Ski Injuries are Worse than Ever, Traced to New Equipment Few Know How to Use
It’s a busy day every day at the casualty department in Schwarzach, a small provincial town in Salzburg. Every few minutes a new delivery of broken skiers or snow boarders arrives at the mountain clinic. The packed waiting room is full of mournful faces with panda-eye suntans, whose swollen extremities will be patched up by the overworked orthopaedic surgeons.
Winter is always busy in Schwarzach. The town lies at the heart of Austria’s most developed winter sports regions - the Pongau. Yet this season the Schwarzach doctors have been unusually swamped: 4,738 people were treated as out-patients between Christmas and the end of January; over a thousand had to be kept in the hospital. Doctors put this sad record down to a cocktail of circumstances, including the hard artificial snow that has kept the slopes open during a snow-starved January.
But a considerable number of the accidents have been caused by skiers and boarders over-estimating their own ability, according to Franklin Genelin, head of casualty at Schwarzach in an interview with the Salzburger Nachrichten, a trend boosted by quantum leaps in ski equipment technology. The new wasp-waisted ‘carvers,’ skis that are wide at tips and tails but narrow around the boot area, allow skiers of fairly modest ability to cut aggressively through the snow, leaning precariously close to the ground and reaching speeds that many skiers simply don’t have the experience to deal with.
It’s not only the number of accidents that has got the medics worried, but also the type of injury incurred. Most are still twisted knees and broken limbs and require nothing more tragic than rounds of painkillers followed by slow-healing or time-consuming operations.
However, there has been a steep increase in head and spinal injuries, which are much more severe. In fact the Schwarzach clinic is receiving about one spinal injury per day. Ever more frequently the medical teams across Austria’s mountainous regions are faced with the heart-wrenching task of telling injured skiers or boarders that they’ll never walk again. On Tuesday, Feb. 19, a 15-year-old skier was air-lifted to Graz by helicopter after slamming into a tree in the tiny resort Mittermoan am Gaberl. The doctors say he’ll probably spend the rest of his life in a wheel chair. A week earlier, a collision of the slopes of Saalbach cost one poor man his life outright.
Accidents will happen, but the rising figures have unleashed a series of debates about how to make winter sports holidays safer. Some plans, if adopted, could change the face of a week’s holiday in the Austrian Alps. Resorts are looking with interest at an experiment that has begun in the Swiss resort of Grindelwald this year, in which a speed restriction of 30 kilometers an hour has been introduced on a slope popular with beginners.
The move, aimed at protecting children, the elderly and beginners, is hardly revolutionary, but the mere idea of speed traps on ski slopes has provoked strong reaction. Some fear that the "nanny state" could soon follow them even on holiday and that Alpine villages will follow the North American resorts, where speed clampdowns are commonplace and ski police (sometimes wearing flashing blue helmets) chase down and arrest out of control skiers. The perceived freedom of the Alps will be lost.
The slopes are far from lawless already, of course. If you injure another skier through reckless behaviour, you are already liable to prosecution and fines in all Alpine countries. Skiers are implored to adhere to the piste etiquette laid down by the International Ski Federation’s 10-step common-sense guide.
But things are getting more serious, and theory is finally becoming practice. On Feb. 22, the Venetian daily Il Gazzettino Veneto reported that police at the famed Cortina D’Ampezzo resort had begun confiscating the ski passes of reckless skiers.
Yet heavy policing surely jars with the traditional Gemütlichkeit of an Austrian winter holiday – a cozy, laissez-faire ideal savored by so many tourists. Can you still enjoy the thrill of a ski holiday without risking life and limb without over-regulating and sterilizing the atmosphere?
Of course you can, say the medical experts, beginning with wearing a helmet, a trend that is catching on fast. A few years ago head protectors seemed the exclusive domain of small children and grizzled extreme skiers. Now they’re on the front shelf of the sports shops.
Around half of the injured skiers or boarders arriving at Schwarzach clinic were wearing head protection when they fell, preventing a number of significant head injuries – particularly for snowboarders who tend fall backwards onto the vulnerable back of the skull..
That said, other experts think that helmets are as much a part of the cause as they are part of the solution. Contrary to certain marketing claims, head protection wouldn’t have saved the lives of singer Sonny Bono or Michael Kennedy, nephew of the former U.S. president, who were simply traveling too fast for the head protection to have made a difference. Light-weight and comfortable by necessity, the commercially available helmets are little use in a high-speed collision with a fixed object.
Further, a recent U.S. study by Carl Ettlinger of the University of Vermont Medical School showed that the number of fatalities and serious injuries involving helmet-wearers was disproportionately high. By covering the ears, helmets may reduce the perception of speed and encourage reckless behavior.
"Most injuries result from people feeling they are indestructible," Ettlinger concluded.
Surely the effects of Alpine alcohol only reinforce the folly. And while few would advocate that Austrian ski areas go completely ‘dry’ like the US resorts – after all, what would a holiday in the Austrian Alps be without a refreshing stop in a wooden mountain hut? But keep in mind that if mulled wine and beer prompts you to overestimate your own abilities, its effects on your judgment and balance hardly going to be more positive on the slippery slopes of a darkened ski run. In Tyrol they say that the few hundred metres of piste between the teaming Moserwirt hut in St. Anton, and the valley floor below are more dangerous that Kitzbühel’s fearsome Streif downhill course.
Technology has definitely transformed skiing. The old drag-lifts and clanking chairlifts have been replaced by high-speed lifts conveying 6 or even 8 skiers at a time. Queues have been cut dramatically; as has the time you spend on the lift. Twenty years ago, you could reckon with skiing around 12 runs in a full day, now you can easily achieve double or triple that. But skier’s muscles have not developed at the nearly the same pace, and most accidents happen just before lunch or between 3 and 4pm, just before the lifts close – when legs are most tired and concentration is waning fast.