Stephen Wood: The man who skis all day

Enjoy the slopes for years ahead – wear a helmet

Just less than a year ago I predicted in these pages that more than half the skiers and boarders at US resorts would wear helmets in the 2009/10 season. It was a safe bet. The usage rate was almost 48 per cent in 2008/9 and the death of the actress Natasha Richardson in March 2009 from a head injury while skiing without a helmet prompted much discussion about the advisability of wearing one.

Sure enough, helmet-wearers were in a majority last winter. A survey by the US National Ski Areas Association indicated that 57 per cent of skiers and boarders were using them.

Research across the border in Canada yielded more striking figures. The Canadian Ski Council reported that 71 per cent of skiers and boarders on the country's slopes last winter wore helmets. Those familiar with Canada's skiing will be surprised that the highest incidence of helmet-wearing was the 95 per cent in New Brunswick (of which Noël Coward might have written "Very flat, New Brunswick") and the lowest the 66 per cent in mountainous British Columbia.

During the summer, a further significant increase in helmet use seemed likely in 2010/11, since California and New Jersey had plans to require skiers and boarders aged under 18 to wear them. However, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the outgoing governor of California, sabotaged that state's plan.

A keen skier when younger (although his former ski instructor, whom I met in Austria 12 years ago, was coy about his technique), Schwarzenegger was in favour of the bill. But his administration tied it procedurally to legislation requiring ski areas substantially to improve safety. When that bill was vetoed, on the grounds that it imposed too heavy a financial burden on the industry, the other one died with it. "While I am signing this bill to demonstrate my support for this measure," he said of the helmet law, "I recognise that it will not take effect."

This has taken a lot of steam out of the drive to make ski helmets a legal requirement. The New Jersey bill survives, but it differs from California's in explicitly excluding ski-area operators from any responsibility for enforcement. Which suggests the law, if passed, may not have much effect, unless the New Jersey state police are keen skiers.

*** Among the ski helmets available in the UK, Salomon's Custom Air models, priced from £100, are the most cunning: they have a small air-pump to inflate the liner, ensuring a perfect fit. Launched last season, these helmets have created "a million-pound business in the UK alone" according to Eric Davies, Alpine activity manager at Salomon.

Although the Custom Air concept wasn't created in-house, it is otherwise typical of Salomon, renowned for its innovative winter-sports equipment. Its most-eminent innovator was Georges Salomon, who died last month, aged 84. His first great idea was to persuade his father to get out of saw-blade manufacturing and into the ski business; his second was developing an effective toe-release binding, to reduce the risk of leg injury in a fall. He sold the business in 1997, but its emphasis on innovation continued. This season, Salomon is in the front line of marketing 'rocker' skis and boards to the average skier.

Although 19th-century miners in Colorado did ski on something similar, namely barrel staves, the credit for devising the rocker is usually given to Shane McConkey, the Canadian extreme skier who was killed in a base jumping accident last year. Normal, recreational skis curve upwards under the boot. Only when pressured in a turn by the skier do they bend to form a fairly consistent arc from tip to tip. Rocker skis, which bow upwards at both ends, were devised for skiers and boarders who habitually jump off cliffs into deep powder. They facilitate landing and recovery in deep powder, plus – because of the curved profile – swift changes of direction.

Rockers have been around for a few years, but the concept has only now been applied to skis used by average on- and off-piste skiers. Eric Davies says they are "an absolute pleasure to use". I think I'll give them a try.

Stephen Wood is Ski Correspondent for The Independent and Executive Editor of Condé Nast Traveller

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