A Valid Reason for Wearing a Helmet

It took me a long time before shedding my woolen ski hat and making a move to wearing a ski helmet. The reason for not wearing one earlier is a complicated personal story, woven in tradition, nostalgia and frankly, in not seeing a need for it.

 That’s right, in spite of skiing some 2,300 days so far in my existence, I never hit anything hard with my head, except for a tiny branch or the slope during an occasional, spontaneous and involuntary flip that had me landing on my head; all my other contact with hard stuff always took place elsewhere on the body… While I thought that wearing a ski-helmet might be a wise move, I was concerned about my peripheral vision, my ears being covered, not being able to hear my fellow chairlift passengers and also about some sense of claustrophobia or imprisonment, having my head in a “bucket.”

 That was until wearable video-cams came along. Last season, I began shooting ski videos in earnest and had no other mean at my disposal, but holding the camcorder in one hand while trying to ski. On easy “groomers” that was easy. On steeper slopes, it became more of a challenge and in bumps, well, I might as well have not done it. So, torn between my desire to shoot video while skiing and finding a steadier platform for attaching the camera, I had no other choice but contemplating the use of a helmet.

Sure, I had considered by-passing that protective headgear in using the straps that came packaged with my new video cam, but the attachment quality seemed somewhat flimsy, so I had no choice but settle on the steadier platform offered by a hard-shell. I purchased my helmet this early January, tried it on while skiing several times before installing my video-cam mounts and discovered several positive aspects about wearing it that I didn’t even thought even existed.

First and foremost, my new headgear is warm, especially if you are bold like me. If it’s too hot during spring skiing, it also offers an “air-conditioning” option that can be actuated by opening some vents on the top. Another nice advantage is that I’ll never have to look for my goggles again. They reside on the helmet, no matter what, even if on a sunny spring day I decide to wear my sunglasses instead. Then, there is the end of day bonus, when I’m done skiing, I grab the helmet, throw head-liner and gloves inside and there’s only one single item to be worry about, and oh yes, I almost forgot; my head is now much safer!

Safety. Safety. Safety.

A couple of days ago, I was reading an interview of actor Liam Neeson in Esquire Magazine. Whether or not you are an entertainment junkie like me (hey, I get paid for this addiction, so let’s not knock it!), if you are a skier, you know the sad fate of Neeson’s late wife Natasha Richardson, who suffered what appeared to be a mild concussion as a result of a fall on the bunny slope of a Canadian ski resort two years ago. Richardson left behind a loving family, including two young sons, who live every day with the understanding that her death may have been prevented if she had received immediate medical attention after the fall, rather than ignoring the advice of Ski Patrol and her instructor to do just that.

As a mother and a skier, Richardson’s death has weighed heavily upon me. By nature, I’m cautious. As a kid, I earned the slowest times on the race-course because my fear of crashing outstripped my desire to be a competitor. As an adult, I am hyper-aware of what’s going on around me on the hill—I regularly cede right of way in the name of safety, and I know if I’m ever the uphill skier headed for the makings of a crash with another skier, my best and only option in that moment is to fall down. I also know that if I do have a crash, I’m going to take seriously every shred of advice offered by the pros—from the Ski Patrol to any medical professionals I may encounter as a result.

 Nothing ruins a bluebird day like a preventable accident.

I know, I’ve talked mountain safety before, but I’m feeling like I need to do it again. Especially after the events that transpired Sunday. Also, we’re heading into a very busy period at Deer Valley, so I want to make sure that everyone has a great experience on the hill—and avoids the dreaded run….to the hospital.

I hit the slopes on a perfect day with two friends—both far more skilled and experienced skiers than myself (notice a recurring theme? I tend to push myself by skiing with excellence. My dad always said, “It’s hard to soar like an eagle when you are surrounded by turkeys.”)

Anyway, we had the usual tumble-bumble of getting everyone packed off to ski school, and my girls and I hit the lift for our first run. We agreed that the place we wanted to spend our time was Deer Crest, given the beauty of the day, and with the hope that it would be less crowded than other parts of the mountain.  We opted to get over there by skiing Big Stick to Little Stick to the bottom of Deer Hollow. It’s a great run to warm up on, because it’s such varied terrain. Big Stick offers a couple of steep sections, and Little Stick and Deer Hollow give the skis and legs a chance to get in sync for carving.

 I’ll add here that we weren’t out to break any records or do anything nuts. It was to be a day of socializing, skiing, and I hoped to learn a little by osmosis. So as we began the run, we spaced ourselves out, so that we could make our warm-up turns at our own paces. I’m the most familiar with the mountain, so I took the lead. One of my friends, at the last drop before Big Stick intersects Roamer, pulled ahead of me. For some reason, I stopped for a second to check on the other. I found her splayed out on the hill; we shouted down to our other pal, and she popped her skis off and hoofed it back up the trail.  

A man was collecting her poles and asking, “Are you OK?” Although, I have to say, he was kind of barking at her—demanding that she be OK, and when she didn’t respond immediately (she couldn’t, she was catching her breath, getting her bearings and trying to decide), he snapped, “You could at least answer me!” The scary response from my friend (After she politely said, “please don’t yell at me,”) was:  “I don’t know.” She went on to say to the man: “I didn’t see you—how did you collide with me?” He couldn’t answer. She (and we) did the only sensible thing, which was to stay still and breathe deeply, and calmly, so that we could, together, ascertain whether she was fit to keep skiing. Luckily, we didn’t have to make that call ourselves. A passing skier stopped, and identified himself as an off-duty instructor from the Deer Valley Ski School. After our friend explained that her head hurt and she felt nauseated, the instructor called Ski Patrol. No sooner had he placed the request than a patroller skied along the trail and stopped to help. 

As the ski patroller took control, my friend explained that she was knocked down by the other skier. Although he seemed unwilling to take responsibility for causing the accident, there wasn’t much doubt he was the uphill skier, so in my mind, he bore the brunt of responsibility. And to his credit, he did the right thing by sticking around to talk to patrol.  Ultimately, the patrol member made sure to tell my friend that her well-being was more important to establish in this moment than fault—and after further examination in the First Aid House at Snow Park, my friend was transferred by ambulance to Park City Medical Center to have a CT scan, to determine the extent of the injury. Fortunately, she checked out fine—and sense of humor intact. When the attending physician handed her the radiology report, and said, “It’s good,” my pal cracked wise: “Not GREAT?! What about GREAT?!” “Um, it’s either good or bad,” the doc smiled. “We’ll take good,” I said, swiftly, as though there were some danger of the doctor changing the report.

As we drove back to the mountain to meet our families for lunch at Silver Lake, my friend said, repeatedly, “Thank God I was wearing that helmet!” I could not agree more.

So here’s my take-away from the “lost” ski day. I’d trade anything not to have seen the value of skiing in control (something my friends and I pride ourselves on) and the value of wearing a helmet firsthand. The only thing worse than a ski day wrecked by a trip to the ER is a ski day wrecked by a trip to the ER with worse results than we saw.

 All three of us agreed that taking EVERY necessary precaution to make sure that the injury was mild was worth the perceived inconvenience (or added drama) to the day—and when it was over, we all admitted to having had Richardson’s accident top-of-mind as the events unfolded.

 Please be safe out there. And if an accident should happen, remember, the Ski Patrol have no investment in having you take every precaution—other than seeing you safely back on skis, as soon as possible.