who will be placing themselves in a potentially fatal location for as long as it takes to dig you out.

There is also a perhaps under-rated system of 'passive' avalanche safety called RECCO. Based on a system of small reflector devices, that can be sewn into clothes or stuck onto boots, etc.,  it enables ski resort equipped with the RECCO detectors (and almost all resorts are) to find avalanche victims in about the same time as if they were equipped with an ARVA device. This would seem to be the perfect solution for piste-skiers who, in the unlikely event that they were avalanched on piste, would be in fairly close proximity to potential professional rescuers, rather than having to rely on the efforts of the comrades in a more remote location (remember that 93% of avalanche victims will survive if dug out within 15 minutes). Some clothing manufacturers incorporate the reflectors into their products, but you can also buy a pair (two are recommended) and stick them on your boots, like I did with mine and my wife's many years ago. RECCO technology is now included in all Ortovox transceivers as a back-up and it has been adopted by NATO as part of their search and rescue protocol.

Thinking about this made me wonder why the passive reflector technology of hands free lift passes couldn't also be used in avalanche detection. Presumably it works in much the same way, even if perhaps some adjustements were needed. Perhaps the RECCO technology could be built into the lift pass? Detecting the victim's lift pass could also yield other information, like whether it was an adult or child or their age.

Perhaps the time saved if such a device had been present would have been enough, in the tragic case of the Russian skier, to have made the difference between life and death.