Skiing and Living With Neither Fear Nor Helmets

30 years ago - Younger than my daugher is now

30 years ago - Younger than my daugher is now

Today there is finger wagging. Natasha Richardson should have gone to the hospital/worn a helmet/stayed at home/wrapped herself in bubble wrap. Today ski helmet sales are soaring, and well intentioned mothers are swaddling their tweens in bubble wrap, lest they tumble and fall. Helmet manufacturers are salivating, but they can’t market to you or it’d appear predatory at best, and ghoulish at worst.

It was a freak accident, she could have just as easily tripped on an evening gown and hit her head on a fire hydrant. My understanding is that Natasha Richardson had an unremarkable fall.

Really bad luck.

My kids wear a helmet when they ski. I do not. I’ve skied since I could walk, and it’s one of a very few things that I know I do well. I ski like I write, I’m fearless and I manage to make a few small leaps and if I lead with my hips I can avoid most hazards.

The few (blissful) times I’ve hut skied, I was required to wear a helmet. I wore a helmet when the ski patrol took me out of bounds on one of our recent trips (dude, I’ve got your back, I’ll never tell who you are). If they’d insisted I wear a tutu, I would have complied. I hated the helmet.

I love the sound of my skis carving into the snow. I love the wind blowing in my hair. I love being a teensy bit cold. I love not being able to see my feet in the powder and the ache in my thighs matching the burn in my lungs. I ski long runs, mostly black diamond, mostly flat and I seldom jump anymore. The reality is that skiing has a very low injury rate, less than one half of one percent.l1070586I no longer own skis and I traded in the 185’s to rent 160’s.

I want to tell you that in the wake of this terrible tragedy I’ll wear a helmet. I can’t do that. It’s not because wearing a helmet isn’t the smart thing to do. It’s not because I didn’t think about wearing a helmet after Sonny Bono died (even though he killed spring break in Palm Springs). I contemplated it even longer after William Kennedy died.

I still skiied without one all those years.

One thing I’ve vowed to be in this space is honest. I may not be literate, balanced, kind, sensible or fair, but I will be honest.

In all honesty, I won’t be wearing a helmet any time soon. There are a lot of things I do that are much more dangerous than skiing. There’s more than a little marketing on the evening news.

Related posts:
Skiing in 2007
Skiing in 2009

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Comments 11

  1. Good read, Jessica!
    I like skiing a lot – though I don’t do it very often – and have never worn a helmet.
    It’s a great activity.
    This was just a freak accident; nothing more, nothing less.

  2. Unfortunately, too often head injuries, or internal injuries, like this go minimized until too late. She is in the news but millions die each year due to injuries not caught early or minimized diagnosis.

  3. We talked about this yesterday. Our family is getting ready for a ski trip. The kids, of course, will wear helmets. My husband is now certain that he will also be wearing a helmet. But as I thought about how much I love the wind in my hair and how it brings tears to my eyes to feel like I’m flying…

    I just cant’t bring myself to do it.

  4. i started wearing a helmet a few years ago—but usually only on POW days and days that i’m going to “get after it” trees, super steeps etc. On days where i’m not pushing it —i will leave the helmet behind.

    generally helmets are a good idea—and all kids should wear one. i’ve spent time as a ski pro and i ski about 100 days a year. Running into another person or a tree are the biggest dangers for your head. I’ve never seen anyone in a lesson go down and directly hit their head on a bunny slope (on a snowboard–yes—skis no). I suppose its possible, but i’m suspicious. I don’t think we’ve heard the whole story about Natahsa Richardson’s “unremarkable fall”.

  5. I wear a helmet when I ski, my wife wears a helmet when she skis and now our two year old is walking around the house with her ski helmet on although she isn’t making many turns yet. That said, I don’t think that there should be any mandate from resorts, or anyone else, making skiers and snowboarders wear helmets.
    For me, the reason I wear a helmet is because I’ve seen enough collisions on the slopes that I’m concerned about someone wiping me out. Also, with our two year old, I figure I’ve done enough silly things in my nearly 40 years, that I should start taking a few steps to make sure I’m around 40 more years! ;)
    BTW, the whole marketing aspect of Natasha Richardson’s tragic accident seems like ambulance chasing to me – blecch!

