It should have been one of the greatest days in Simon Blatchford’s life. The 32-year-old engineer was an advanced snowboarder, and he gave every spare moment and cent he had to the mountain.
There was a problem, though. Blatchford had spent the day snowboarding at Perisher, and yet he couldn’t remember any of it.
As he lay in bed at the end of the day and combed through the corners of his brain, small details came back to him – the morning drive up to the mountain, lunch at the terminal in Blue Cow – but no details of any actual snowboarding fell into his mind.
He picked up his phone and brought up the Perisher app, which he used daily to track his runs. Scrolling through the tracking from the day, Blatchford saw that he’d spent the afternoon doing laps through the terrain park in Perisher.
Blatchford looked closer at the app. Each of his runs through the terrain park had taken about the same amount of time, except for one slower run at about 2pm.
Blatchford got out of bed and went to find his helmet. Turning it over, he found a white impact mark on the back of the helmet. The kind of mark you would get if, say, you were to hit your head on one of the boxes in the terrain park.
The snowy puzzle pieces fell together. Blatchford went and found a friend, who confirmed that he had snowboarded throughout the day before meeting up with her to drive from Perisher to Jindabyne.
“Apparently I was acting completely normal until we reached Jindabyne, when I turned to my friend and asked where our accommodation was,” he says. “She just stared at me. We’d been staying at the same place all season, and the season before that, and I couldn’t remember where it was. At all.”
The next day, the headaches began.
FIFTEEN years ago, Australian ski fields were a very different place. The snowsuits were one-pieces, the skis were straight, the snowboards were rare – and so were the helmets. But the snowy tides have shifted significantly over the seasons. Improvements in technology and accessibility have seen more and more people getting onto our snowfields. Every regular snow-goer has noticed one particular change on the slopes. Helmets are everywhere – and that’s not really surprising when you look at the corresponding data.
The Australian Ski Areas Association (ASSA) has released statistics from research conducted across every Australian ski resort during July 2018 – 80.8% of skiers and snowboarders from a sample size of 29,000 participants were wearing a helmet – up from 76.4% in 2017 and 72.2% in 2016. This is the highest level of helmet usage recorded in Australia’s resorts since survey data first began to be compiled in 2013.
Interestingly, the single biggest increase in helmet use between seasons was from 2013 to 2014. In 2013, 57.4% of boarders and skiers had a lid on it when they headed out on the slopes. During the 2014 winter season, data from the ASSA found that helmet usage rate was 67.0%. Between the 2013 and 2014 snow seasons, nearly 10 per cent of snow-goers decided to invest in a helmet. And when speaking about snow trends, that’s not a small number. The sales statistics align with the trend. Information from Snowsports Industries of Australia showed that Australian skiers and snowboarders bought 23,954 helmets in 2013, spending $1,552,820 in total. In 2006 – less than ten years ago – 11,379 helmets were purchased, with a total value of $869,326. That’s less than half of what was purchased in 2013. The question is – what prompted the change? What led mass amounts of people to go out and buy, or rent, themselves a helmet, and has continued to push the trend upwards, so that the overwhelming majority of people are now wearing helmets on the slopes?
One snow retailer puts it all down to Schumacher. Poor, poor Michael Schumacher.
IN December of 2013, Michael Schumacher suffered a skiing accident in the French resort of Meribel.
Years later, the seven-times world champion is still suffering the repercussions of the accident. While current news reports are few and far between, it seems that Schumacher remains in a vegetative state, with former Ferrari boss and friend Luca di Montezemolo telling Courier Dello Sport in 2017: “As I know his strength, I dream that he will soon be among us again.”
News outlets reported that at the time of his accident, Schumacher was navigating a stretch of off-piste snow. He struck one rock, partially covered by snow, which then catapulted him onto another rock; it was on that second rock that he hit his head.
The good news was that Schumacher was wearing a helmet. The bad news was that the helmet immediately split in two – possibly weakened by the Go Pro camera that Schumacher had attached to the helmet (although there are questions about this, read more about attaching cameras to helmets here) – and resulted in significant head injuries.
Daniel Staples has worked at snow sports store, ESS Boardstore Parramatta, for over seven years. During the winter, he sells snowboards, skis, boots and helmets. In the summer, he sells wakeboarding equipment.
January is typically a tricky month for selling anything snow-related. It’s hot outside – no one is thinking about snow unless they are heading over to the Northern Hemisphere. January 2014, however, was very different.
“We had a flood of people coming in to buy helmets for themselves and their loved ones after the Schumacher news broke,” Staples explains.
