Pro boarder’s death stirs helmet debate |

Pro boarder’s death stirs helmet debate

Tamara Miller
NWS Helmets1 3-15 CS Vail Daily/Coreen Sapp Ryan Austin airs it out above Beaver Creek's halfpipe Monday morning. Austin, who is a snowboard instructor at Stowe in Vermont, started wearing a helmet about two months ago because it's comfortable and his ski school encourages it. Now, he says, he feels "naked" without it.

The Summit County-based snowboarder and author has suffered two concussions during her career. The worst one happened while she was racing in a competition, missed a jump and slammed into a wall of hardpacked snow.

What happened after that is fuzzy. Kleh was knocked unconscious and spent the next few weeks dealing with temporary short-term memory loss.

One thing was clear after that, though. Kleh, who up until then only wore a helmet for competition, would rarely hit the slopes without one again.

“I almost always wear mine, ever since the concussion,” she said. “I probably would have died had there not been a helmet.”

Local resident and up-and-coming professional snowboarder Josh Malay did die last month while snowboarding without a helmet. Experts can’t say whether a helmet could have prevented the massive head injuries that caused his death.

What they can say is that helmets have been proven time and time again to prevent skier and snowboarder deaths, or at least lessen the severity of head injuries.

“There’s just no excuse not to wear one,” Kleh said.

Industry to blame?

Malay, a 23-year-old Avon resident, died last month after he fell while riding for a photo shoot for Transworld Magazine. According to the magazine, Malay hit his head on an exposed rock while landing a jump at Ordino Arcalis resort in Andorra, a country nestled between Spain and France. He was knocked unconscious and later died from complications from the injuries on Feb. 29 in a Barcelona hospital.

In life, his skills on the slopes inspired awe and respect and eventually earned him corporate sponsorships. Just a few months ago, he was featured on the cover of Snowboarder magazine.

In death, Malay has prompted a new discussion about the use of helmets among skiers and boarders. Some even wonder if the industry itself is partially to blame for not encouraging boarders to wear helmets.

“I honestly think the snowboarding industry is partly to blame,” Jimmy Delonge said. “Rarely do you see a rider in the magazines with a helmet on.”

Delonge, who used to own The Otherside Snowboard Shop, worked with Malay for five years. His friend only wore a helmet in competition, which is required, he said.

“(Malay) was on a photo shoot for Transworld,” Delonge said. “It was his choice. But on the other hand, you don’t see very many wearing helmets.”

Delonge was once like Malay. In fact, he only started wearing a helmet regularly this year.

“I had a kid this year, a boy,” he said. “And I’ve worn one since then.”

Most professional snowboarders don’t like wearing helmets, said Tom Collins, executive director of the United States of America Snowboarding Association.

“They feel they have advanced their career to the point that they don’t need to wear them,” Collins said. “Basically, they think it hinders their ability. They can’t see as well or it changes their balance.”

Nevertheless, the association has required competing boarders to wear helmets since 1998. But things are different for the recreational boarder.

“The snowboarding industry can’t force it,” Collins said. “It’s not a motor sport, though you are going at roadway speeds in some cases… But for competition, and when these kids are doing some of tricks they are doing, they need to be wearing a helmet.”

Nowadays, helmets are designed to better accommodate snowboarders, Kleh said. It’s just a matter of trying plenty on and figuring out which one works best.

“Some people say it affects their hearing,” Kleh said. “I don’t think it does. Some people say it affects their line of vision. I don’t think so.”

She also counters suggestions that the snowboarding culture discourages helmet use. Kleh points out there are plenty of helmet-wearing boarders featured in magazines and no shortage of glossy helmet advertisements.

And while Kleh, Collins and Delonge agree that wearing a helmet is smart, they stop short of insisting it be a requirement for the recreational skier or boarder.

“I think the professional part of snowboarding should be wearing helmets for their own purposes and safety,” Kleh said. “But also to show other people who are getting into snowboarding that it’s not a waste of money.”

Boarders: Poster child for helmets?

Perhaps magazines don’t always show snowboarders wearing a helmet. Perhaps a lot of professional snowboarders only wear them reluctantly, and only when required.

