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A head for the game

Tom Boyd

The morning, the bite of cold, the grogginess in the head all this contributes to gear amnesia, that forgetful disease that effects every skier and rider from time to time. Among the long list of items a rider commonly leaves behind: skis (or board), boots, poles (for skiers), gloves, hat, parka, pants, goggles, pass and/or ticket and then, of course, little accoutrements like sunscreen, lip balm, hand warmers, cash money, and whatever else makes a ski day a good day.Remembering all this can be difficult enough for the organizationally challenged, but now a new gear paradox has emerged: the helmet.Call it a lid, a hat, a brain bucket or melon protector, the helmet has emerged as the most complicated piece of gear on the market not because of it’s mechanical inventiveness, but because of it’s political, social, financial, and fashion ramifications.The question of helmet requirements has been baffling resort risk management people since the demise of Sonny Bono in 2000 and the record-breaking 13 ski-area deaths in Colorado last year. Vail recently joined Aspen in mandating helmets, and moms and dads of the world should beware: little Jimmy and little Jane may be asked to wear helmets (in certain circumstances) on the slopes at Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone, Breckenridge, Arapahoe Basin, Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk.Here’s the policy, as explained by Bill Jensen, Vail’s chief operating officer.”We recommend that children who participate in our ski school wear a helmet,” he says. “Should a parent elect not to have their child wear a helmet, they may do so by signing a liability release and opting out of our helmet recommendation.”So in short, Vail Resorts is asking for the parents of all ski school students 14-and-under to spring $10 for a rental helmet or between $40 and $120 for a new helmet. This news may dampen the spirit of some parents, who are terrified at the thought of standing in front of a massive rack of shiny new melon protectors, fending off the endless shirtsleeve tugs of their fashion-conscious offspring. Jimmy and Jane want to look good, too, and good-looking gear comes at a price.The announcement of the new policy came in early November, but Jensen says the dialogue began after the death of a 5-year-old ski school student in Aspen last spring.”We believe that, in the end,” says Jensen, “it’s a matter of personal choice.”That price may be too much, says terrain park designer Chris Gunnarson, who feels helmet requirements will reinforce skiing’s image as an elitist pursuit.”It’s just one more thing, one more piece of gear that people are going to have to buy to get up on the mountain,” he says.Vail stresses the importance of personal choice, but Aspen is mandating helmet use in their program. Aspen, however, offers rental helmets for as little as $6 a day for those who show up without a helmet or arrive unaware of the new school rules.The Aspen Skiing Company was the first to require helmets, mandating helmet use for all ski school students 6 and under on March 20 of this year. That requirement was upped to children 12 and under on March 26.”Education and safety awareness have been stepped up considerably in recent years,” says Aspen/Snowmass spokesman Jeff Hanley, who says about 90 percent of Aspen’s youth ski school students were wearing a helmet before the mandate. “We had a few incidents last year which sped up talks that we were already having, and we did what our skiing public was probably asking us to do.”A recent survey on the Website http://www.skihelmets.com indicates that 37 percent of skiers want helmets to be mandatory for everyone, while 20 percent think they should be mandatory only for children. Another 39 percent say they shouldn’t be mandated at all, and 4 percent remain undecided.Mandatory or not, there is a growing movement in support of helmet use, led by Dr. Stewart Levy of the Intermountain Neurosurgery clinic at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver. For the past seven years Levy and his team have conducted numerous studies, and two years ago they developed evidence that the use of a helmet can reduce the risk of death or injury by 74 percent.”The truth is that head injuries are fairly rare, and that’s fortunate,” says Levy, who is an avid and experienced skier himself. “Skiing is not terribly dangerous, and the head injuries and mortality rates are lower than many, many other sports. But there are lots of lame excuses that people use (for not wearing a helmet), and there are many myths about helmets that we have worked hard to dispel.”Levy’s study showed that of the 400 head injury cases he studied, only 19 of the injured were wearing helmets. And of those, only a young man who fell from a 40-foot cliff had anything beyond a concussion and he recovered fully. Helmeted skiers, on average, had much more forceful accidents yet suffered less damage.Helmet-wearing riders were also 69 percent less likely to suffer injury of any form, says Levy, which indicates that the “false sense of security” myth is off-base.Dr. Alan Weintraub of Craig Hospital in Denver which specializes in brain and spinal injury rehabilitation agrees with Levy in a letter he wrote to the Rocky Mountain Freestyle division of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association.”Each year, we have the opportunity to manage skiers who have sustained brain injuries as a result of not wearing protective headgear,” he wrote. “(Published studies) and our clinical experience have proven that skiers properly wearing approved helmets have a significantly reduced risk of severe brain trauma.”Until Aspen/Snowmass took action last March, most ski areas counted on the spirit of self-determination, leaving people to decide for themselves between the risk of injury and the price of a helmet. This motto still holds at smaller areas like Ski Cooper, where spokeswoman Anne Dougherty says collisions are less likely.”We like to leave it where it’s really people’s discretion, because we’re not as crowded as some areas,” she says. “We don’t feel it’s much of a problem.”A bigger problem seems to be finding the right helmet, one that fits the noggin’ without interrupting the mojo and/or style of the rider.It may take a while to find the perfect fit, but like boots, fit is very important. Helmets are actually warmer than hats, and some companies have introduced air-flow gadgets to help cool the cranium.Freestyle skiers and X Gamers are wearing the helmets during competition, and younger people are leading the movement to make helmets cool.”There’s still the old guys out there who are not going to wear a helmet,” says Hanley, “but the younger generation, who were raised wearing them, are going to continue to wear them.”Helmets continue to be overwhelmingly popular at terrain parks, where they are not always required but unilaterally encouraged by mountain officials.


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