He adds that when it comes to sales of protective equipment such as helmets, there are two types of people: proactive and reactive.
“Proactive people are the ones who come in and say, oh I want to buy a helmet because I don’t want to get hurt,” Staples says.
Incidentally, proactive people are also the minority. “Most people are reactive – they come in to buy a helmet because they have just had an accident, and they want to buy a helmet so they don’t hurt themselves even worse next time. Or they are the people who see big personalities get injured in the media. That’s exactly why so many people came in after Schumacher’s accident – they didn’t want the same thing happening to them.”
There’s another major problem with Australian snow: there’s not a whole lot of it. Australian ski fields, will get an annual average snowfall of about 1.5 to 2 metres (obviiously more in 2017 and 2018 seasons). In comparison, Canadian ski resorts can get up to 14 metres. Japan’s ski resorts have up to 16 metres.
WHEN YOU FALL IN CANADA OR JAPAN, YOUR HEAD HITS POWDER. WHEN YOU FALL IN AUSTRALIA OR NEW ZEALAND, YOUR HEAD HITS ICE. HARD-PACKED ICE.
Equipment has also come an extremely long way in a short period of time and, in turn, people are riding faster on their skis and boards – regularly reaching speeds that have previously been impossible.
Equipment has also come an extremely long way in a short period of time and, in turn, people are riding faster on their skis and boards – regularly reaching speeds that have previously been impossible.
This is something that Jason Reid, the previous owner of ESS Boardstores in New South Wales, would have to explain to people every day. Because every day, someone would come into ESS and ask Reid whether or not they should buy a helmet. After all, the great majority of Australians spend only four to six days on snow per season – generally, while they’re happy to fork out for snowboards and skis and boots, they can be quite unwilling to spend the $100 – $200 required for a brand new helmet.
Every day, Reid used the same analogy in an attempt to get them to understand just how dangerous snow sports can be.
“You are in a car that is travelling down a highway. The speed on the odometer says that you are travelling at 110 km/h. Outside the window, there is nothing but cold, hard bitumen.
“Would you launch yourself out of a car at that speed without some kind of protection on? No. So why would you launch yourself down a mountain without a helmet on? It’s the same thing.”
“A HEAD-ON SKI OR SNOWBOARD COLLISION AT 19MPH WITHOUT A HELMET COULD BE FATAL, WHILE A 12MPH CRASH IS LIKELY TO CAUSE A SERIOUS HEAD INJURY, ACCORDING TO NEW RESEARCH BY THE TRANSPORT RESEARCH LABORATORY (TRL).”
THE TELEGRAPH, LONDON
GO to any ski resort in Australia and sit down at any pub. Talk to the people that surround you. More often than not, if they are regular snow-goers, they will have a story (theirs or someone else’s) just like Blatchford’s. A story that proves just how important helmets can be.
If they’re lucky, the story has a happy ending. Blatchford’s headaches, for example, faded eventually. That Thursday at Perisher will forever be mostly missing from his memory, but long-term, he suffers no further symptoms.
There are many other stories that don’t end so well. Take, for example, Carly Maxwell. Maxwell is in the navy. In 2009, she was competing in the Navy Snowsports Competition at Blue Cow. Helmets were mandatory during training and racing, but as soon as that wound up, Maxwell decided that she could go without.
“I went up the hill with my husband and left my dorky helmet at home, telling him I wouldn’t need it,” Maxwell says.
Unfortunately, it was a foggy morning at Blue Cow, and visibility was at an all-time low. Maxwell was cruising down the runs at a relatively fast pace when she caught an edge. She corrected herself, but caught the other edge and flipped backwards – landing right on her head.
Her head impacted on the compact snow. Her beanie and goggles flew off and landed metres away. Maxwell managed to get up eventually and snowboard down to the lift, but then went straight home, suffering concussion, vertigo and reverse whiplash in her neck.
She’s still suffering the whiplash, five years on from her accident. .
“My injuries pale in comparison to others and I’m fortunate not to have suffered greatly, but I will not take the risk anymore. I bought a much cooler helmet that I love and will not ride without it,” Maxwell says. “My stack rattled me for a long time. I’ve hit my head a number of times since – it’s like a magnet to the snow – and I’m thankful I’ve worn it.”
It’s always the small stacks that put people in the worst positions. Take Nik Mallos, for example: another experienced skier who bought a helmet for the first time this season – but decided not to wear it, because, “to be honest, I didn’t love it, and was looking for an excuse not to wear it. When it got hot one day, I didn’t hesitate in not wearing it. Big mistake!”
