Taking safety head on | VailDaily.com

Taking safety head on

Matt Zalaznick

Staff PhotoSam Rings, 4, Nicky Marks, 5, and Anil Patel, 4, strap on their helmets and prepare for ski school on Vail Mountain one sunny day last March.

Head protection is only one of the dozens of advantages to wearing a helmet on the slopes, say skiers and snowboarders.

“I might ski better, someone might fall in love with me – it really has nothing to do with my commitment to safety,” said Gary Brenner, a skier from Boulder who hit the slopes wearing a helmet for the first time Saturday.

A helmet is no different than other ski equipment – you never know if the fit is quite right until you take one for a spin on the slopes. You want to make sure it’s comfortable, warm, that there’s no cold drafts freezing your ears off and that you can still hear the hot-doggers hollering as they huck themselves off cornices.

Therefore, the Boeri helmet company kicked off Vail’s annual ski safety awareness week Saturday with free helmet tests. Dozens of skiers and snowboarders, free of charge, took off their knit-caps, headbands, visors, antler hats, football helmets, fezzes and sombreros and borrowed a helmet for the day from Boeri.

“There are still plenty of people who don’t wear helmets that need them,” said Boeri’s Mike Goodknight. “Every single person is eligible for a helmet.”

Just like there are still plenty of people who don’t wear fezzes that need them.

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(Note: fezzes are those flat-topped, cone-shaped hats with a tassel hanging down the side. Of course, you see more of those on the slopes in the spring.)

Along with attracting women and improving his slope-style, Brenner said the free helmet demo was too good a deal to pass up.

“I’m an inherent bargain-seeker,” Brenner said. “They’re offering to loan me something for free – I have to take it.”

Other skiers, like Rudi Fisher, an architect from Eagle-Vail, said nostalgia inspired him to test-drive a helmet Saturday. It’s important to know the helmet Fisher tried out was silver with the insignia of the U.S. Army Air Corps – the familiar red-and-white bars on either side of blue circle with white star – on either side.

“I’m only wearing a helmet because my dad was in the Army Air Corps before it became the Air Force,” Fisher said. “I don’t care about safety or protection – this is more of a nostalgic event.”

Some skiers and snowboarders interested in some protection but used to wearing knit caps say helmets are bulky, hot and uncomfortable. But Goodknight said there are helmets that will fit just about any head size.

“If you’re uncomfortable you don’t have the right model,” he said. “For instance, Boeri has seven different models. You just have to try different styles.”

And that includes helmets made by other companies, such as Leedom or Giro.

These days, skiers and snowboarders can still score style points with a helmet. Though most helmets aren’t quite as sharp as those hats with antlers or rubber spikes, or the ones that look like cow heads, a person can buy sleek accessories that slip over a helmet. One popular model has a unicorn horn. Other helmets come with stickers, with flames and other designs ready to go.

Of course, there are a few skiers who wear helmets for the reason they’re made.

“A couple of days ago I skied into a tree and broke off a branch with my forearm and I thought – that could’ve been my head,” said Jeremy Adams, a skier from Philadelphia. “I do a lot of tree skiing and I don’t want to get too banged up.”

Wearing a helmet makes skiing or snowboarding less risky, Adams said.

“It’s pretty stupid not to have one,” Adams said. “It’s just not worth it not to wear one.”

But skiers and snowboarders are divided on whether they’re wearing helmets to protect themselves from the chances they take leaping off cliffs or tearing through the backcountry or from the more reckless folks on the slopes.

It’s both reasons, said a Vail skier who gave his name as “Matt D.”

“More than anything, it’s a confidence boost,” he said. “It’s a little insurance.”

But, it’s certainly not to look cool, he said.

“I wouldn’t say it looks cool, but I don’t care about that,” he said.

Some skiers, like Spencer McKnight of Denver, are wearing helmets now because their mothers made them put one on a few years ago. McKnight said he’s still wearing one because of accidents he’s heard about in which skiers and snowboarders come over a ridge and clip someone else in the head.

“It makes you a lot more comfortable to have one on,” McKnight said. “It’s ridiculous not to wear one.”

Goodknight said helmets make as much sense as other safety precautions people take in their lives.