Earlier this month, the 29-year-old Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke died from injuries sustained in a training accident at Park City in Utah. Tests revealed she had 'irreversible damage to her brain due to lack of oxygen and blood after cardiac arrest,' according to a statement released by her publicist. It is a tragic case that once again has brought the potential dangers of skiing to the public's attention, much in the same way that actress Natasha Richardson's death from a head injury after she fell while taking a skiing lesson did in 2009.
'While skiing is viewed by many to be a hazardous sport, fans are keen to point out that it is not quite the daredevil activity that many would have you believe. In fact, it has been worked out that alpine skiing carries an injury risk of about two injuries per 1,000 skier days. In other words, for every 1,000 people skiing on any particular day, two will sustain an injury that requires medical attention. Official figures of how many British people die skiing each year are not available. However, using the 39 fatalities in American ski areas in the 2008/2009 season from 57.4 million skier/snowboarder days reported for the same time, researchers have worked out that the 30 skiing fatalities (the remaining nine were snowboarders) means the rate of fatality converts to 0.68 deaths per million skier/snowboarder visits; a low figure for sport. Having said that, knowing and understanding ski safety is paramount to keeping these figures down and it is the responsibility of every skier to be well informed before they hit the slopes in order to prevent injury, or worse.
The use of helmets is one of the most contentious issues in the sport. Currently, about 40 per cent of skiers choose to wear a helmet but their usefulness is still hotly debated. Most deaths occur after a skier is involved in a high-speed collision, perhaps with a tree or another person. In such events, wearing a helmet can prove futile. There has been little change in annual fatality figures since wearing helmets has been on the rise and there is also evidence to suggest that helmets can give the wearer a false sense of security, meaning they are more likely to ski recklessly. Still, wearing a helmet often reduces the risk of head injury and the official line is that they should be encouraged.
"I certainly recommend helmets. I can't see any reason why someone shouldn't wear a helmet other than their personal choice not to," says Dr Mike Langran, who is the ski patrol doctor at CairnGorm Mountain in the Scottish Highlands and president of the International Society for Skiing Safety.
"They do reduce injuries but they're really the second line of defence against an injury. Your first line of defence is to ski and board responsibly. Don't do crazy things; don't think wearing a helmet makes you invincible. It doesn't. You do still have a responsibility to ski and board within the limits of your ability," he adds.
There are many other things to consider before hitting the piste. It might seem fairly obvious but you should ensure you are in decent shape before you go. Skiing is an exerting activity and you'll get tired less easily and have a lower risk of injury if you are simply physically fit. Always keep to slopes and routes you feel comfortable with.
It goes without saying that new skiers should take lessons with a certified instructor. However, if you haven't been for a few years, you should also think about brushing up with a quick lesson.
Don't borrow equipment. You should be properly fitted for boots and skis at a ski resort or shop. Bindings (which attach boots to the skis) should be adjusted correctly; among other things, the proper release of bindings is key in preventing injuries during a fall.
With regard to clothing, you should avoid loose garments that may get entangled in poles and lifts. There is specialist ski and board wear that is made to keep the wind out.
Don't forget to wear sunglasses or goggles, as the sun's rays can hugely impair your vision and burn your eyes.
Finally, if you do receive a bang to the head, even a fairly minor one, you should seek help from the ski patrol, who can further assess you. There have been cases of people receiving minor blows that seem fairly innocuous, when actually they have sustained more serious damage. Natasha Richardson is one such person who apparently turned down further medical assistance after knocking her head, because she felt fine. "The general message is if you're concerned at all, seek attention," says Langran. "Don’t be put off by the fact that you may have to pay. It's much better to pay and be sure than run the risk of an injury that's more serious than you think."
Recently, there have also been calls for further policing of ski areas, including the use of breathalysers, a system of penalty points, fines and anti-speed ski patrols. Is this the future?
"I'm not in favour of ski police. It's like every activity in life: there are people who do crazy things and drag down the majority by being reckless. It has to be kept in context," says Langran. "Of the millions and millions of people who go skiing every season, these instances are really fairly rare."
Follow the skiers' rules of conduct
1. Respect: Do not endanger others.
2. Control: Adapt the manner and speed of your skiing to your ability and to the general conditions on the mountain.
3. Choice of route: The skier/snowboarder in front has priority – leave enough space.
4. Overtaking: Leave plenty of space when overtaking a slower skier/snowboarder.
5. Entering and starting: Look up and down the mountain each time before starting or entering a marked run.
6. Stopping: Only stop at the edge of the piste or where you can easily be seen.
7. Climbing: When climbing up or down, always keep to the side of the piste.
8. Signs: Obey all signs and markings – they are there for your safety.
9. Assistance: In case of accidents, provide help and alert the rescue service.
10. Identification: All those involved in an accident, including witnesses, should exchange names and addresses.
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