Mallos went down a run and wasn’t looking where she was going. “I was searching behind me for my son, and I wasn’t going very fast at all. But the way that I fell – I hit my head first.”
Mallos has had headaches ever since. “I don’t usually suffer with headaches – I now definitely wear my helmet, always.”
Kim Phillips, a volunteer ski patroller who has been working regular seasons since 2010, tells a story about being on the slopes in Thredbo in 2014. It was a particularly traumatic season for her when she became involved in a young snowboarder’s accident.
The snowboarder was not particularly experienced, but attempting to keep up with his friends as they all snowboarded down the hill. He lost control and ended up in the trees. He was not wearing a helmet.
“His mates were way ahead of him, so they didn’t know what happened,” Phillips says.
“The guy was choppered off the mountain and was still in ICU in Canberra hospital a week later. I don’t know how much later these poor guys found out that their mate had been choppered off the mountain, because they literally left him for dead.”
Phillips notes that the great majority of incidents she’s seen on the mountain have been head injuries. And it’s all because skiing and boarding can go so wrong, so quickly – especially when you’re moving at high speeds.
“This guy ended up in the trees after losing control,” Phillips says. “He was not purposely riding in the trees. I had to wash the gear I was wearing that day, due to his blood.”
Phillips doesn’t necessarily believe that helmets should be compulsory. But she does believe in educating and encouraging people who are new to the sport.
“I just don’t understand why people don’t wear helmets,” she says. “I just don’t.”
Males more at risk
THE numbers don’t lie. If about 81% of skiers and snowboarders are wearing helmets, there are still about 19% of skiers and boarders who are not. And that 19% of skiers and boarders generally fall into two groups.
The first group is, as Reid from ESS puts it, “the 60-65 year old skier who has never worn a helmet, and doesn’t see why they need to start wearing one now.”
The second group? “The younger snowboarder, that doesn’t think helmets are ‘cool’ and thinks they’re too tough for a helmet.”
Interestingly, it’s the first group that aren’t particularly affected by their lack of helmet. Although skiers do fall, they are a little less likely to land on their heads – they’re more likely to sustain a knee or leg injury of some description.
Evidence from the Australian Centre for Research into Injury in Sport and its Prevention (ACRISP) supports this; a study done in 2013 by researchers from the University of Ballarat showed that although more skiers than snowboarders are admitted to hospital, skiers most commonly present with lower-limb injuries and are unlikely to end up in the emergency department.
It’s the snowboarders that are going to the emergency department. Specifically, evidence supports that it’s these young male snowboarders who are ending up in hospital with upper limb and head injuries.
According to ACRISP, almost two thirds of all hospital-treated snow injuries in 2013 were sustained by young male participants, with falls being the most common cause, making up 72% of emergency department admissions in total.
ACRISP’s recommendation? That young male participants put on “personal protective equipment” in order to decrease the impact of falls.
In a skiing collision at 20KPH without a helmet on, the head experiences a force of nearly two tonnes – Transport Research Laboratory
Monkey see, monkey do.
Part of the problem may lie with professional snowboarders. Some don’t bother with a helmet unless they are participating in competitions, where it’s compulsory to put one on. The world’s top snowboarders – your Travis Rice’s and Sage Kotsenberg’s of the world – regularly release clips and photos where they’re attempting extreme tricks and seriously challenging snowboarding without a helmet in sight.
When the professionals are sending it in nothing but a beanie and goggles, it’s hard to tell a teenage boy to put on a helmet.
The result is this perception that wearing a helmet is for the uncool, unpopular people on the mountain. It’s the kind of sentiment that sends you right back to high school – only this time, you’re on a mountain, trying to make friends on chairlifts.
Nat Segal, an Australian professional backcountry skier who recently released ski documentary Finding The Line, admits that she originally felt like “a dork” when she was forced to wear a helmet.
“When I was growing up, it wasn’t cool to wear a helmet,” Segal says. “That’s something I took out of ski movies – that I didn’t need to wear one. I only ever wore one when I was skiing as a competitor, never when I was skiing recreationally. Then I crashed a few times in the backcountry, popped out of my skis and face-planted. Now I always take a helmet with me.”
Despite Segal being a professional, she’s also had some really bad crashes while barely even moving. “This year, I was just standing on a groomer, and randomly fell back and hit my head,” she says. “It was really hilarious actually, but only because I was wearing a helmet. I would have been concussed for sure, without one.”
So why don’t all the professionals wear a helmet? The issue is, Segal says, all about image – not safety.
