A leading German politician was yesterday suspected of breaking piste traffic regulations at an Austrian ski resort only seconds before he was involved in a 60mph collision with a Slovakian woman skier who died from the injuries suffered in the accident.
Dieter Althaus, the conservative prime minister of the east German state of Thuringia and a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, was on a skiing holiday at Austria's Riesneralm resort when he collided with Beata Christiandl on New Year's Day.
Aged 41 and a mother of four, Mrs Christiandl was quickly rescued by helicopter but suffered a cardiac arrest on her way to hospital and died. Mr Althaus, 50, fractured his skull despite his ski helmet and had to be placed in an artificially-induced coma. He is being investigated for manslaughter.
The incident was the latest in a series of Alpine skiing accidents this winter. Heavy snowfalls have produced ideal conditions and attracted record numbers of skiers. Over Christmas, Italian police launched a manhunt for a so called "hit-and-run skier" who collided with a 51-year-old man who died from the injuries he received.
Mr Althaus was taken out of his coma on Sunday, but doctors said he was still suffering from concussion and could remember nothing about the collision. He is a trusted friend of Ms Merkel who confessed to being "deeply moved and shocked" by the accident.
Initially, it was believed that nobody witnessed the incident. However Austrian police interviewed a skier who had been on the slopes at the time and had seen Mr Althaus and Mrs Christiandl collide. His evidence could be crucial in establishing whether either of the two skiers was to blame.
Germany faces a general election this autumn in which Ms Merkel is fighting to win a second term as Chancellor. She needs the support of Mr Althaus, who faces a key regional state election himself in August.
Police photographs of the scene of the accident were published in the German media yesterday. They showed that the collision occurred close to the point where two ski runs merge to form a single downhill piste.
But the exact spot at which the two skiers ran into each other suggested that instead of turning right to join the merged downhill ski run, Mr Althaus had overshot and gone up the opposite piste, where he had collided with Mrs Christiandl coming down in the opposite direction. Der Spiegel magazine asked yesterday whether Mr Althaus had been like a driver "going the wrong way up a one-way street".
The magazine quoted skiers at the resort who said the conditions, weather and visibility had been good on the day of the accident. It noted that rescue organisations attributed the vast majority of skiing accidents to skiers who overestimated their abilities while underestimating their speed.
Police said both skiers had been travelling at around 30mph, resulting in a 60mph collision. But they suggested that Mr Althaus had contravened resort skiing regulations and gone the wrong way up the opposite piste. Siegmund Schnabl, the head of the Riesneralm district's Alpine police force, was asked whether the politician would have had to have been travelling uphill to reach the accident site. He replied: "Yes, the slope goes uphill in that direction. To get down to the valley he would have had to have turned right."
In the Christmas hit-and-run incident, a 16-year-old Italian youth came forward and confessed to colliding with his victim days after the accident. He faces possible charges for manslaughter and failure to offer assistance.
In Italy alone more than 1,000 injuries have occurred on the ski slopes this winter and more than 100 people have been fined for dangerous skiing. In Austria, 34 people died and more than 50,000 skiers had to be admitted to hospital last season.
Rules of the run
Skiers across the world are encouraged to follow the 10 rules of conduct laid down by the International Ski Federation (FIS). The Ski Club of Great Britain recommends any off-piste skiers should be accompanied by a qualified rep or ski guide.
Ski laws vary from state to state. Last year, Utah made reckless skiing and snowboarding as severe a crime as drink-driving. If you are caught off-piste without a guide, you risk having your ski pass confiscated.
Speed cameras were introduced in major resorts last year after more than 70,000 accidents occurred in 2007. Skiers found repeatedly going over 30kph are fined or have their ski passes confiscated.
France has a generally laid back attitude towards skiing off piste, but you need to buy ski insurance when you obtain your lift pass to avoid having to pay for mountain rescue services.
In 2005, Italy became the first country to make children wear a helmet on the slopes. All under 14s are now required to don protective gear, and Norway and Slovenia have now followed suit.
Resort staff confiscate lift passes if they believe skiers are going too fast.