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Skiing: Danger and Safety Tips

written by Thu Tran, MD,FACOG
on Wednesday, 5th February ,2014

Several years ago we went on a ski trip in West Virginia with a few family friends.  Sandy, David and I remained on the intermediate slopes until the very end of our last day when several teenagers in our group were encouraging us to follow them to the “Black Diamond” area.  I was bored with going up and down the intermediate slopes for two days and wanted to try something new.  Part of me wanted to “ski to the fullest” and make the three-day weekend worth the long distance driving to this ski resort.  Against David’s advice, I urged Sandy to follow me.  I was watching him slide down the intermediate slopes elegantly like a snow flake and was so sure that it would not be hard at all for him to glide down the black diamond slopes.  David was worried and not happy as Sandy and I left him and our adult friends to follow their teenagers to the black diamond slopes.

Sandy and I had no problem getting off the chairlift at a black diamond slope.  However, I found myself staring down from the top of the slope and could not see part of the lower slope.  I really was at the top of a high mountain, and I have always had a fear of heights!  Why did I get myself into this situation, I wondered?  The slope looked more like a “Black Demon,” not “Black Diamond” at this time.

As you might have guessed, the teenagers went first and did not look back while Sandy and I were looking at each other.  I didn’t know what to do beside asking Sandy to ski down first, so at least I could watch him from behind.  My heart was racing and I almost wanted to close my eyes as he, as a typical kid with no fear, started skiing down.  Within seconds, I saw him fall forward and one of his skis fell off!  I was shocked and scared but knew I should not leave him “down there” by himself.  Trying not to close my eyes, I started gliding down, reluctantly and, therefore, created an even more unbalanced situation for myself.  I kept telling myself to glide laterally to avoid skiing down too fast.  I frantically reminded myself the basic technique of “making pizza” by keeping the tips of the skis pointing toward each other instead of keeping them parallel like the “pros,” but this technique didn’t work well since the slope was too steep.  Within seconds, I started falling but tried to aim my fall toward Sandy’s direction, “ Falling with some control”.  He was still sitting on the slope staring at me from below.  Like him, I ended up falling and then sitting on the slope hating myself for not listening to David.  

I took off my skis and walked toward Sandy.  We couldn’t decide which way was more humiliating: walking down in our ski boots, or gliding down on our behinds with the skis in our hands?  Somehow, we were able to get over to the intermediate slope and skied down from there.  I learned my lesson the hard way that day, how we shouldn’t have been on an advanced slope with our “intermediate” skill.  We could have lost control and slammed into a tree or a big rock.  I was embarrassed for my irresponsibility and foolishness by allowing and even encouraging Sandy to ski on a slope more advanced than his level of expertise.

During the Christmas holiday, one of our colleagues’ young son slammed into a tree on an Utah ski slope and suffered multiple injuries.  I heard how his physician-mom had to perform CPR on him on the ski slope until he was taken to the hospital where he has been recovering miraculously well though he is still in rehab. The news shocked our bootcamp troop since his mom, a wonderful woman, has so many friends in the medical community.   

Since then, I heard of another local teenager who was in a ski accident several years ago, resulting in him requiring a cane or crutches for a few years to walk and recently a total hip replacement.  He was a good athlete before this tragic accident.  Ironically, many of us have followed the news involving Michael Schumacher, the former Formula One champion, who has remained in a coma from a ski accident in France during the holiday.  There were celebrities like him who died of ski accidents over the years including Michael Kennedy, Sonny Bono and Natasha Richardson, a Hollywood star who was married to Liam Neeson.  Last August, Prince Frisio of the Netherlands died from complications as result of a skiing accident.  He was trapped in an avalanche after skiing off-piste like Schumacher.

We are in the middle of a ski season.  Every weekend, thousands skiers are flocking the slopes from West Virginia to Western Maryland, from Pennsylvania to Virginia.  Many of us even venture up north or out west to experience the more challenging and longer slopes with better snow.  Skiing is such a fun sport, but an accident can forever change a skier’s life.  I have read several ski accident and prevention articles, and found very useful information from a study in 2010 from University of Utah, and an excellent article in “Welove2ski” website.  I will try to summarize the important points below.

Statistically, skiing is a very safe sport overall with the fatality rate as reported by the America’s National Ski Areas Association to be 1.06 per million skier days in 2011-2012.  Skiing is considered safer in terms of total injuries of any sort than tennis but more risky than running, rugby or squash, according to the American Journal of Sports medicine in 1993.  Snowboarding has the highest risk of injury in any of the skiing sports, with the rate about double that of skiing.

