Over the past 30 years Michael Pettifer, MD of ski insurance specialists MPI Brokers, has encountered more than his fair share of ruptured ACLs and broken limbs. So what’s his advice on the optimal way to protect yourself when skiing?
I’ve been skiing all my life – indeed, skiing is my life and I built my career around it. We all know that while skiing is nowhere near as dangerous as a contact sport like rugby, the risks are still there. But each season I see injuries that could easily have been avoided by taking a few precautions.
So what can you do to give yourself the best chance of avoiding injury? Here are a few simple measures you should consider…
Get Fit Before You Go
If you sit behind a desk for 11 months of the year and your only regular workout is a stroll to the shops or a walk in the park, you can’t really expect your body to cope with six days of strenuous dawn-to-dusk exercise (not to mention apres-ski glass lifting) without some screams of protest. If you’re a beginner it’s essential to take a course of lessons on an artificial slope, at an indoor snowdome or one of the Skiplex centres.
Even experienced skiers should take fitness seriously: because accidents often occur at the end of the day when muscles are tired and minds fuzzy. Best would be to visit the gym or cycle regularly, follow a ski fitness programme, or go on some stiff hilly walks. Preferably all three.
An easier – albeit more expensive – way is to buy a Compex Muscle Stimulator and strengthen your legs whilst reading a book or watching TV! It’s no replacement for cardio-vascular exercise, but it’s great pre-Alpine training for those ski muscles that haven’t had an outing since last spring in Meribel or Mayrhofen.
Protect Your Head
The American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) places wintersports in the top 20 sports/recreational activities contributing to head injuries treated in hospital emergency rooms. It’s in the top 10 sports-related head-injury categories among children aged 14 and younger.
According to a John Hopkins Medicine-led study, severe head trauma accounts for around 20% of all ski- and snowboard-related injuries, and of those head injuries 22% are severe enough to cause loss of consciousness or concussion.
Head injuries are the most frequent cause of death and severe disability among skiers and snowboarders. Many insurance companies today make it a condition that you must wear a helmet whilst skiing or snowboarding, so it’s something you should check when purchasing a policy.
Be Methodical in the Park
Parks are a common feature of ski resorts, with jumps, half-pipes, kickers and rails daring skiers and boarders to try ever-riskier jumps and tricks. Jumping is not the problem; it’s coming back down to earth that causes trouble, and terrain parks can be the setting for some unpleasant accidents as a result.
In fact, according research described in Ski-injuries.com, skiers and snowboarders tend to sustain more serious injuries in terrain parks than elsewhere else on the mountain. Rates of joint dislocation are also higher, as are rates of injury to the head, spine and chest.
If you’re planning to hit the park, check your ski insurance covers you first. Then be methodical and gradual in your approach. Make sure you know how to take off and land. Always inspect a jump before you try it. Work your way up from small jumps and easy terrain features gradually, staying within the limits of your freestyle ability. And never ever follow close behind someone who’s jumping: they may crash just in front of you.
Brace Yourself After Injury
For those who have suffered from knee injuries in the past, a good knee brace, specifically made for sports, will perform in a similar way as a helmet does for the head. It can’t prevent every injury, but it can certainly help protect from further injury and also provide support for unstable knees.
The Donjoy Armor with Fourcepoint Knee Brace has been especially created for skiers and snowboarders who’ve suffered from a previous ACL injury. Constructed from light aircraft-grade aluminium, the brace gives its users the confidence of knowing that they are wearing some of the strongest off-the-shelf protection around.
The hinged brace is spring-loaded to keep the hamstring in constant tension. As the hamstring is attached to the tibia this tension pulls the tibia back, keeping it stable and reducing the chance of a further ACL injury.
For skiing after an injury, see our feature on Getting Back to Skiing.
Hire a Guide When You Ski Off-Piste
Learning to ski or snowboard off-piste with a mountain guide or suitably qualified instructor is a real investment – and pays big dividends. You’ll learn how to adjust your technique to variable snow conditions, how to ‘read’ the mountain, and what to do if something goes wrong. You’ll also be taken to the best and safest slopes according to snow conditions on that day.
It’s no guarantee your off-piste skiing will be accident-free, but for untrained off-pisters it greatly increases the chances of staying safe. Going to one of Henry’s Avalanche Talks or a similar course is a great idea too: at the very least it will equip you with a healthy respect for the mountains in winter.
Just be sure to check your insurance covers you for off-piste skiing before you go – and if there are any limitations to the cover.
Always Carry Avalanche Safety Gear
You’ll need to check they’re in working order every time you use them, too – in particular, that the transceivers are working properly and are switched on before everyone starts skiing. Just as important is being well-versed in their use. The shocked and panicky aftermath of a real avalanche is no time to learn how to carry out a grid search.
If you regularly ski in the deep, invest in an ABS backpack like Haglöfs Vojd – which, when caught in an avalanche, inflates using a gas canister (filled with Argon) to help keep you floating on the surface of the snow. Carrying the canister on scheduled flights involves tedious phone calls and form filling.
The latest product on the market is Black Diamond’s Halo 28 Jetforce, which uses revolutionary technology developed in conjunction with Pieps. The gas canister is replaced by a battery-powered fan that inflates the bag in less than four seconds.
Don’t Slip Up
Slipping on the ice while walking in a ski resort is the cause of many an injury. In icy conditions high heels obviously are a no-no – but trainers and even snow boots are not completely accident-proof. You can help to avoid a broken ankle, jarred back and even head injury and it doesn’t cost a fortune to buy a set of boot crampons.
Yes, they will be visible, but not really that noticeable when clipped onto to the chunkier type of snow boot – and you’ll feel a lot more confident walking. Try Ice Gripper, Shoe Chain, or one of the many different brands you can find on Amazon or eBay.
What Do You Think?
Follow the advice above, and you’ll be giving yourself a much better chance of avoiding a week-ending injury than those that ignore it.
Why not bookmark this page so you can refer back to it before you next head to the mountains? And if you think it’s missing something, please add your suggestions in the comments box below. If they’re good, we’ll include them in the list with full credit given to you. Be safe out there this winter!
You can also read Michael’s feature on The Ski Season Survival Secrets.