Tag Archives: Skiing


The tragic accident involved Natasha Richardson has lead to calls for helmets to be made compulsory when skiing.

Would this remove all some of the pleasure of the activity? Should the olympic gold medallist have to use a helmet on a green slope?

According to a commenter on this article:

One eye witness report described her having a FORWARD fall: “She lost her balance and nosedived down the hill”. That suggests her face and chin may have taken the first impact, then been forced back, like if someone pulls your head back from behind you, or in a shunt accident from behind in a car which causes “whiplash”. That force can tear and rupture blood vessels at the base of the head/top of the spinal cord, which causes bleeding, clots and a build up of pressure on the spinal cord and up around the dural lining of the brain, which if not speedily relieved causes increasing headache and then unconsciousness, and ultimately a vegetative state and death.
This accident does not seem to have been an “impact” type accident where a helmet might have offered some protection.

It seems to me that there is a balance issue here. It’s true that skiing has risks associated with it, but there is a balance of risks. Whilst in this particular case a helmet may have helped, one has to look at the chances of such an injury. A small risk of a disastrous outcome may not override a certain risk of an inconvenience (that of not enjoying the mountain air as much).

In North America, there are a little over 43 serious injuries per year. This includes head injuries as well as injuries to the spine etc. Helmets would not help here. Let us assume that all of these were injuries which a helmet could protect from (as an overestimate). This gives 0.68 ‘head’ injuries per million days of skiing. Swimming had 72.7 fatalities per million participants and 2081 fatalities for every million days spent swimming. Cycling in contrast had 29.4 fatalities per million participants (this is a stat for North America, in the UK the figure is about a third of that – it’s lower still in the Netherlands and Denmark).

We don’t ask swimmers to always use flotation devices (despite these being readily available) – what’s the difference?

I’m not a skiier, but am a cyclist. On several reports I’ve heard this conflated with bicycle helmets (calls to make them compulsory).

I use a bicycle, and I do use a helmet – but I wouldn’t want a law for that. Why?

Cycling Fatalities

This graph (source) shows that as the percentage of journeys made by bicycle rise, the number of fatalities per km cycled fall.

Is it a coincidence that the countries with helmet laws tend to have a lower percentage of journeys made by bike?

When looking at a population, if the effect of a helmet law is that fewer people cycle – this could save a few serious injuries at the expense of a general reduction in the amount of exercise taken. Hence, paradoxically, a helmet law could swap some obvious injuries for a greater number (though harder to count) of illnesses due to ill health.

On the CTC forum, Cunobelin points out that: “60% of head injuries are alcohol related…… how appalling that we have to pay for the injuries of people who have not worn a helmet in the pub!”

Helmet laws for cycling (and skiing, though personally I care not about that) could be counterproductive. In the case of cycling there is ample evidence around the world that not having such laws (as well as having good infrastructure) encourages cycling and reduces risks as drivers are more used to cycles on the road.

There is also evidence that cycle helmets, whilst giving some protection from linear impacts (i.e. the bash on the head), actually increase the incidence of injury due to rotation. This is because the skin can move relative to the scalp, but the helmet will twist the skull around.

Reducing bicycle accidents: a re-evaluation of the impacts of the CPSC bicycle standard and helmet use

Rodgers. Journal of Product Liability 11 pp307-17, 1988

To examine claims that growth in the use of hard shell cycle helmets had been successful in reducing cycle-related injuries and death, Rodgers studied over 8 million cases of injury and death to cyclists in the USA over 15 years. He concluded: “There is no evidence that hard shell helmets have reduced the head injury and fatality rates. The most surprising finding is that the bicycle-related fatality rate is positively and significantly correlated with increased helmet use”. (source)

Aside: In finding some of the sources for this article, I stumbled across this page linking a rise in seatbelt wearing in motorists linked to an increase in danger to pedestrians and cyclists.

Returning to Natasha Richardson, I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t some other pre-existing weakness in the skull in her case. If so, would a helmet have saved her?

Alpe d’Huez

I got back yesterday from skiing in Alpe d’Huez

Now, straight up, I did not start out a very good skiier, and I’m not a very good skiier still, some people I went with (albeit less than half my age, it was a school trip) started off worse than me and ended the week on blue runs, or higher. I still stuggled with green.

On the other hand, I have shown improvement. My home for the week was a shallow run called ‘Le Rif Nel’. Almost unbelievably it is a kilometre long – it seems shorter – but has only 60 metres of drop. It is very much a nursery slope.

View of Le Rif Nel

This slope was where I spent the bulk of my time.

This is where I practised most, as I could get my technique down without too much fear. By the end of the week I could happily point my skis downhill and go for it – okay, not 100% happily, I had to fight urges to turn (and hence slow down)

On wednesday the beginners were taken to the first cablecar stop on Les Jeux. This is 2km long with 240m of drop. It seemed longer to me.

