It's getting to be that time of year when I eagerly await the start of ski season, devouring each new issue of Ski magazine and fantasizing about making those first turns on the snow. Unfortunately for you non-skiers, that means I'll be writing more about skiing for the next five months or so. You see, skiing is my sports passion, so I can't help myself. But I hope you'll stay with me, because I like to think that many of the lessons learned on the mountain can apply to off-piste situations as well.
Anyway, the November issue of Ski arrived in our mailbox a few days ago, and I was happy to see an article about the use of helmets on the slopes and the debate over whether they should be mandatory. As the author pointed out, this is an issue that comes to the fore every so often, usually as a result of a high-profile skiing death, such as that last year of actress Natasha Richardson. Richardson, who was not wearing a helmet, died the day after striking her head in what seemed to be a mild fall at Mont Tremblant Ski Resort in Quebec, Canada.
The article went on to assert that the debate over mandating helmets has become the skiing equivalent of the debate over seat-belt laws. I think all skiers should wear helmets, as a matter of common sense, but rather than wade into the debate over personal choice versus safety here, I'm going to simply offer my own cautionary tale, for whatever it's worth.
I have been happily wearing a ski helmet for 13 seasons now. It did not take a law or resort rule for me to realize the value of a helmet, it took a concussion.
In what was one of the most bizarre days of my life, I found myself getting a ski patrol-assisted toboggan ride down Stratton Mountain, Vermont. I will never forget the date — April 11, 1995 — even though I am unable to recall the events that made it so memorable.
I was skiing at Stratton on a Tuesday just days before the mountain was scheduled to close for the season and although it was a beautiful day and the snow still abundant, there were very few skiers. I was skiing alone — a classic no-no, but it was either that or not ski at all, and I've never been one to shy away from doing things because I lack a companion.
I'm a very good skier, and I like to ski fast, but always in control. On that day, because I had the trails practically to myself, I was perhaps opening up the throttle a little more than usual. In any case, I was having a great time, enjoying sport, nature and life to its fullest.
The last thing I remembered was riding up on a chairlift, thinking about which trail I was going to take next. The next thing I remembered was looking up into the concerned faces of several men who were clad in bright red parkas. One of them was asking me if I knew which month it was. He put an emphasis on the word that made it all too clear that I had just flunked the quiz about which day it was. I was confused and terrified.
I then zoned out for a few minutes more, and my next memory was of looking up at the bright blue sky as I lay tucked into a toboggan, some of those same men I had seen earlier steering it gingerly down the mountain while occasionally asking me how I was doing.
If there was any fortune to be found in my misfortune, it was that the medical services available at Stratton are top-notch. It is one of the few ski areas that has a fully equipped medical clinic at its base. Within minutes of being brought down the mountain and into the Carlos Otis Clinic, I was being examined by a doctor and a nurse.
I was diagnosed with a mild concussion, and was kept at the clinic for three hours for observation. One of the ski patrollers involved stopped by later to check on my condition. He told me that he had found me lying face-down, my equipment scattered about. He said I was able to tell patrollers my name, and nothing more.
They had found no witnesses to my accident, but surmised that I had struck no object, just the snow. The back of my head was sore and tender, and my face, where I had eventually come to rest, was scraped from the abrasive spring snow.
I will never forget the professionalism and genuine concern of the ski patrol and clinic staff.
By the start of the next season, I had bought a helmet and hit the slopes confident that my strange day would not be repeated. I was a bit self-conscious at first, because back then helmets were still a rarity among adult skiers, though common among children. My helmet was a great conversation piece that season, and every time I got on a chairlift or stepped into the gondola, someone would invariably ask me why I wore it. I would tell them my story, and almost without fail they would listen raptly, shake their heads and say that maybe they ought to look into buying one, too. No skier ever wants to find himself or herself in a horizontal position, looking up at this:
I'd like to think that my story persuaded at least a few more adults to wear ski helmets. Clearly, there has been a shift in thinking over the past decade. According to the Ski magazine article, nearly half of all adult skiers and riders in the U.S. wore helmets last season.
But wearing a helmet does not make one immune to serious injury or death. As the article noted, while the use of helmets has increased about 5 percent each year over the last 10 years, the number of skiing fatalities — about 40 a year in the U.S. — has remained unchanged.
I have always recognized that a helmet will not help me much should I slam into a tree at 30 or 40 mph. But it most likely will help prevent a recurrence of the type of confusion and fear that I experienced on that bizarre day — April 11, 1995 — at Stratton Mountain, Vermont.
Besides, helmets are a lot warmer than hats.