Different snow leads to different on-mountain injuries
December 28, 2012
Steamboat Springs — For 40 years, Carl Ettlinger has been among a team of researchers who have pored over all the grisly details of ski injuries at Vermont's Sugarbush Ski Resort, taking note of everything from a skier's experience to the equipment and the snow conditions. That's resulted in mountains of data and lists of important information for injury-conscious skiers.
It hasn't, however, led Ettlinger to be able to declare one type of snow more dangerous than another, at least statistically speaking, which is the language of choice when it comes such determinations.
There's plenty of evidence that different types of snow lead to different types of injuries, though, and that much is evident to anyone watching patients roll into Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs.
Steamboat has been besieged by snow for the latter half of December thanks to a sustained weather pattern that's pushed Steamboat Ski Area toward a 100-inch December and left powder-hungry skiers ready for a big burp following three weeks of prime-time meals.
All that powder makes a difference on the mountain, and it also has made a difference for those unfortunate few being hauled off it.
"We are seeing less mountain injuries," said registered nurse Paula Golden, the director of the YVMC emergency department. "Usually, where there is a lack of snow or poor skiing conditions, the injuries we see are more severe, such as fractures," she said. "With better skiing conditions, we may have the same amount of injuries, but they are less severe, such as sprains."
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That comes as little surprise to Dr. Dan Smilkstein, a general practitioner and longtime avid outdoorsman in Steamboat Springs.
Smilkstein said changes in equipment and interest throughout the years have changed the injuries mountain-goers are likely to sustain. For instance, the increase in popularity of terrain parks, where skiers and snowboarders launch high and land on hard-packed snow, can lead to more severe injuries. Something as revolutionary as the shaped ski can dramatically cut down on the sports learning curve and, especially when combined with soft, deep powder, send less experienced skiers into more dangerous terrain.
"The powder is nicer to fall into, but it gets people to take risks, too," Smilkstein said. "The learning curve is much shorter, but along with that, the wisdom curve isn't."
Powder and hard pack in general can make for vastly different injuries.
Ettlinger, who's spent four decades studying injuries and developing safety programs from his Vermont headquarters, said with a laugh that he hasn't had many opportunities to chart injuries in the deep, fluffy powder Steamboat athletes have grown to love. Heaps of wet snow, however, can be a major factor in injuries.
"There are a lot of opportunities for a ski to become trapped and complex loads to be applied to a skier's lower anatomy and a great chance of injury," he said. "However, classic Colorado snow is going to be lighter, and it's less likely to be able to grab and hold the ski."
Harder surfaces, too, like the early-season "white ribbon of death" — mostly manmade strips of snow that typically are narrow and slick — can result in specific types of injuries.
"In firm conditions, the injuries you see would be more to the upper extremities," Ettlinger said. "You see things like dislocated shoulders, fractured forearms or fractured wrists. The shoulder and end of the arm will be at risk when you fall and don't have the proper training in how to fall to reduce risk using proper techniques."
He said the very best conditions involve decently packed snow, stable enough to allow a person to walk across, but not so loose that his or her legs post-hole through the surface.
Even then, as with all conditions, a combination of the right equipment, the right experience and the right techniques before and after a fall are the most important in terms of preventing injury.
• Keep equipment maintained and fitting properly.
• Ensure a helmet fits, but don't assume it makes you invincible.
• Stay in shape with exercise.
• Ski or snowboard responsibly to avoid conflicts with others.
• Take a lesson from the ski and snowboard school when upgrading equipment.
• Fall properly by keeping joints moderately flexed, legs together, chin against the chest and arms up and forward all while not fully straightening the legs.
• Analyze terrain by imagining a fall zone.
• Wear snow sport-specific textured gear instead of slick clothing to help self-arrest on a slick slope.
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com