  6. I echo your feelings, replacing the word “ski” with the word “motorcycle”.

    Should I wear a helmet? Yes! Am I an idiot for not wearing one? Yes! Will my daughter wear one when she’s old enough to ride? Yes! In fact, she’ll wear one when she’s old enough to ride a tricycle on the lawn.

  7. my response could probably be a blog post of its own, so apologies for the length. i also want to add that i abhor ambulance chasing advertisements, and my opinion comes from 15 years of snowboarding (the last 10 with a helmet), including several years of professional instruction.

    Like many activities, the risk of something major happening when you ski/snowboard is pretty low (although a 0.04% injury rate is about 1,500 injuries per day, assuming 60M skier days over a 180 day season in North America; in other words, it’s small but not insignificant). But when something major happens, it’s MAJOR — Natasha Richardson being the obvious and most current example. Wearing a helmet is a painfully simple way to mitigate a completely life changing event in the rare instance it happens to you. I’m an expert level snowboarder, and former professional instructor. I wear a helmet EVERY time I ride — not because I’m afraid that I will fall, but because I’ve been on the mountain enough times to see countless accidents caused by out-of-control novice lunatics or completely random and unexpected changes in conditions. Rate of helmet use is highest amongst expert skiers — not because of increased risk, but because we’re acutely aware of what CAN go wrong.

    We’re not talking wrist guards or knee pads to prevent a sprain. A blunt trauma to the head — from a skier, from a tree, from a freak of nature 1 in a million slip — can kill you or cause permanent brain damage. Wearing a helmet will let you get up and walk away. I really have a hard time believing that not wanting to wear a helmet is anything other than ignorance or naivete.

    It’s amazing to me that people will make their children wear one (you’re admitting risk and an element of danger), but refuse to wear one themselves (classic “it could never happen to me” syndrome). Your kid isn’t going to injure their head falling 2 feet to the ground. They’re going to injure their head when someone else crashes into them — the same thing that you also have no control over. I buckle up every time I drive because it’s specious reasoning to think that just because I haven’t been hit by a drunk driver in my 30 years doesn’t mean i never will be. I fail to see a difference when it comes to helmets.

    And to the guy who doesn’t wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle: My neurosurgeon brother-in-law thanks you. “Donor”cyclists make his job easier, since all he has to do is declare that there’s no chance of saving the person and call for an organ transplant team. I’m sure your daughter will appreciate the fact that you wanted to feel the freedom of the wind going through your hair when she’s coffin shopping for you.

    Final thought, speaking of my b-in-l. He had to leave Christmas dinner early to perform emergency brain surgery on a teenager whose skull was crushed open as the result of another skiing slamming him into a tree. Just a freak accident, resulting in permanent brain damage (if he made it through the night). Do you folks who don’t wear them really want to take an unnecessary risk — even if it’s a 1 in 100,000 risk — that could put your family through that kind of pain?

  8. An old friend told me today that she is rethinking her helmet-less skiing position. I think incidents like this make us all stop and take stock, but it should be realistic and bearing in mind of all the potentials.

    I wear a bike helmet now though I never used to. I do it at the insistence of my husband and to set a good example for my child – who destroyed two helmets last summer in falls from her bike.

    I don’t wear one when I am skating though despite the fact that I am more likely to fall on the ice than I am to fall off my bike and neither does my husband, despite his years of hockey experience telling him he should.

    There are a lot of things I am told I should do but the odds and actual facts tell me are overkill and so I don’t.

    Ms. Richardson’s accident, the outcome and her age are a reminder that we should be more mindful because our lives are finite and we can’t know when or under what circumstances they will end. I think that is what scares us the most. Not knowing. And we think we can hedge our bets a bit with things like helmets. Better to concentrate on the living of life then worry overmuch about things that will probably never happen to us.

  9. I just took up snowboarding last winter and only ever boarded without a helmet once; my first day. I hit my head and thought to myself: Sheesh, I could hurt something serious here. My friends all thought I was nuts for even trying it “at your age!” but it’s been worth it. I know people who ski w/o the helmet but board with one. I probably won’t ever board without a helmet, but then I always cycled with one too.

    Each time someone young dies it just reminds us how fragile the bodies we live in are.

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