Pleasure principles on the snowy mountain

Health: High-speed lifts, challenging slopes and crowding have raised new concerns about skiing injuries.

February 07, 1999|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Sun Staff

To experienced skier Paul Dodd, few things are more exhilarating than being on top of a mountain out West in the middle of winter.

Usually when he gets to the top, he finds himself surrounded by good friends. It's quiet. The air is clean. He can see mountain peaks in the distance.

"When you go that far," the Towson native says, "you want to be out there all day."

But he can't -- not anymore.

As the skiing industry installs high-speed lifts, grooms ever more challenging slopes and welcomes ever higher numbers of snowboarders to the mountain, even the most experienced skiers are double-checking their instincts to reduce pain and injury.

Two days after he fell face forward on a slope near Salt Lake City over Christmas, Dodd discovered a bruise the size of a football on his left quad. He thought back to the day: It had been snowing, the light was flat and mogol visibility was poor.

"I was being lazy, following an edge," he admitted later. "It was late in the afternoon, and you're a little more tired than you were at 9 a.m. I had a nonchalant attitude, and before you know it, you are on your fanny."

Dodd, 64, a retired Quaker Oats salesman, is an all-around athlete. But he says his weekly routine of tennis, golf and basketball is not enough to prepare him for the slopes.

"Your quads, hamstrings, calves, you use them harder [in skiing] than you do in other sports," says Dodd, who skis 20 days a year and leads trips for the 700-member Baltimore Ski Club. "The funny thing is, you always think you are in shape until you get out there. And then, you push on."

Nowadays, thanks to high-speed lifts, people can ski many more times a day. And even novices with little training can achieve high speeds with the new shorter skis. New designs in skis make the learning curve shorter, but can't make up for the confidence born of experience.

Many injuries are caused by people running into people on the mountain, experts say. Experienced skiers find the slopes more crowded, and crowded with different kinds of skiers -- including snowboarders, who make more noise and take more risks than traditional skiers.

Skiing injuries that resulted in emergency-room visits dropped dramatically the past three years -- 14 percent in 1996 alone, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Nearly 85,190 skiers went to the emergency room that year, the latest year available.

Among the reasons cited by experts are a flat or dropping ski population and a more serious attitude on the part of skiers who do come out. But emergency-room statistics are only one part of the picture.

Not treated at the hospital are knee injuries, the most common skiing accident, and one that often leads to surgery and lengthy rehabilitation. Such injuries are on the increase, even though the number of skiers is flat, sports injury studies show.

And deaths are up 35 percent in five years. On average, 24 people a year die in skiing accidents, more than half from head injuries. The federal consumer safety agency recorded 17,500 head injuries in skiing and snowboarding accidents in 1997.

The skiing deaths last winter of California U.S. Rep. Sony Bono and Michael Kennedy, son of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., prompted calls for making helmets mandatory for skiers. Sales of protective head gear are up 25 percent over five years ago, to 250,000 last year, but that's only a dent in the annual skiing population of 10 million people.

Above all, safe skiing is about control -- self-control -- and experts say skiers of all levels of experience could use more of it.

Because of the high-speed lifts, experienced skiers are quitting the slopes earlier than ever. For instance, Les Wilk, an Annapolis engineer, used to stay out until the lifts closed, but now gets tired and quits around 3 p.m.

Wilk, 43, a recreational racer and avid year-round athlete, has had his share of skiing injuries. Since suffering lower-back injuries a dozen years ago, he has trained extensively to improve his lower-back strength before each ski season. His routine includes running, biking two or three times a week, weight training three times a week and sometimes in-line skating.

The parallel to skiing -- and therefore good preparation for it -- is in-line skating or biking, says Jon Magi, director of safety at Whitetail Ski resort in Mercersburg, Pa. "Both are heavily reliant on the same muscle groups."

Overall, novice and expert alike can reduce or avoid pain by maintaining a constant weight and staying in good cardiovascular shape. That means aerobic exercise at least three times a week all year around. Since skiing is a muscle balance sport, training to build strength and agility tops the list of exercise routines.

But no matter how well you prepare, says Magi, you probably will hurt afterward -- "It's like shoveling snow."

No doubt about it, part of the thrill of snowboarding or skiing is challenging yourself, Magi says. The key is staying inside a comfortable margin of safety, he says. In the end, the inevitable refrain Magi hears during a ski-slope rescue is: "I got out of control."

PREPARE FOR SKIING

* Exercise beginning six weeks ahead, paying particular attention to front and back of thighs, calves and lower back.

* Take a lesson.

* Keep in proper physical shape -- cardiovascular, muscle strength, constant weight.

* Wear a helmet. Ski helmets are lighter and easier to wear than bicycle helmets, and head injuries are on the increase.

* Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration and the sleepiness it causes.

* Know your limits, and don't take risks.

Pub Date: 02/07/99

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