According to the study from the University of Utah, with data collected from the 2006 to 2011 ski seasons, the majority of injuries occur during the favorable time for skiing such as when there is packed powder snow or clear visibility, which makes sense since there are more skiers on the slopes during those times.  More injuries occurred in the younger than 25 age group compared to any other age group.  Certain types of injury such as wrist or hand injuries are much higher in snowboarders compared with skiers.

In recent years, as skiers have become more adventuresome and perhaps “bored” with the traditional skiing activities, new designated playgrounds or “terrain parks” have been created at ski resorts where skiers perform “acrobatic” tricks such as jumps, hits, ramps, banks, boxes, rails, half and quarter pipes.  These areas in ski resorts attract snowboarders and many advanced skiers who want to test their skill with their friends.  Injuries in terrain parks are among the most serious, involving areas such as the head/face/neck and back.   Spine injuries inside terrain parks, in the Utah study, nearly doubled those outside of the park and almost tripled in the 17 and below age group.   Head injuries inside terrain parks were also doubled compared with those in regular ski areas. 

No matter how careful we might be, bad things still can happen.  By following the tips below from ski experts at Welove2ski, we and our children hopefully will prevent tragic accidents in the future. 

  • Wear a helmet: Head injury is among the leading causes of death in sport injuries.  Therefore, head protection by wearing a helmet is critical and has been found to reduce this risk.  The University of Utah study showed the benefits of wearing a helmet in protecting skiers from injury and avoiding death.
  • Beware of Poor Quality Snow which makes skiing conditions more dangerous: Icy conditions makes it harder for the skier to control their speed or their ski equipment.  Skiing off piste might be even be more dangerous because these areas are not groomed and the snow might be too thin to avoid the rocks underneath, as in the case of Michael Schumacher. 
  • No Speeding! Most ski resorts are crowded at the peak of the season.  To speed might endanger skier himself but also to the people around him.  Collisions between skiers at high speeds can lead to serious injuries.         
  • Do not ski when drunk: Obvious reason, the same reason as driving under the influence of alcohol! Your judgement and mechanical skills can greatly be impaired.
  • Be aware of your fitness level: Skiing is a pleasurable activity to many of us, but it is nonetheless a sport.  Your legs have to be strong; your posture has to be proper to avoid unnecessary ache and pain at the end of the day.  Limit yourself to the level that your fitness would allow.  As pointed out by the experts, hours on the slopes at a high altitude can lead to severe exhaustion.  Many accidents happen during the hour before the lifts close because of this exhaustion.  To avoid this high incidence of ski accidents, experts advise skiers to follow a ski fitness program to prepare for this sport.
  • Handle Terrain Parks with Care: As discussed above, terrain parks are where most serious accidents occur.  Jumps, according to the University of Utah study, has the highest percentage of injuries in the terrain parks.  It is best to know your skill and your strength!    
  • Be cautious, Off-Piste:  Again, the snow condition in the areas off piste is very uncertain and serious injury can occur.  Staying in groomed trails is very important. For the more advanced skiers who want to go off-piste, excellent advices are given    by the Welove2ski experts including hiring an experienced local guide when explore off-piste areas, be knowledgeable about avalanche terrains and how to survive them, get “off-piste skiing training” offered in certain areas.  Two books on these subjects were highly recommended by these experts: “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” by Bruce Tremper, and “Avalanche Survival Story” by William Carey.
  • Get Ski Insurance: Companies such as American Express, Columbus Direct, Direct Travel Insurance, Essential Travel, Fogg Travel Insurance, Insure&Go, MPI, MRL Insurance Direct, Snowcard Insurance Services,  Travel & Insure, Worldwide Insure provide this service.
  • Be Aware of the Fatigue Factor: Do not forget to keep yourself hydrated and take frequent breaks for nourishment.  Again, skiing is a sustained exertion sport.  Like long distance running or biking, stop often to refuel your body with food and sport drinks.  Beware of the “danger hour” or that last hour on the slope when many accidents occur.

I have learned a lot by reading the statistics and prevention tips from these experts.   These tips might seem to be common sense.  However, many times when we are having fun, we tend to forget our common sense .  Remember, it is better to be careful and you will get to ski in good health for many years.  On a day when the snow is icy, either stay off the slopes or “ski down” one level to be safer.  Do not attempt to ski the “Black Diamond” slopes like me and Sandy when you are not ready to handle them.  You do not want to experience the “I Hate My Life” moment like me that day at the top of a mountain looking down, not knowing how you will get down without feeling humiliated.  If you get into that situation, however, it would be smarter to ride the chairlift backdown instead of allowing yourself to fall like me and Sandy.  You might not have been lucky like us, to be able to finally get down the bottom of that ski slope without a head or neck injury.  

Ski safely and enjoy the snow! 


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