Exactly a week ago, Steffen Seibert, Angela Merkel’s spokesman, told journalists that the German Chancellor had been “extraordinarily upset” to hear that her compatriot, motor-racing ace Michael Schumacher, had been seriously injured in a skiing accident. This morning, with Schumacher still lying in a medically induced coma, Seibert revealed that Merkel herself had suffered a skiing accident, cracking her left interior pelvic ring in a fall while cross-country skiing during her Christmas vacation in the Swiss Engadine region. She’ll miss a planned trip to Poland and several meetings and is largely confined to bed, “following doctors’ advice to enable the optimal healing of this fracture,” said Seibert.
The coincidence has stoked concerns about safety already raised by Schumacher’s misfortune. European ski resorts have racked up some grim statistics this season, as the Financial Times points out:
Mr. Schumacher’s head injury has preoccupied the media, but it was just one in a litany of accidents, and the death toll rose daily. In the six days between Christmas and the new year, at least 18 people were killed in avalanches in the Alps and Pyrenees. Several more died in nonavalanche-related accidents, many more were injured. ‘The holidays are becoming a massacre,’ wrote Italian newspaper Il Giornale.
“There was quite a lot of snow [in Europe] early on [this winter],” says Vicky Norman of the Ski Club of Great Britain. “Then the weather warmed up, and the snow thinned to expose some rocks. Now there’s been a heavy snowfall, and that can cause instability.” Schumacher’s fall may have been caused by his ski hitting a rock, catapulting him headfirst onto another rock.
The sports star was skiing off piste. The burgeoning fashion for leaving the groomed official runs for virgin territory is adding new risks to a sport that, despite the headlines, has been getting safer all the time. Two famous Germans have come a cropper this season, but the number of Germans suffering ski accidents reduced by 58% between the winter of 1979/80 and the last complete year for which statistics have been compiled, 2012/13.
And if anything Merkel’s accident should highlight the good safety record of cross-country skiing. It’s comparatively sedate if strenuous — Merkel was going slowly when she lost balance — and practitioners tend to be older and more experienced than downhill skiers. According to www.ski-injury.com, a website compiled by a Scotland-based ski-patrol doctor called Mike Langran, the most common injury suffered during cross-country skiing is “skier’s thumb,” caused when the skier falls on his or her hand, splaying the thumb over the ski pole.