We were taken down single file, playing ‘follow my leader’, but I found this hugely terrifying. The gradient was not uniform, and in some places it was extremely steep to my eyes. It did not help that it was icy too.

I fell over, lots and lots. I arrived at the bottom physically and emotionally drained and shaken to the core. It took me about 30 minutes longer than the slowest boy. I was expecting a bit of a ribbing when I arrived, but I thought the boys were excellent, they seemed to appreciate the fact that I kept getting up again and eventually made it. I would not try that slope again until I had had lots more practice and a good snowfall. As it turned out I was not to try again at all, as I never felt I was ready.

I returned to Le Rif Nel.

Our First Snowfall

This was the view from my hotel room after a snowfall

View from Pic Blanc

During the week I did take some cablecar rides up high, this is a view from Pic Blanc at 3330m high, 10925 feet.

Cable Car to Pic Blanc

This is a view of the Cable Car from Pic Blanc.

Though at the start of the week we were on the dregs of two week old snow, as well as artificial snow, by thursday night we had a big snowfall, and the mountains turned white. This gave the odd sensation of skiing sometimes in soft snow, when my skis would glide beneath the surface. This was fun in a straight line, very tough to turn.

On Saturday, it seemed that skiing would be cancelled. The weather was clear and still, but there was a strong gust from time to time which meant that the lifts were shut. We walked to the slopes to find the drag lifts open, and as the day went on the other lifts opened.

On 'Poussin'

This is a picture of me skiing on ‘Poussin’

A colleague, myself and a boy started the day on ‘Eclose’, this is a short green run, 252 metres long with 30 metres of drop, so it’s steeper than Le Rif Nel. We walked to the slope and joined it just below the top (it is at the bottom of the town). The steepest part of the slope was covered in soft powder, and so was very hard work – I only fell once (nice and soft) but I didn’t care for the slope much.

We took a connecting chair lift over to the foot of Le Rif Nel and found that a new intermediate slope had opened. This was ‘Poussins’ and was the interemediary I needed earlier in the week. It was steeper than Le Rif Nel, though not as long as ‘Les Jeux’

I did this slope a few times and then had a final blast on Le Rif Nel to finish on a high note. I went down the slope full pelt. Not tremendously fast by many standards, but quite enough for me. Unfortunately I forgot to time it!

My view

The view from my hotel on the last day.

Overall my progress has not been rapid, but it has been progress – and at the end of the day this is the benchmark against which I can judge things, to the eyes of a skier it may not seem like much, and god knows it isn’t much – but to be frank, I don’t care.



Skiing recurred again. We were on a slightly faster slope for most of the time, and it had a few scary bumps at places, but I’m really enjoying it. With speed, I was not turning as much as I wanted, but the guy said it was actually quite good.

When the man said I could, I skiied across two slopes (they run side by side) and continued the turn to stop, essentially my worry before was simply a lack of room.

Apparently I’m not quite over my skis though, and am leaning back a little. Not a massive amount, but enough to mean that my thighs are quite sore right now.

It’s good fun, am looking forward to the snow.

Recreational Skiing

I went Skiing once again tonight. This time, after some refresher practice, we started from the plateau at the top of the slope. This wasy scary… but I could do it!

He put down markers and I was slaloming around them. A few times I couldn’t make the turn and so skiied out. Soon I was making each turn, often at a reasonable speed. I’m still on a high from it – though it was still scary going down the slope.

My last run was really good, as it had been raining as I turned I kicked up a nice spray. It was almost like the real thing!

I’m now billed as being ‘of recreational standard’, i.e. I can go off on my own without the instructor being there.

I’ll get a piece of paper to prove it and everything.

Skiing – control

Skiing happened again yesterday. I’m starting to really relax and enjoy it.

We practiced the ‘Snow Plough’ again, from higher up the slope. He got us to move into and out of the plough from parallel as we slid. This was relatively easy to do.

Then we used the plough to turn. Essentially the idea is that if you want to turn right you sweep out your left leg. This points the plough to the right, and off you go. Another way to thing about it is to ‘push down’ on the left leg a bit (without going on one foot). When it was explained to me as ‘pushing down’ I could not make it happen, but the ‘sweeping out’ worked reliably for me, and I found that when I tried to ‘sweep’ the ‘push’ happened automatically.

The trick is that this works better when you have a bit of speed, when things are slow, its quite difficult as the skis have to be fought.

So, I can now slow down (a snow plough won’t stop you on snow, though it stops on a dry slope), and I can turn. On snow, turning allows you to stop – essentially you keep turning and kill speed by going along and up the slope a bit, before ending up parallel to the slope.

Its progress. Its fun… but the dry slope surface is still scary! I may have to see about going off to some real snow before the trip.