Safety Check Up – Protect Your Melon

So far this season, there have been eight deaths on the slopes in Colorado.  Two were tramatic brain injuries, three have been cardiac or other natural deaths potentially complicated by attitude, and three were backcountry accidents. Historically, there are typically between 35 and 40 deaths per year. Before we get too far, our condolences to the friends and families of these unfortunate events.

As this week kicks off National Ski Safety week, it is good time to revisit these accidents and discuss the mitigation of the risks that caused them.  Whether we are on piste or off, the risks are real and its events such as these that should make us take pause, make sure we are conscience of these risks, and thinking cognitively versus doing it for Instagram glory and fame.   During this four part series, we will talk about tramatic brain injuries (TBI), high attitude exposure, avoiding “Hero” mode of thinkings, and consider back country preparedness.

The National Ski Area Association statistics show men, specifically those under 30, are most likely to be fatally injured. In line with overall ratios of skiers to snowboarding, skiing is about 75 percent of accident. The most common place for fatal accident to occur is on an intermediate ski run by hitting someone or something such as a tree. Such was the case for Bill Brockmueller who was skiing at Eldora at the end of the day at approximately 3:45 PM.   Eldora public relations reported that Ski patrol responded to the scene reported he had suffered tramatic injuries to his head, back, and legs after he apparently lost control and hit a tree. Bill was not wearing a helmet. At Boulder medical, Bill was sidated into a medical coma to attempt to protect his brain from the resulting swealling.   Unfortunately, these attempt were unsuccessful and the family had to make the tough decision to pull him off life support. Bill was a second year grad student in Physics at the University of Colorado, enjoyed an active lifestyle enjoying activites such as paddleboarding, hiking, and of course skiing.   In short, he was just starting to enjoy the lifestyle that came with studying at Boulder.  

Daniel “Danny” Giger had a similar accident at Breckenridge’s peak 7 on one of the many intermediate ski runs. Danny was also not wearing a helmet.  He was transported to summit medical and did not survive from his injuries.  “If we were doing something anything outdoors that was adventurous, Danny was signed up to be on board,” his childhood friend, Parker Rosen, said. “It’s going to be different around here.” Danny was a Computer Science major at the University of Colorado and had relocated from Newport Beach California.  Danny was studying big data, high velocity data system architecture, and data science techniques.  He had a promising future ahead.

Personally I did not wear a helmet until I was forced to.  Frankly, I was lucky to not face the same fate as Bill and Danny. Back in 2002, I was riding in Vail cruising out on one of the many catwalks leading out of Sun Down bowl on the way to chair 5 lift.  Out of nowhere, I was crushed by guy that caught an edge and slammed into me with a force I can still remember today. I don’t remember hitting the snow or have any concept of how long I was out. I woke up to ski patrol checking me out.   The Chad that hit me left the scene and there were no witnesses.

After the triage slopeside, the patrol determined I needed to get transported to Vail medical.  Mind you, I am at the end of a run call “Forever” which lives up to its name and it took forever to get out.  I ended up being carted in the sled down to the bottom of the chairlift, up to the top of chair 5, skied down to mid vail, and carted down chair 1 before I could be formally checked out at Vail Medical.   The results, a tramatic brain injury that resulted in lasting vertigo that, even today, comes and goes over time.  Luckily, my injuries were such that I survived. I remember the recoverely process was painful and frought with complications of migraine headaches and vertigo.  

If you do crash and ring your bell, seek immediate medical attention. Your doctor will likely prescribe similar protocol like the freeski team typically follow. This is informational purposes only and should not be used in lieu of seeing a doctor. For the first 72 hours, the advice is rest with NO screen time and then take a measurement of symptoms using the SCAT-2 test to clear for return to the slopes. If you are clear and symptom free, you can ease back into activities with 10-15 min easy bike ride or walk, then next day 30-45 min at higher intensity. Eventually start with easy riding no jumps and back to normal riding. If symptoms come back at any stage go back to rest and need to be 24h without symptoms to go back to easy bike ride. It’s a process, but take this time to heal.

