Michael Schumacher, the seven-time Formula One world champion, was airlifted to hospital yesterday (Sunday) after crashing into rocks while skiing off-piste with his teenage son.
The German suffered what police described as a "relatively serious trauma to the head", but some reports suggested that he may have been saved from more severe injuries because he was wearing a helmet.
He had been skiing with his 14-year-old son, Mick, in the French resort of Meribel, where he has a home, when the accident occurred yesterday morning.
According to local sources, Schumacher was briefly knocked unconscious after hitting his head on a rock under the snow, but was said to have quickly regained consciousness.
Emergency services arrived at the scene within eight minutes and he was taken to a nearby hospital in Moutiers, but was transferred to a larger hospital in Grenoble after an initial assessment.
Seven people died in the Alps over the weekend, as heavy snowfall and milder temperatures across some of the most popular resorts led to a heightened risk of avalanches.
Those killed included a 44-year-old mountain worker who was hit by a wall of snow in Courchevel, and a 16-year-old snowboarder who was buried in an avalanche in Serre-Chevalier.
Skiers and snowboarders have been warned not to venture off-piste while the conditions remain dangerous. Schumacher, an experienced skier, was understood to be off-piste when he crashed, but there was no suggestion that his fall was the result of an avalanche.
Olivier Desaulty, a spokesman for Meribel Alpina, a ski lift company, said two of its workers were the first on the scene. "Some skiers, who were not skiing with him, saw the accident and called us," he said. "We immediately sent two ski patrols on skis.
"They had been waiting to do a check on something and were close by. So they arrived a few minutes after the accident. They checked him and called a helicopter. Apparently he was briefly, a minute or so, unconscious. But he came around quickly and was then talking.
"He said he had hit his head on a rock. He was wearing a helmet fortunately. The helicopter arrived very quickly and he was taken to hospital."
A spokesman for the mountain rescue police said: "It was a relatively serious trauma to the head. It was quite serious, particularly because it is a head injury. "It is likely that he will stay in hospital overnight where he will be kept under surveillance."
The British Medical Journal recently cited research from the University of Innsbruck in Austria, which showed ski helmets reduce head injuries by 35 % in adults and 59 % in children under 13. In the United States, where the latest figures show that helmet use has risen to nearly 50 %, most resorts have made helmets compulsory.
Natasha Richardson, the actress, died after falling and hitting her head while skiing without a helmet in Montreal, Canada, in March 2009. The 45-year-old initially appeared well enough to get back to her hotel, where she began to complain of a headache. She was taken to hospital hours later, where she was placed in intensive care and was eventually pronounced dead after suffering a head trauma.