Skiing is about the wind in your hair and the sun on your face as you personally describe the contours of snow-covered mountains at extraordinary speed. It is the closest many of us come to flight
“Eh?” I said. I couldn’t believe it. The bus was winding up from Moutiers towards our ski resort, and one of the wives was giving me a sensational piece of news. It concerned the skiwear of two old friends. If she had told me they were going to be wearing padded bras and cami‑knickers, I could not have been more astonished.
I mean, I have known these people for decades. We have been skiing together for years, and I can testify that they are, in general, as brave as the next man. When the light is fading and the last lift is about to close, they are the kind of chaps who come to the edge of some vertical mogul‑field and shout “Man or mouse!” before hurling themselves into the icy void. When you are going up in a lift and you look beneath to see a couple of lunatics negotiating the virgin snow of some precipitous couloir, that’s them.
If you were casting around for two individuals who were still holding out against the elf and safety madness that is sweeping our culture, I would have pointed you in their direction, and I would have proudly added that they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions — until, as I say, one of their wives came up to me on the bus and broke this amazing news. This year, she said, the men were going to be wearing helmets. “Helmets?” I said. “To go skiing? You mean helmets like kids wear?” That’s right, she said; and would I like to set a good example by wearing one too?
I am afraid I did not feel able to accept her offer. In the course of a 35-year skiing career of relentless incompetence, I have been involved in some of the most epic prangs ever witnessed. My falls have taken me from the top of one black run to the beginning of the next – and onwards and downwards. I have sustained all manner of contusions. I have broken a thumb at Les Menuires and a rib at Courchevel. But never, in all the times when I have felt myself being catapulted head-first from my crossed skis, has it occurred to me to wear a child’s helmet to go skiing.
Goggles, yes; a woolly hat, yes; but a helmet – not on your nelly. That was my message, delivered as politely as I could. And yet when we arrived at the pistes, my sense of wonderment grew. Something weird has happened, and it has happened in the past couple of years. It is as though the ski helmet has propagated itself like some frenzied bacillus. Everywhere you look there are thousands of skiers – children and adults alike – transformed by their headgear into shiny-bonced tadpoles. It wasn’t my friends who looked odd, I realised: it was me.
Sometimes I would find myself on a chairlift sitting in a row of Darth Vaders, and I would pluck up the courage to ask. Why the helmet? I murmured, and after a few days I began to get a fix on the phenomenon. Of course it is partly fashion. Helmets are in this year in the way that ruffs or codpieces or top hats used to be in. They are treated as a new must-have accessory, and much of their success – in the words of Etienne the (helmetless) instructor – is down to “le marketing”. You can get fur-lined helmets and helmets with stereo, and it all means good business for the ski-hire shops. But as almost everyone said, the main reason was safety. It was about minimising risk, they said; and suddenly I realised I was looking at a rich and suggestive illustration of the human herd instinct.
Has skiing really become more dangerous in the past couple of years, when people have started adopting these glistening black craniums? On the contrary, the steady improvement of skis and bindings has made the sport safer than ever. Of course there was the sad case of Natasha Richardson, killed in a freak accident on the nursery slopes. But then there are always injuries, and if anything I imagine it might be even more painful, if you are on the downhill side of the argument, to be walloped by an out-of-control skier equipped with a plastic battering ram on his head.
No: there is something strange here, a mutation in the Zeitgeist. I reckon the helmet mania is more than just a question of fashion or a re-assessment of the medical risks of skiing. It’s a sign of the psychological state of the Western bourgeoisie in the grip of an economic crisis. They have seen what happened to the risk-taking bankers; they have seen how the sky fell in on the insouciant system of free-market capitalism; and so they literally cover their heads as an expression of the safety-first mentality that has seized us all.
I do not say they are wrong, any more than I say my friends are wrong to wear helmets, and I brace myself for the angry letters from those with head-injury stories of loved ones. Each of us must make his or her choice. But I ask you this: does James Bond wear a helmet, when he out-skis the baddie in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? Look at those pictures of the plus-foured British pioneers of alpine skiing, with their seven-foot skis and dementedly dangerous bindings. Did they wear helmets? Of course not.
Skiing is about the wind in your hair and the sun on your face as you personally describe the contours of snow-covered mountains at extraordinary speed. It is the closest many of us come to flight. It is my humble but deep belief that it should involve the maximum communion with nature, and that means no helmet for me. For the sake of completeness I should add that I did hit a tree the other day, but I hit it nose‑first. A helmet would have made no difference – and you should have seen the tree.
You can read the article in its entirety in The Telegraph