But according to a nonprofit group that has researched helmet use on Colorado slopes for five years, a snowboarder would be a better poster child for helmet use than a skier.

During the 1998-99 ski season, only 7.7 percent of skiers wore helmets while three times as many – 22.6 percent – of snowboarders wore one, according to researchers with the nonprofit group, “It Ain’t Brain Surgery”, which promotes helmet use.

Last year, those same researchers found that 26.8 percent of skiers wore a helmet and 46.4 percent of snowboarders wear one.

“I think it is a greater part of the (snowboarder) culture than it is for skiers,” said Dr. Stewart Levy, a Denver neurosurgeon and founder of the nonprofit group. “It’s almost as common as baggy pants. It’s just part of the equipment. You get a snowboard and a helmet.”

Snowboarding’s short history and generally younger age group may be a factor, Levy said. Young people seem more likely to wear a helmet because they have grown up in a time when helmet use has been emphasized. Meanwhile, trying to get a 20- or 30-year veteran skier to suddenly start donning a helmet has been more of a challenge, he said.

Still, as publicity about helmet use increases, Levy’s group has noticed that skiers and boarders over the age of 40 are almost as likely to wear a helmet as their younger peers.

The helmet factor

In a report by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, researchers concluded that in 1997 helmet use by skiers and snowboarders could have prevented or reduced the severity of 44 percent of head injuries to adults, and 53 percent of head injuries to children under the age of 15.

Using those same statistics, nearly 3,500 of the 7,179 head injuries that occurred in 2002 could have been prevented, or at least have been less severe, said Ken Giles, spokesman for the safety commission.

“The biggest, most disconcerting myth is that helmets don’t provide protection,” Levy said. “That’s just not true.”

By studying brain injuries that have occurred on Colorado Slopes, Levy’s group determined that helmet use could reduce the risk of brain injury by 75 percent and fatalities by 80 percent. The data Levy’s group used to determine that has been presented at neurology conferences and will soon be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, he said.

Perhaps a more telling picture of the effectiveness of helmets doesn’t include numbers. During Levy’s work as a neurosurgeon, he has seen cases in which a helmet-wearing skier or boarder fell 30 or 40 feet and walked away with nothing but a concussion.

“The biggest fall I’ve seen involved a snowboarder who went off a 40-foot cliff,” he said. “He cracked his helmet… he clearly had an impact with his head.”

The boarder suffered from a severe concussion, Levy said. “But he ultimately made a full recovery and went on back to college.”

Levy can only recall one brain-injury-related death in Colorado in which the victim wore a helmet. The victim was a 60-year-old skier who had a simple fall on hardpacked snow. The man suffered from a subdural hematoma – when blood collects between the brain and the skull.

People over the age of 60 are more at risk of suffering and dying from such an injury. And helmets may not provide as effective protection against that type of injury in people that age, Levy said.

The aftermath

Who knows if Malay would have survived if he had worn a helmet, Delonge said.

“He wasn’t doing anything extreme at the time that a lot of locals wouldn’t do,” he said. “It was more of a freak accident. It could have happened to anybody. Even if he had been wearing a helmet, God would be in your favor if you survived.”

“I think Josh was just part of that demographic of young males who think they are bulletproof,” Kleh said. “I love him. He’s great. He’s just part of that group.”

News of his death hit the industry hard, Collins said. Malay was a member of United States of America Snowboarding Association until he went pro.

“It affects everyone when someone dies,” Collins said. “Especially with someone as gregarious as Josh.

“I’m just as guilty when I go out and ride,” Collins added. “I will wear one when I’m competing. But personally, if I’m just cruising around I don’t wear one if I’m not jumping off of things.”

Maybe some people have changed their minds.

Local snowboarder Justin Saling said Malay’s death has made some people think twice about hitting the slopes without a helmet.

It’s made him reconsider, anyway.

“When I ride the park a lot, I’ll definitely wear one,” he said.

Staff writer Tamara Miller can be reached via e-mail at: or by calling 949-0555 ext. 607.

Support Local Journalism