“I’ve actually been shooting with photographers for a ski magazine and they’ve told me not to wear a helmet, because pictures of skiers without helmets are more likely to be published,” she says. “It makes them look more human, and people are more likely to relate to them.”
Segal is lucky in that she’s experienced bad crashes but remains uninjured. Many other professionals are not so lucky.
In 2010, 26-year-old professional skier C.R. Johnson died while navigating the steep, rocky chutes at Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe – the ski slopes of his childhood, the slopes he had navigated so many times before. According to reports, he simply fell and hit his head on a rock. That blunt trauma to the head caused his death.
29-year-old Sarah Burke is another; a world champion female half pipe rider, she fell on the same pipe where Kevin Pearce fell in park City, Utah. Her accident was on January 10, 2012. She died nine days later.
HERE IS WHERE IT GETS INTERESTING: BOTH C.R. JOHNSON AND SARAH BURKE WERE WEARING HELMETS. AND YET NEITHER OF THEM COULD BE SAVED.
This is where the debate around snow helmets becomes complex: although there has been a significant rise in the wear of helmets over the years, there has been no significant corresponding decrease in the rate of head injuries. The trend was first uncovered by the US National Ski Areas Association, where helmet use is up to over 80% among snowsports participants – yet head injury and fatality rates have remained largely unchanged for years.
A 2015 study from ASTM International on the Role of Helmets in Mitigation of Head Injuries found that over a period of 17 seasons at Sugarbush Resort, from 1995/96 to 2011/12, helmet usage increased from 8 to 84%; correspondingly, injuries to the head decreased from 8.4 to 6.8% and potentially serious head injuries declined from 4.2 to 3.0%.
Similar studies have been done on bike helmets in the past; for example, Chris Rissel, an associate professor at Sydney University, wrote a paper that appeared in the Journal of the Australasian College of Road Safety. It found that figures of cycling head injuries in NS remained essentially the same between 1989 and 2008, despite helmets being made compulsory in NSW in 1990.
TRACEY Dickson is known as the veritable guru on everything related to head injuries in skiing and snowboarding. She has written or contributed to more than 40 scientific journal articles on sports injuries and concussions, and has dedicated more than 10 years of her academic career to studying these injuries in snow sports.
Her research has firstly found that injury rates on mountains are actually relatively very low, compared to the number of skiers and snowboarders getting on the lifts each day. “One study we conducted over five years in Canada found a head injury rate of 0.2 per 1000 skier visits – that equates to someone experiencing a head injury once in every 500 years of skiing,” says Dickson.
Dickson points out that a helmet can prevent lacerations, cuts and skull fractures. The statistics support this, with the above ASTM study showing that of the 10 observed skull fractures at Sugarbush, only one was to a person wearing a helmet. And of 47 scalp lacerations, only one was to a person wearing a helmet. However, helmets become significantly less useful when it comes to protection from concussions.
“Think of the brain as being the consistency of jelly,” Dickson says. “It’s inside the skull but it is suspended and can still move around. If the brain hits the skull it can bruise. So when you hit something at high speed, the helmet does not stop the brain from bruising against the skull. A helmet can absorb some of the energy, but it’s got a limited ability to do so.”
In addition, Dickson points out that your helmet can drastically decrease in usefulness with just one drop. “If people drop their helmets in the carpark or hit their head with the helmet on, it can actually reduce the effectiveness of helmets. These helmets are not designed to have multi-impact protection. By the time the helmet has a crack in it, it’s well past its use-by date.”
Incidentally, Dickson doesn’t wear a helmet due to multiple spine surgeries. “Wearing a heavy helmet on my head would not be good for it. So, I manage the risk by skiing defensively and staying in control with awareness of people around me. In the end, your helmet can only take you so far. It’s what’s inside the helmet that’s going to look after you best.”
The g-force on the head is around three to four times higher in a skiing collision without a helmet on than one with a helmet on. Transport Research Laboratory
Dr Jonathon Parkinson is a neurosurgeon and currently works at Royal North Shore Hospital. While he doesn’t see a huge amount of severe snow-related head injuries – most of these injuries go to Canberra – he agrees that helmets “are not entirely effective in severe injuries.”
Despite this, Dr Parkinson argues that it’s still very important to wear a helmet. “I think the reduction in numbers of minor injuries is very significant in terms of societal impact,” he says. “Often these minor injuries lead to a loss of work time, that kind of thing. And often, minor injuries are a lot more common than severe ones.”
“When in Canada for my fellowship in 2010, helmets were nearly universally worn – particularly among those doing more difficult skiing,” the doctor adds. “The only impact is comfort and cost – but the reduced incidence of minor head injuries is well worth it.”
