Appeal of skiing
As the festive winter season approaches, it seems fitting to discuss a holiday many of us embark on at this time of the year. The ski season is well underway and through until Easter, many of us will travel to Europe, the USA and Canada to make the most of fresh snow fall. Whether alpine skiing, touring, sledging or off-piste adventuring, purpose built resorts across the world offer a huge range of exciting and fun-filled activities for all of the family. I am a keen skier myself, and have spent many hours on the slopes both for competition practice and for leisure.
We all imagine an idyllic mountain town, secluded and away from civilisation, with evenings spent in front of the chalet’s open fire, and days spent on winding slopes with striking blue sky. This may be the case but some of the most attractive features of a ski holiday overseas also become high risk elements of an already complex trip. Especially to those of us slightly more risk adverse – or at least aware.
Challenges of skiing
Slightly different to my usual style of writing, for the purpose of this article we will examine the movements of a fictitious high-profile family of four staying in a chalet, near to a town but a good distance from the closest large city. We will assume they are proficient skiers and that they have been to this location previously. They have had the trip arranged by a third party who supplied transport, security, chalet maid and equipment.
Typically, International airports are not located near to ski resorts which presents us with the first challenge to be overcome. Either by air or road, a transfer will be made to the accommodation. When supporting clients with travel arrangements, we usually advise on the most direct means of transport with minimal disruption to a journey. Disembarking and embarking at public transport hubs, city centres or rendezvous points presents an opportunity for confusion, separation and interference from others. For the more security focused, it also gives an ideal time for identification and as demonstrated (forgive me) in the Hollywood movie “Taken”, provides the local criminal contingent with a chance to ‘latch on’ to international travellers. Our family are in good hands though as they are met at the gate by their driver, who shares a brief hand shake with the security operative who travelled on the flight along with them.
Once this first obstacle has been traversed, even the journey into the mountains itself can be dangerous. Our family are travelling into an increasingly remote location, on narrow, winding mountain roads where communication is typically more difficult and weather conditions more adverse. There is also the factor of expected disorientation we all experience even after a short haul flight. The highly trained driver at the wheel of their Mercedes-Benz goes a long way to reassure them, however, as he has already checked the route earlier in the day – he recommends they get some rest in anticipation of a busy week.
Upon arrival at our destination things take a turn for the better as the Residential Security Team (RST), who arrived two days prior, provide a welcome brief and give a walk-through of the familiar chalet, nearest shops and distance to the ski lifts. The Team Leader (TL), also a competent skier, even offers a real time update on snow conditions. The family are tired after their journey and so retire to get some well needed sleep, ready for an early start the following morning.
A ski slope is a beautiful, exhilarating and sometimes lonely place. I have always felt that the sensation experienced when we push ourselves over the edge of that first piste is second to none. We feel a rush of emotions which includes fear, excitement and a sense of freedom. We are completely alone for the time we focus on getting to the bottom of a slope, despite other people alongside us. Hurtling down a sheet of ice and snow at 30mph presents dangers of its own, but there are other considerations to be made in the case of our family.
Separation on the slopes is something I have experienced first-hand, both as an adult instructor and also as a child. It is not a pleasant experience, and is very different from getting lost in a shopping centre at home. When the panic sets in and the realisation is made that the rest of your group are nowhere to be seen, many people start to shut down. Without reliable phone signal, with locals speaking (potentially) a different language and surrounded by endless white, it is perfectly understandable to feel confused. Especially for a child.
In addition to separation, we must also consider the very real natural hazards which are abundant, albeit carefully managed by the ski resort management. Adverse, changing weather, limited visibility, avalanche, extreme cold and wild animals are not dangers we face on a daily basis. Equally, the chance of injury whilst skiing is tremendously increased, as one would expect. Twisted ankles, broken limbs, grazes, hypothermia, dehydration and sunstroke are the most common, and any skier will be more than aware of other more serious consequences if things going wrong. Unfortunately many of us would not know how to deal with such ailments – and here lies the problem. On the remote ski slopes of a mountain, the nearest assistance should we need it comes in the form of the local mountain rescue or search and rescue team. They can be hours away depending on the size of resort. Most modern ski clothing has a tracking functionality in the event of a natural disaster, but these don’t provide any real help in the event of personal injury. Many of us will not know how to properly use any survival equipment we take with us, administer first aid or build a snow shelter. These may sound like extreme examples, but they could be the difference between rescue and loss, or survival and not. Having a team member who is not only a competent skier but also trained in advanced paediatric and adult first aid, survival techniques and navigation can give a particularly reassuring feeling if things happen to go wrong. When completing ski instruction courses in the military, it is not only competence in alpine and ski touring which is assessed. We also cover units on the weather, understanding snow conditions, creating shelter, navigation by the night sky and first aid. There is good reason for this additional training.
For a real time scenario, we can re-join our fictitious family on the slopes. Whilst the RST’s role is primarily to provide security at the chalet and whilst out in the resort town, they are also trained in a niche area within the close protection world. Previously Royal Marine Commandos trained in Arctic Warfare, now private security specialist on skis, these team members can be near to the family members at all times, even in the most remote locations. Working in a covert manner so they are not intrusive, their job is to provide a passive level of protection and maintain awareness of each individual’s position. They carry supplies, first aid equipment, GPS tracking, communication devices, warm clothing and emergency flares. They are also constantly observing the slopes for suspicions individuals, paparazzi or potential threats who may choose this secluded environment to target our family. As with most preventative security measures, all being well they should have no active role to play. But if things take a turn for the worse, they would be sorely missed.
I recognise that a full security team during a family trip may not be completely appropriate. If anything, the points here should serve as an informative view of what is available, and serve as a prompt for future considerations. Nonetheless, some basic planning and preparations will go a long way to ensuring sufficient safety for your group when embarking on the next ski adventure.
1. Plan as far in advance as possible – accommodation, travel, transfers, lift passes and equipment (if hiring).
2. Research the area and resort. If you are looking for a quiet family town, probably avoid the places designed for extensive après-ski.
3. Pack more clothes than you think you will need.
4. Get a suitable first aid kit to deal with any minor scrapes and injuries, and make sure you know what it contains.
5. Apply effective ‘layering’ of clothes when on the slopes; it may be chilly at the start of the day but it won’t take long to warm up. There is nothing worse than wearing too much and breaking out in a sweat before midday. This can lead to hypothermia.
6. Stay together, or at least in groups. This may go without saying but it becomes very tempting to have a couple of individual ‘speed-runs’.
7. Drink lots of water. Even when cold, we need to drink. Skiing is a form of exercise after all.
8. Arrange meeting points, and know exactly where to find each other if you do become separated. Ideally this will be somewhere easy to reach, and remember, for children. Cafes and sun decks at the base of a main piste are usually a good start.
9. Ski within your limits. Accidents happen when we are out of control and pushing too hard. Taking a racing line down a black run requires skill and practice, and may not be the best idea for an intermediate skier on day one of a two week trip.
10. Have a means of communication more robust than an iPhone screen. Reliable two way radios can be picked up as an alternative to mobile phones which have a decent range.
Some of these points may seem obvious to seasoned skiers, but I have been surprised by the lack of basic knowledge by many visiting the slopes on an annual basis. Moreover, if you require additional support, planning or advice then get in touch with someone who can help, and enjoy an exhilarating but safe ski season.