My first attempt at skiing ended within minutes in a sprained ankle – the result of a snowplough gone wrong. The second left me with a sprained wrist – a snowplough gone very, very wrong. Subsequent injuries, almost all related to the wretched snowplough, were enough to persuade me that the only ice I wanted to encounter were the cubes in my drink.
Although New Zealand ski fields are full of five-year-olds demonstrating manoeuvres considerably more sophisticated than the snowplough with enviable ease, this most basic of skiing techniques has ruined many a winter holiday.
Nearly 40% of ski injuries involve knees, and most of these consist of ligament sprains caused either by an ill-conceived snowplough or a twisting fall. Other common ways to hurt yourself on the slopes include breaking an arm or suffering “skier’s thumb”, a ligament injury caused by skiers catching their thumb on the strap of a ski pole when they fall.
Snow-sports injuries are a major health injury in New Zealand: in the last financial year, ACC spent about $12 million on 11,633 new snow-sports claims. More than two-thirds of this cost was for moderate to severe injuries.
In the year ended June 30, 2007, ACC received 735 new claims for skiing injuries – a substantial increase on the previous year’s 558. Snowboarders made 478 new claims, up from 413 the previous year.
The only sports that exceed the injury level for skiing were rugby union, which recorded 3604 new injuries in the 2006/07 year, and rugby league, which recorded 904. Only 13 people made claims for mountaineering injuries, despite its reputation as a dangerous pursuit.
US safety authorities are increasingly concerned about snowboarding, which now has an injury level higher than the combined total for hiking, mountain biking, swimming, water-skiing, boating, camping and fishing.
Snowboarders are hampered by being strapped to their board, which -prevents them from stepping one leg out to recover from a fall. Instead, they’re likely to stretch out an arm, risking wrist or shoulder injuries. ACC’s snow-sports injury-prevention programme focuses on encouraging snowboarders to wear wrist guards.
Miles Davidson, facilitator for the Snow Safety Group – an organisation made up of representatives from the snow-sports industry, ACC and the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council – says the emergence of snowboarding introduced a new demographic to the slopes.
“Snowboarders tended to be younger and to have a skateboarding background, and a lot of them wouldn’t have been interested in going skiing. There was an element of recklessness at first: people learned to snowboard quickly, and went to places on the mountain where they probably shouldn’t have gone.”
Since then, says Davidson, designated terrain parks and half-pipes have made the mountains safer for snowboarders and free skiers. Novice skiers and snowboarders are now more likely to take lessons and to rent quality equipment.
Davidson says the injury rate among skiers and snowboarders has dropped in the decade since the Snow Safety Advisory Group was formed, from about five injuries per 1000 visits to the slopes to 3.7.
Initiatives to reduce injuries have included promoting a snow-safety code in ski areas, and developing a website (http://www.snowsmart.co.nz) to give winter-sports enthusiasts advice on getting fit in preparation for the ski season. This year, the industry has also introduced free equipment checks through sports shops.
“It’s hard to promote safety among skiers and snowboarders because it’s a negative rather than a positive,” says Davidson.
“We’ve found the best way to talk about safety is to point out that people who are injured may not be able to use their season pass for the rest of the winter. That tends to get skiers’ attention.”