By Dana Sullivan Kilroy
February 16, 2013
Nothing ruins a skiing or snowboarding weekend like having to hitchhike down the hill in a ski patroller’s sled — or in an ambulance. Fortunately, the overall rate of skiing injuries has declined by 50% since the 1970s, according to the National Ski Areas Assn., a trade organization. (Snowboarding injuries are a different story: They’ve nearly doubled in the last decade — partly because the sport itself is relatively new.)
“We see fewer injuries among skiers because of significant improvements in the equipment,” says James Gladstone, an orthopedic surgeon and co-chief of sports medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Skis are shorter and hourglass shaped, he explains, making them more responsive and easier to turn. And, more important, ski bindings release more easily than those of a generation ago, reducing the risk of fractures in the lower legs.
A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2009 found that skiers who are injured have a few things in common: They are male and have a “high readiness for risk.” In this study, that meant they were eager to try jumps and moguls. But no matter what your age, gender or proclivity for thrill-seeking, skiing and snowboarding are inherently dangerous.
So what can you do to reduce the risk of injury?
“First, start thinking about conditioning long before ski season arrives,” says Gladstone, who was a collegiate ski racer at Dartmouth College and has worked as a ski instructor. Skiing and snowboarding both demand a lot from the muscles in the quads and lower back, and from the knees. “I make my kids start climbing the 10 flights of stairs to our apartment well before winter starts,” he says.
It may be too late for preseason conditioning, but these tips will also help keep you and your family safe on the hill:
• Make sure your — and your kids’ — equipment fits. Borrowing equipment from well-meaning friends is never a good idea. “Using equipment that is right for your size and skiing or snowboarding ability is essential,” says John Monson, a spokesman for Sugar Bowl Resort in Norden, Calif., near Lake Tahoe. Wearing gear that is too big is especially dangerous; if your feet “slop” around in ski or snowboarding boots, you have less control. And skis or a snowboard that are too long are difficult to maneuver.
• Make sure your equipment functions. If you own your ski gear, have the bindings examined by a ski shop technician at the beginning of each season. “The technician will make sure the bindings release properly, based on your boot size, weight and height and skiing ability,” says Monson. A binding that releases too easily, or doesn’t release when it should, can lead to injury. Skiers and snowboarders should also have their boards tuned, which typically includes waxing the bottom surface and having the edges sharpened.
• Don’t go out cold. Before you slide onto the chairlift, do some dynamic movement exercises to warm up your muscles. “Do windmills with your arms, swing your legs back and forth and do abdominal twists so you’re not so stiff when you start,” says Gladstone.
• Stay forward. “Your instinct, when you get going too fast, is to lean back,” says Gladstone. “This only makes you go faster. Really work on keeping your weight forward on your skis and your snowboard.”
• When you start to fall, just go with it. The more rigid you are, the more likely you’ll be hurt when you fall, Gladstone says.
• Wear a helmet. Helmets do not decrease the risk of skiing- or snowboarding-related head injuries, but they do reduce the severity, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
Finally, take lessons. At Sugar Bowl, two-hour group lessons for skiers and riders of all levels — from never-evers to advanced — are included in the price of a lift ticket. “No one is ever too good for instruction,” Monson says.
So will you ever ski again? It was a question I was asked countless times during the months that I hobbled around on crutches. My answer for 266 days, until the morning I finally limped out my front door without a cast on my foot was, “Of course.”
That day, though, I had a moment when I wondered: Is it really worth it? Being on crutches for seven months and in a cast for nine…unable to drive for half a year…three surgeries and thousands, upon thousands, of dollars in medical bills….leg muscles so atrophied that I feared I’d never get them back. Oh, and I had a toddler and a preschooler at the time. It was a major inconvenience.
Today I happen to be thinking about those long months because it’s the 10th anniversary of the day I skied into a tree. Back then, when I explained to people who asked what had happened – that I had lost my balance when I veered into a tree-well while skiing in deep powder – the observations that followed ranged from “You’re lucky that’s all you hurt,” to “Skiing is just an accident waiting to happen.”
Yes, I was lucky. And the sport is relatively risky. But so is riding in a car without a seatbelt. What about smoking, skydiving, sitting on the couch and watching television for 15 hours a week. I don’t do any of those things. Skiing is my calculated risk. And I still love it.
I can be riding a chairlift to the top of Mt. Rose, the resort closest to my house, 35 minutes after pulling out of my driveway. In less than an hour, I’m at Squaw Valley. I’m a lifelong skier yet I still feel the thrill of anticipation before each run. Sometimes I find myself laughing out loud as I tear down a slope, or whooping with joy.
I was never more patient with my children than during their earliest days on skis.
Before my accident, without fail, I would stop at least once during the day, take a deep breath, look at the snow-covered Sierras surrounding Lake Tahoe and think, “I am the luckiest person on the earth; I have parents who taught me to ski as a child; I live in this beautiful place; I am healthy.” That hasn’t changed.
These days, though, I also feel the pinch of one of the pesky screws that remains in my right leg every time I push against the tongue of my ski boot. This is what my not-so-bionic leg looks like:
One of these days I’ll succumb to another surgery and have all the hardware removed. But in the meantime, that pesky screw is just another reminder of how lucky I am to be out here.
Have you ever been injured doing a sport you love? Did it change the way you do things?