For a melancholy example of the power of celebrity, head to the Alps. Since Michael Schumacher’s accident last December in Méribel, the use of ski helmets has soared in the mountains. My skiing instructor in Verbier, in the Swiss Alps, said the Schumacher effect was particularly acute among the young and the old — it’s seasoned skiers in their forties and fifties, battling the neurotic caution of middle age, who still keep their heads bare. Even half of the devil-may-care, schussing ski instructors now wear helmets.
A philosopher would have a field day with the illogical aspects of the Schumacher effect. Schumacher was wearing a helmet and yet still suffered catastrophic head injuries. You could argue that the helmet saved his life; you could also say it wasn’t much good at protecting his brain. My instructor said the problem wasn’t really to do with helmets. It was to do with safe skiing: Schumacher should never have skied near ‘sharkies’ — rocks that look like shark fins. Better to ski safely without a helmet, than dangerously with one.
And why should a single accident make you take precautions, just because the victim happens to be famous? Most previously helmetless skiers know people who’ve had accidents — I know several, including a school contemporary killed on the slopes. And yet, after 30 years’ skiing, I had never tried a helmet until Schumacher’s crash. Once the thought of a helmet hits you, though, you can’t help but think how stupid you’d be not to wear one. Now the thought is there for good, I will always wear one. But I still won’t wear a bicycle helmet — until, I suppose, a famous person has a bad bike crash.
No safety precautions can remove the danger of hurling yourself down the side of a mountain. But luxury operators have successfully removed the bloody irritating side of the sport.
You need never enter a ski shop. Your skis and boots are fitted in your chalet, your pass is hand-delivered and you’re chauffeured to and from the lifts. No more sweating in your salopettes as you lug your kit up ice-bound streets. Non-stop Bollinger, massages, skiing lessons, your very own Jeeves and maids in dirndls are thrown in.
The chalets will placate the fussiest Bond villain — traditional Swiss roofs, slate floors, logs crackling in the baronial fireplace, old masters on the wall, Wagnerian vistas of angry clouds gradually unfurling to reveal a snow-streaked Alp. I’m sure they could even track down a fluffy white cat for you to stroke, too.
Verbier’s smartest chalets don’t give you any change out of £57,000 for a week’s rental. At the cheaper end of the oligarch market in low season, you get the butlers and all the rest of it, still in fairly plutocratic quarters, for £1,000 a week per head. Not cheap, but you get the best side of skiing: all the sensation of flying with all the risks, yes, but none of the heavy lifting.