Interestingly, he is just about the only person I have spoken to that believes helmets ought to be compulsory.
KEVIN Pearce was supposed to be the world’s best snowboarder. He was supposed to be better than Shaun White. Back in 2009, in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, Pearce and White were neck-and-neck in terms of winning the world stage.
Pearce originally started snowboarding at the age of four, simply because his brothers were into it. He wore a helmet, but only because his parents told him to.
“My parents always told me they would not come to the hospital if I got hurt not wearing a helmet, so I always had one on,” he says.
At the age of twenty-two, Pearce had already won a string of events and had a string of sponsorships to go with them. He was raking in the event prize money and had signed with Nike, who built him a private half-pipe in one of the most famous snow locations in the world – Park City, Utah.
Pearce was training on New Year’s Eve when he took a fall from the half-pipe. He crashed, and landed on his head.
Pearce would have been dead without his helmet. But even with the helmet on, he wasn’t in a particularly good position. The traumatic brain injury he sustained from the event meant that Pearce was on a long, slow road to recovery, full of frustration, memory loss and medication.
Pearce did not go to the Winter Olympics. Despite being determined to get back on a snowboard, the facts were there – even one small hit would either kill him, or paralyse him for life. Doctors told him that medically and neurologically, he simply could not afford to do anything to his head. Not even one bump, one fall, one small concussion.
Banning him from the sport was like clipping the wings off a bird.
Instead of going back to snowboarding, Pearce agreed to film a documentary about his injury, which was called The Crash Reel and released to the world in 2013. He also started the LoveYourBrain foundation – an organisation that works to educate everyone about traumatic brain injuries, and support other families who have gone through similar situations.
Pearce and his family now dedicate the great majority of their time to working with the LoveYourBrain foundation. He has been through the very worst of what a head injury can do to someone. He continues to see how brain injuries can change people’s lives, irrevocably, for the worse.
If anyone was to support helmets being compulsory, it would be Pearce. And yet, when asked about helmets becoming compulsory for every rider, he gives a very intriguing answer.
“One of the reasons I was so in love with snowboarding was because there were no rules,” he says. “No one was making you do anything. To make something mandatory kind of goes against everything I loved so much about the sport. I think educating and teaching these kids the importance could almost be a better route. Hopefully when they see and hear my story, they will start to understand the importance.”
As for other professional snowboarders who are still out there, regularly launching themselves off the big cliffs of Alaska without any headgear – Pearce believes that they too need to be left to make their own decisions.
“I feel those guys are experienced and good enough that they really know what they are doing but shit does happen,” Pearce says. “I do believe they should be mandatory in snowboard contests, which for the most part they are. Other than that, I do believe these should be able to make their own choices. Look at me, I think I was pretty good but got super unlucky.”
The culture around helmets is changing. Most people are buying them. Most people are wearing them. The ASAA Alpine Responsibility Code now specifically mentions helmets in its recommendation of using “appropriate protective equipment” to “minimise the risk of injury”.
Kids have to wear helmets if they’re participating in ski school lessons across Australian resorts (as well as overseas resorts). In the USA the National Ski Area Associations’s ‘Lids on Kids‘ Campaign initiative to educate parents about the benefits of helmets has taken off and the ASAA are joining forces.
In the US, bills have even been passed to make helmets compulsory for all skiers and snowboarders under the age of 14. Most resorts have some kind of stance on helmets and are happy to talk about it.
The final question remains – will helmets ever become compulsory for all Australian skiers and snowboarders?
There is one major reason as to why helmets are unlikely to become compulsory for Australians. Making them compulsory would also require an Australian standard for snow helmets to be developed. And at this stage, such a standard doesn’t exist – all brands of helmets available on the market are imported from overseas and meet international regulations.
The industry, as Reid from ESS Boardstores points out, simply isn’t big enough over here. We already have the choice of all these international brands; getting an Australian standard would require regulation testing, which has to be applied to each helmet in each size. “The regulation testing will impact the manufacturers. They will have to pay to test 10% of the first batch of helmets – that’s 60 out of 600. This will just make the range of helmets decline.”
Beside, Reid points out – even if it was compulsory, there would still be the people that would go without.
“People still get in cars and don’t put their seatbelts on. People still cycle without helmets on, and they still get on motorbikes without helmets on. And look at what happens to those people. They get injured.”
Natalia Hawk first wrote this for her UTS Bachelor of Comms (journalism) Media Hub unit in 2014. This is an updated adaption of that piece.
Additional interview with Tracy Dickson from Kate Allman.