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Vienna | 16.2.2008 | 13:23 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

Helmut's Helmet
  Now I'm a fairly gnarly skier, I'll have you know. I'm a legend in my own living room. Before I took a career dive, I was known (at least to myself) as the most dangerous dishwasher in the western Alps.

However, having watched my partner in skiing and all other passions go under the knife for a knee operation this summer, I have developed a serious winter sports injury phobia.

And the news I read this week simply took my breath away.
New Records
  We are setting records this year for seriously hurting ourselves on the slopes.

In a hospital in the small town of Schwarzach in the Pongau region of Salzburg 4,738 skiers and boarders were treated as out-patients between Christmas and the end of January and over a thousand had to be kept in hospital. That's about 10% up on previous years.
Bracing Itself
  Most injuries are twisted knees and broken limbs and will result in nothing more tragic than rounds of painkillers followed by time-consuming and frightening operations and rounded off by months of boring rehab and restricted movement.

But the Schwarzach clinic is receiving about one spinal injury per day and the medical team is habitually bracing itself to tell some unfortunated soul that they'll never walk again.

A collision of the slopes of Saalbach this week cost one poor man his life outright.
Staying Safe
  I'm not reminding you of this to depress you on your well deserved holidays. I just wanted to talk about having fun and keeping safe at the same time.

The experts have plenty of pieces of advice on how to do this, the simplest of which is to wear a helmet.

It's a trend that is catching on. A few years ago head protectors seemed the exclusive domain of small children and grizzled extreme skiers. Now the old brain-buckets are everywhere. Even my girlfriend's dad has got one.

To my delight, Helmut has a helmet.
The gnarly freeskier (pre-helmet/ bent pole/cheesy grin era)
Brain Buckets
  I personally like them because they are warm and, by totally covering my ears, they give my ski-buddies the impression that I can't possibly hear those irritating chair-lift conversations about how much money I owe from the night before.

Besides, if I don't shave for a few days, they give me the sort of hardcore image I've always coveted - at least before I get off the chairlift.

Around half of the injured skiers or boarders arriving at Schwarzach clinic were wearing head protection when they hurt themselves - the medical team is convinced that will have prevented a number of significant head injuries.

There is a significant word of warning to go with protective headgear though. In America there is even a school of thought that suggests helmets are becoming as much a part of the problem as they are part of the solution.
A Flawed Saviour
  Contrary to some marketing claims, it seems helmets wouldn't have saved the lives of either Sonny Bono or Michael Kennedy. When those prominent Americans skied into their respective trees they were simply travelling too fast for the head protection to make a difference.

Although considerable progress is being made on improving their protection, the fact remains that if you run into a solid fixed object (like a tree) at anything like the speed the Swiss authorities would clock you for, no commercially available helmet is likely to protect you.
You ain't Superman, baby.
  A few years ago now, the leading American authority on snow sports injury, Professor Carl Ettlinger, headed a study that showed that the number fatalities and serious injuries was disproportionately high.

This all suggested to Ettlinger that helmets which, by covering the ears perhaps reduce your perception of the speed at which you are travelling, can give you a false sense of security and encourage reckless behavior.

"Most injuries result from people feeling they are indestructible," he concluded.

Certainly the medics at Schwarzach believe that skiers and boarders over-estimating their own ability is a prime cause of injury.

Just to sum it up - my personal advise, non expert but well considered, would be to wear helmets by all means - they are particularly useful for snowboarders falling backwards onto very vulnerable back of the skull. But please, please don't put all your trust in them when travelling at speed.
Body Armour
  Another useful piece of kit is the back protector - that padded exoskeleton so popular in the boarder community.

I tried them out for FM4 a few years ago and have been ever since enamoured with the muscular definition they appear to give my back.

They are useful too, protecting the spine and upper body against injury, particularly in the sort of collision situations that are becoming worryingly common on our overcrowded pistes.

Furthermore, you can protect the base of your spine, the coccyx, with those padded undershorts often unkindly referred to as hippopotamus pants.

Pas de Carte Blanche
  But once, I'm afraid, again there is some sobering news here.

According the orthopaedic surgeon Roger Hackney, most spinal injuries on the slopes are caused by the trunk of your body suddenly and violently bending forward or backwards, crushing one or two vertebrae, and, according the Hackney, the padding can't help much against here.

Luckily truly serious injuries still remain rare. In terms of kit, the orthopaedics remind skiers to get their bindings set right (don't lie about your weight, boys and girls) and also to get them checked regularly.

If they don't use them already, boarders should to consider wrists guards (although you should be aware that very stiff wrist guards transfer the energy up the arm and can lead to fractures of the forearm rather than wrist.)

All the medics I have spoken to have one very strong message: you can't buy the best sort protection: common sense.

The best thing you can do is warm up properly, don't overestimate your ability to hold speed, rest before you get tired and don't mix alcohol and winter sports. Whatever the statistics might say, beer makes you overly self-confident and prone to fall over even in the flat valley. Go figure.
Et Vous Pensez?
  Why do you think there are so many accidents on the slopes? Equipment? Overcrowding? Hard artificial snow? Carving technology?
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