In preparation for winter, people throughout Maine are waxing their snowboards, sharpening their skis, dusting off goggles and making sure last year’s snow pants still fit. The downhill sports season is almost in full swing, and good quality gear goes a long way in keeping a person safe on the slopes.
But gear isn’t the only thing that needs fine tuning before jumping on a chair lift, Maine ski experts say. Following proper etiquette is just as important as using the right equipment if you want to avoid accidents and injuries this ski season.
“Probably the biggest danger is people skiing out of control or too fast,” said Bill Getman, the general manager of Bigrock Mountain Ski Area in Mars Hill. “And also, people skiing where they shouldn’t.”
“Each skier or snowboarder’s behavior has as much or more to do with the safety of the sports as does any piece of equipment,” the National Ski Areas Association states on its website.
Established in 1962, the National Ski Areas Association is a trade association for ski area owners and operators, representing 313 alpine resorts that account for more than 90 percent of the skier and snowboarder visits nationwide. The association analyzes and distributes ski industry statistics and offers an array of resources about safety, gear and trends.
In an effort to reduce risk in snowsports, the National Ski Areas Association developed “Your Responsibility Code” for downhill skiers and snowboarders, which consists of seven points:
1. Always stay in control. Be able to stop to avoid other people or objects.
2. People ahead of you have the right of way. It’s your responsibility to avoid the people in front of you.
3. Stop in a safe place. You must not stop where you obstruct a trail or are not visible from above.
4. Whenever you’re starting downhill or merging into a trail, be sure to look uphill and yield to others.
5. Use devices to prevent runaway equipment.
6. Observe all posted signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails and closed areas.
7. Before using any lift, you should have the knowledge and ability to load, ride and unload safely.
At Sugarloaf — one of Maine’s busiest ski mountains — ski instructors teach this responsibility code, as well as Sugarloaf’s Go With The Flow program, which reminds skiers and snowboarders to be courteous and follow the pace of those around them. The program focuses on three key messages: Be aware. Respect slow zones. And follow the pace.
“When you say ‘skiing fast’ — well, ‘fast’ is a relative term. It means different things to different people,” said Ethan Austin, Sugarloaf’s director of marketing. “So it’s a good practice to ski with the flow of those around you.”
The Sugarloaf ski patrol and a volunteer crew of “mountain ambassadors” roam the trails, reminding people of these safety practices. And at key areas on the mountain, green Go With The Flow banners display the program’s key messages.
“It’s the same things that cause many accidents,” Austin said. “It’s people not being aware of their surroundings, not being aware of traffic around them.”
If a skier or rider is completely out of control, to the point that they’re a danger to others, the ski patrol may ask them to leave the resort, Austin said. But usually, people just need a quick reminder.
Is skiing dangerous?
According to National Ski Areas Association statistics, skiers and snowboarders have less than a one in a million chance of being seriously injured or dying on the slopes. However, any person who has tried a downhill sport knows that falls, bumps, bruises and even sprains are fairly common.
At the Camden Snow Bowl, a fairly small ski area in midcoast Maine, the ski patrol deals with one or two accidents that require injury reports, on average, each day.
“A lot of [accidents] have to do with inattention and skiing beyond people’s ability and going on trails that they have all the enthusiasm to get down, but not the skill,” said Camden Snow Bowl ski patrol director Duncan Matlack.
If you can’t control your speed on a particular trail, it’s probably too difficult for you, Matlock said. It’s all about knowing your limits.
“Definitely the most serious accidents we see are collisions with stationary objects,” Austin said. “Going really fast and losing control and heading into the woods. What the underlying cause of that is, I don’t know. Speed probably would be a common thread.”
At Bigrock Mountain Ski Area in Mars Hill, Getman has noticed that minor injuries often occur when a skier or snowboarder falls.
“The most common injury when you’re skiing tends to be your thumbs,” Getman said. “You’re basically putting your hands out to catch yourself [when you fall], so you’re putting your hands at risk.”
For that reason, wrists also are vulnerable to injury, he said.
In addition to teaching general skills such as turning and stopping, ski instructors at Bigrock Mountain Ski Area teach students a prefered way to fall, with balled fists to avoid spraining fingers, Getman said. Because odds are, you’re going to fall multiple times while learning to ski or snowboard.
Getman suggests that every beginner skier take a lesson or two before hitting the slopes. At Bigrock, personal lessons cost $30 per hour, and group lessons are $20 per hour.
“I’ve seen way too many people slap on their boards or skis and head up on the chairlift,” Getman said. “And a few minutes later you see them throwing the snowboard in the air and marching down the hill. They basically think they can do it without a lesson, and it gives them a bad experience. It doesn’t do them any service, and it doesn’t do us any service because obviously they aren’t going to want to come back.”
Don’t forget your head
More and more skiers and snowboarders are wearing helmets, and the reason is multifold. Helmets increase safety. They’re warm, and they’re compatible with technology such as headphones and GoPro cameras.
The National Ski Areas Association traces the helmet trend back to 1998, when within days of each other, Michael Kennedy (son of Robert F. Kennedy) and famous American recording artist Sonny Bono died as a result of head injuries they suffered while skiing. Both of them hit trees and weren’t wearing helmets.
“The vast majority of people wear helmets [at Sugarloaf now],” Austin said. “But when I was a kid, someone wearing a helmet really stood out. You’re like, ‘Oh my god. That guy is wearing a helmet.’ And now it’s almost unusual to see a person not wearing a helmet.”
According to a 2011-12 study, 67 percent of all skiers and riders wore helmets that season. That’s up from just 25 percent of skiers and riders who wore helmets during the 2002-03 season, according to a 2014 Bangor Daily News story about increasing helmet use at ski areas.
Helmets can reduce head injuries by 30 to 50 percent, and may mean the difference between a major and minor injury, according to National Ski Areas Association statistics, but they’re most effective at preventing injury when the collision occurs at a relatively slow speed — 14 mph and under. If you lose control and hit another skier or object at a higher speed, a helmet may not prevent or even reduce an injury.
“There’s certainly risk involved in the sport,” Austin said, “just like there’s risk involved in lots of other sports, in everything we do on a daily basis, from walking down the street to driving. It’s a personal choice what risks we deem worth it.”