I eventually was fit to go snowboard again about one months later.   When I got back to the slopes doctors orders were that I had to wear a helmet, no choice. Since that event, I have been in 2 additional accidents, both ended up with impact to my head.  Neither required attention from ski patrol.  They did, however, end my day. Perhaps I’m overly cautious, but I dont take any risks with it. I’d much rather sit the afternoon out in the lodge and ride another day.

Infographic courtesy of the BBC

To help us get a little more context here on brain injury, we were referred to the Think First Foundation by St Anthony Summit Medical Center. Think First Foundation is dedicated to preventing brain, spinal cord and other traumatic injuries through education, research and advocacy. Their fact sheet tells us that a TBI is an “..alteration in brain function, or other evidence of brain pathology, caused by an external force. An injury to the brain can be mild or severe, and can lead to life- long effects in cognition (thinking) and body functions, such as movement.” It can effect decreased cognition, reduced sensory processing, personality alterations, and loss of consciences, coma, and even death.

Likewise, Secondary Impact Syndrome can occurs shortly following an initial concussion that has not healed. The second impact does not need to be strong in order to cause permanent disability or possibly death. Consequences of the potential second concussion include cerebral swelling, brain herniation, and death.In cases that are not fatal, long- term effects similar to a severe traumatic brain injury are usually present. Bottomline, if you ring your bell once, lay low for a couple weeks as the second time could be your last time!

I do remember what a dork I felt like putting on a helmet for the first time back in 2002. It no wonder I felt out of place at the time.  According to statistics gathered by National Ski Area Association (NSAA), only 1 in 4 people wore helmets back then.  I quickly get over the the stigma as my love of snowboard exceeded what anyone had to say about me.  It also helped that I found a helmet to be warmer than the beanie I had used leading up to this.

Since the incident, these statistics have changed dramatically with 85% of participant wearing helmets in 2017/2018 season.  Unpacking this a bit more, 95 percent of skiers and snowboarders aged 17 and under wore helmets.  The stats for skiers under 9, is reported at 100%!   The benefits are also coming out in stats as well.  In a recent article in the journal of Skiing Trauma and Safety “Role of Helmets in Mitigation of Head Injuries,” Dr. Jasper Shealy, Dr. Robert Johnson, Carl Ettlinger, and Dr. Irving Scher report that “… potentially serious head injuries (PSHI) dropped from 4.2 percent of all ski injuries to 3 percent of all injuries from 1995 to 2012”  The study concluded that ski and snowboard helmets are extremely effective at preventing skull fractures, and have virtually eliminated scalp lacerations.  With statics such as these, the social pressure to wear a helmet certainly starting to outweigh the perceptions from before.

When it comes time to buy a helmet, remember any helmet is better than no helmet, but buy the best one you can afford. Unlike other gear that might have reusable life trip after trip, bump after bump, a helmet is not something that you want to consider getting used.  Until recently, most helmets were not multi impact resistant. Once someone has a memorable hit to the head, its probably garbage. Look for helmets in unexpected places like Costco. We recently found a display of helmets for incredible price. They were flying off the shelf. Also keep your eyes open during the National Safety Ski week. Many organizations have sharply reduced rates on helmets. Think First is will be at Breckenridge January 19 and 20 with a couple of hundred helmets for sale at wholesale cost.

If you are progressing past the intermediate runs and heading into trees or the terrain park, it’s time to consider the higher end helmets. For your extra investment of approximately $200, you get the latest technology in helmets not only protect the direct blow, they also now protect from rotational impacts. There are a few technologies with this, but the most common is called MIPS.   Think of it as a helmet inside of a helmet mitigate rotational impacts tranfering to your brain. This class of helmet can also be rated for multiple impact. Whatever you do end up with, make sure to give it a solid once over each time you ride

Whichever helmet you end up with, you’ll be happy you have it when you need it. Looking back at it now, it’s silly it ever was a sigma to not wear one. Now a days, I hear people comment when someone is riding without a helmet. People are genuinely concerned about it. The conversation has sure changed and that makes everyone safer. Listen to the concern, buy a helmet and protect that melon.

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