Student ski trips are notorious for the heavy drinking après-ski – sometimes with fatal results. The Badger investigates…
The beginning of 2009 was marked by sadness for those on the Durham University snow holiday and the family of Rachel Ward. Travelling back from one of the usual après-ski parties in the alpine resort Val D’Isere, Rachel, 20, sent a text to one of her friends at around 1am saying that she was lost. Tragically, her body was found the next day – she had fallen down a snow bank into icy water and died of hypothermia.
Rachel was a natural sciences student, a keen hockey player at Durham, and described by friends as “one of the best – she always had a smile on her face and was lovely to be around.”
This sad story has brought attention to the question of student safety on university trips. Unfortunately this is not the first ski/snowboarding university trip to receive media attention for such a reason; in 2007 Jonathan Hard, a student at Oxford University, also died from hypothermia after a night out. Returning home from a Rubik’s Cube party (where party-goers come wearing six different items of clothing in six different colours and aim to end the night dressed in 1) Jonathan, who had forgotten his jacket, also got lost. Despite being found alive the next morning, he had been out too long and he was unable to be saved.
Ski/snowboarding trips at universities have always been very popular. Students enjoy a holiday away with those of a similar age, and student ski trips tend to be reasonably priced for what they offer. The sports are beloved by many, and for some it is their first opportunity to get on the slopes. Sussex is no different; the Sussex Snow society sometimes attracts as many as 200 students to their trips, and even their non-snow related events, like their snow ball, generate a large turnout.
The fact that these two students both had alcohol in their body and got lost while alone in the resorts has become a concern for students, parents and the public. Are students really safe when they take part in trips with university snow societies? Worries have intensified with reports of the nightly activities in resorts like Val D’Isere; students knocking back shooters and stumbling around in clothes unsuited to the often sub-zero temperatures they are in. Here at Sussex there have been those who have expressed concerns; no-one wants to go on a trip where they feel unsafe.
Tom Croft, the President of Sussex Snow is confident that they take the utmost precautions. “Basically, at the pre-trip meetings we’ll tell everyone coming the risks involved, give them examples of fatalities that have happened in the past, and above all advise them to drink responsibly, always wear warm clothing out, and never walk home on their own or let anyone else do the same. This information is repeated in the handout we give everyone on the trip once they get on the bus, which also includes everyone on the committee’s mobile numbers, and we also always repeat this advice when we see people before nights out”. Sussex luckily has only had very minor incidents during the après-ski events; one of them was a finger cut by glass, and the student was promptly taken to hospital for stitches. This kind of incident is not uncommon in everyday life – it is not only associated with student ski holidays, or only student holidays. There was one evening when the committee began searching for a student who had been reported missing, only to find her in the club that she was supposed to be in. Sussex Snow is keen to keep an eye on its charges.
And they must be: it is the society, not the student ski company that organizes the trip, who must make sure the students know the rules and risks. These companies include On the Piste (used by Durham university) or Ski Alpine (used by Sussex), who have well respected reputations and insist on groups practicing safe skiing. But the implementation of après-ski safety rules and regulations is ultimately down to the society running the trip. “All the safety rules we implement are the result of best practice followed by Sussex Snow over the past 4 years or so. They’re always under review however, and we speak regularly to members of USSU staff who can advise us on safety issues.” Perhaps here is where the recent stories could have an impact; the companies may have to respond to media attention by instigating their own, or reviewing standing, regulations on après-ski conduct.
It is true that excess drinking can be extremely detrimental to people’s, or more specifically students’, health and safety while on student holidays such as the skiing/snowboarding ones. But this is true of any night in Brighton or any university city across the country. At least on organized trips such as these there is the benefit of organising all students together and a team of people there to make sure things go smoothly “in a sense the organised nature of the trips gives us a big advantage – we’ll all go to the same bar, and between us the committee will know everyone in the room, as well as everyone else knowing each other, meaning we can generally make sure everyone’s looked after and doesn’t do anything stupid, like leave on their own”.
The tragedies that have occurred in the past are awful, but they have caused students and ski/snowboarding committee members to be really struck by the importance of safety, personally or as a group. They must serve as an unfortunate lesson to those on future trips, but not let it ruin people’s chances for an enjoyable sporting holiday.
“Skiing is a really liberating sport, but with this freedom you also have to take responsibility, and students are just as capable of making sensible decisions as anyone else.”