Vail’s most common injuries: When going big means going home |

Vail’s most common injuries: When going big means going home

Melanie Wong
VAIL CO, Colorado
HL Injuries DT 3-9-11

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about common injuries mountain athletes suffer. This week we talk about common skiing and snowboarding injuries. Check next Tuesday’s health section to read about common mountain biking and running injuries, and what to do to prevent them.

EAGLE COUNTY – Luke Wegner was on a ski trip at Wolf Creek when he attempted a 360-degree jump off a cornice that didn’t turn out the way he’d planned, landing him among the many locals who have learned the hard way that getting injured is an inherent part of mountain sports.

“I was in midair, and I saw the ground coming up at me fast,” he said. “I stopped my rotation and tried to land switch (backwards), but my body went forward, and my skis went backwards. I had my DIN set at 10, and I didn’t eject. Rather than my boots ejecting, my leg was the weakest link, and I snapped my right tibia and fibula over my ski boot.”

After a three-hour ambulance ride back to Vail, Wegner had surgery and woke up with a rod, and some plates and screws in his leg. Now, nearly a year after his accident, he said he is still very much recovering.

Vail Valley Medical Center emergency physician Chip Woodland has seen many similar cases over the years.

“On a busy day at Vail (in the winter) we may see 40 injuries,” he said. “I’ve been here for almost 20 years, and I’ve seen the full gamut of everything that can happen.”

It seemed harmless enough – a little jump that Hayden Thompson had hit several times before that day while skiing. He lost his balance while in the air, landed on his left leg, and immediately felt his knee, which he had injured years before playing football, give.

“I definitely felt it pop,” he said. “Once I landed, I knew something was wrong because it hurt pretty bad. I was hoping it was more of a bruise or a sprain, so I skied down, pretty much on the other leg.”

However, it quickly became clear that the injury was much more serious. Thompson underwent surgery to repair his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), as well as to remove part of his meniscus (cartilage that reduces friction between the bones).

That was January of 2010, and the last year has been a slow recovery process. He is now able to hike, bike and snowboard, but still can’t ski, he said.

Thompson’s experience isn’t unlike many other skiers who sustain the “classic” ski injury.

The ski creates a long lever arm, which can create a lot of force even in low-speed falls, said Matt Mymern, a physical therapist at Howard Head Sports Medicine Center in Vail. “That force and rotation make it very easy to tear that ligament.”

Expert advice: Robert LaPrade, a knee specialist and biomechanics researcher at Vail’s Steadman Clinic, said that surgery isn’t always necessary, but that the ligament is crucial for sports involving twisting, turning, or pivoting. Also, properly repairing a knee injury may help avoid or lessen arthritis later on, he said.

“Once you get arthritis we can’t do anything about it,” he said. “You can’t reverse it. There are a lot of people in their 20s who have very arthritic knees because they’ve ignored a tear and have pushed on through it.”

He recommends that people stop skiing when they’re fatigued and to be careful in low-light, hard-snow conditions. Getting in proper shape before you start the ski season will help as well, he said.

Snowboarders aren’t off the hook either. Woodland said the top snowboarding injuries he sees at the emergency department are fractured wrists.

“You catch an edge going forward or back, and you get slammed down so fast that your reflex is just to put your arm out,” he said. “We usually see those the next day, because at first they thought it was just a sprain. If it’s persistently hurting, you definitely need to get in (to see a doctor).”

The worst cases are often referred to Howard Head occupational therapist and hand specialist Kelly Schrader, who treats many post-surgery patients.

“We try to get (the wrist) moving almost immediately and try to expedite the return to activity,” she said. “That usually happens anytime from day two to a month out.”

Some cases can be more serious and dangerous, too – she said she’s seen some riders with breaks that go through the skin, injuries that can sever arteries and nerves.

Expert advice: “Try to fall on your knees or on your butt. Do the tuck and roll,” Schrader said.

Also, wrist guards can prevent serious fractures.

“I’ve never seen a big fracture with someone who was wearing a wrist guard,” Woodland said. “Some say that the guard will move the breaking point further up the arm, but I personally have never seen that.”

Melanie Wong is a freelance writer based in Eagle-Vail. E-mail comments about this story to

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