Headin’ up the hill | VailDaily.com

Headin’ up the hill

Matt Zalaznick

Skiers who choose not to wear helmets, say they are clunky, cumbersome and cut down on the sensation of sliding through the great outdoors.

“My helmet’s the best thing,” says Kara Husmann. “It’s like wearing a seat belt – you can’t ever go back to wearing just a hat.”

But Jon Buchli, a skier from Avon, says he hasn’t worn a helmet because it drowns out the sounds and sensations of the slopes.

“My motto is, “Don’t hit anything with your head.'” Buchli says. “I like the freedom, and being able to hear and sense all around me.”

But local ski shop owners and employees back up what’s apparent to anybody on the slopes – more and more people are wearing helmets.

“We’ll probably sell almost 400 helmets this year,” says Mike Brumbaugh, co-owner Venture Sports in Avon. “That’s close to three helmets a day during ski season.”

Improved design has made helmets more comfortable and many models have soft ear-coverings that keep riders warm while allowing them to hear better, Brumbaugh said.

“The new designs are so light they’re like bike helmets,” he says. “And everybody wears bike helmets.”

Vance Brilling, a snowboarder who works at Buzz’s Boards, says the new models aren’t as dopey-looking as they used to be.

“We sell helmets to just about everybody that comes in, especially the beginners who buy a board and also go out with a helmet,” Brilling says. “Now there are better styles, they’re not so goofy-looking – everyone is still pretty vain about it.”

Vail Resorts recommends that all ski and snowboard school students up to age 14 wear helmets, which can be rented for about $10 a day, says Bill Jensen, chief operating officer of Vail Mountain.

“Parents can only opt out by signing a waiver. We still believe that personal choice takes precedent,” Jensen says.

The ski company’s position is adults can decide for themselves. But for those who choose to wear one, Jensen says skiers and snowboarders shouldn’t take the cheap way out.

“All helmets are safe. It’s a matter of what fits your head,” Jensen says. “Don’t go with the cheapest model. Go with what fits your head, because if it’s comfortable, you’re going to wear it. If it’s not comfortable, you’re not going to wear it.”

Tom Randall, a snowboarder from Vail, says he wears a helmet most of the time.

“Helmets protect your squash,” Randall says. “I could wreck, but I also worry about what other people are going to do. Nobody’s going to hit you on purpose, but you never know what’s going to happen.”

Dr. James Kelly, medical director at the Chicago Neurological Institute, said young male snowboarders are the most likely group of snowsliders to wear helmets.

Kelly, who is also an associate professor of clinical neurology at Northwestern University, says 40 to 50 percent of snowboarders in Colorado are now wearing helmets, but only 20 to 25 percent of skiers are.

And, he says, helmet use among advanced skiers is higher than among beginners.

“We’re finding that helmets are indeed protective,” Kelly says, although you wouldn’t think anyone would need a brain expert to tell them that. “Neurological injuries are the leading cause of death and disability among skiers and snowboarders.”

He cites a study that showing in skier-to-skier collisions, 12 percent of unhelmeted skiers suffered head injuries, but 0 percent of helmeted skiers did.

“If you look at all the studies that have been done, helmets reduce the risk of brain injury in skiers and snowboarders by 74 percent,” Kelly says. “Helmeted brain injuries can occur, certainly, and there are individuals who have had poor outcomes with helmets, but they are in the minority.”

Brumbaugh says 98 percent of his employees ski or snowboard with helmets.

“Thee guys that work here all have cracked helmets –two of them were hit by other skiers,” Brumbaugh says. “We’re pretty firm believers in helmets.”

Almost all parents who come into his shop buy helmets for their kids, but not always for themselves, he says.

“Lots of parents come in and we tell them that junior is much more prone to wear a helmet if you’re wearing a helmet –and a kid’s no good without a mom or dad,” Brumbaugh says.

Brilling says more and more of the daring riders in terrain parks are doing their tricks wearing head protection.

“You go through terrain parks and you see a lot of free-skiers are wearing helmets, as well as the kids on the rails and the half-piles,” Brilling says. “It’s not so taboo anymore. As the skill level has picked up and people are going bigger, they’re realizing you can be the best snowboarder out there, but you’re going get caught one day and wack your head.”

Dan Winkler, whose says he’s been skiing for 30 years, says he’s thought about buying a helmet but hasn’t yet.

“My wife and I have considered it,” Winkler says, “but at my age I don’t do much that I need a helmet for, though we wear helmets when we mountain-bike.”

Local skier Greg Chandler has about the simplest reason for wearing a helmet on the slopes.

“I wear one because I’m clumsy and I don’t want to be afraid,” Chandler says.

Brent Gardner-Smith of the Aspen Times contributed to this report.

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