18 March 2009

COLORADO COLLEEN: Buckle Up Your Brain Bucket

Alpine skiing involves inherent risk. Danger. But the recent tragedy that befell British actress Natasha Richardson while taking a lesson on a beginner’s trail at Mont Tremblant ski resort in Quebec, Canada, might have been avoided had she worn a helmet. We’ll never know for sure, but the odds would have been in her favor. As is, sadly, current reports indicate that she has been taken off life support systems.
I live in Colorado, and I love to ski. For me, skiing ranks up there among the few activities that offer peak experiences without being illegal, immoral, or fattening. Skiing challenges the body, focuses the mind, and frees the spirit.


Ask any passionate skier, and he or she will tell you that a day of great skiing can feel like the equivalent of a week’s vacation. Maybe it’s the rarified air up there. Maybe it’s the breathtaking alpine vistas. Maybe it’s the joyful sensation of flying or floating.
Or maybe it’s the fact that while downhill skiing, one must be, as they say, in the moment or be imperiled. Every turn is a decision; and skiers must remain present, considering this turn, then the next turn. Start thinking too much about the next deadline, or patients, or clients, or plummeting portfolios, and you stand a good chance of falling.


Falling, needless to say, can be dangerous. Even deadly.
Last Monday, skiing Beaver Creek in Colorado, I took my most dramatic fall ever on Grouse Mountain. Beaver Creek’s ski terrain is legendary, as the trail map boasts; it’s the only North American mountain to host regularly the World Cup.
A formidable peak, Grouse Mountain’s runs parallel the World Cup downhill course. As Vail Valley real estate broker Betsy Edwards points out, Grouse Mountain sticks up like the ridiculously exaggerated peak on which the Grinch makes his home in Dr. Seuss’s story. Atop Grouse Mountain’s geographical spire, at the ear-popping summit elevation of 11,440 feet, there’s precious little space for skiers and riders to pause to admire the stunning views of abundant aspens and the distant, snow-capped range jagged as shark’s teeth. On Monday, we paused and posed for iPhone photos. The sky could not have been bluer without going purple.


Yet on Monday, some runs were skied off, hard-packed, and slick. Warm days combined with frosty nights left some icy spots, but I was feeling the hubris of a hot shot. Inspired by the World Cup racers, I gave it my best. (In my dreams, I ski like an Olympian. In my dreams.) Making my way down the black diamond (expert) portion of Raven Ridge, skiing probably faster than I should have been, I set my intention and my edges. Carving turns, I felt in control, getting gravity and my Rossignols to work for me. Hubris welled up.
Then, suddenly, I got cold-cocked by the ski mountain.
Sometimes, one knows one is about to fall. Sometimes, a bit of flailing of the arms or a quick adjustment of the feet or the hips or the core can help regain balance.
Other times, spills give no warning. This was that sort of fall. Before I realized I had bit it, I felt myself spinning. The slope is steep enough—pitched at about 45 degrees---that once I had fallen, I continued to fall, sliding down and down and spinning round and round—long enough to have several thoughts pass through my consciousness. One: Whoa! Two: I’m falling! Three: I’m glad I wore my helmet.
Fortunately, once I stopped spinning and sliding, I was able to stand. I had snow up my ski sweater and down ski pants, snow inside my rose-colored goggles. I tumbled so hard that my ski boot came unbuckled. I had some ringing in my ears because I’d had my bell rung. I had fear in my throat, but I was fine—a little shaken and much humbled, but uninjured. Thanks, in part, to my helmet.


I’m not crazy about wearing a helmet. On a warm spring day like Monday, my head gets hot under that black plastic dome. Wearing a helmet, I lose the wonderful feeling of wind in my hair. The colorful ski hats are infinitely cuter. It’s hard to make a fashion statement with a dorky helmet, though designers are working on that with new shapes and colors. In the few photos I have of myself on the slopes, I always wish I’d bothered to take off the nerdy helmet. Vanity! Vanity!
To make my helmet more fun and expressive and less resented, I’ve added stickers from various resorts I’ve skied. One of those stickers now bears a scuff from my recent scrape with Grouse Mountain. If the plastic took the impact that hard, I hate to think of what would have happened to my unprotected skull.
My ski partner Dr. Joel Cooperman--an osteopathic physician who specializes in sports medicine at Denver Osteopathic Center--said Richardson probably suffered a subdural hematoma. Such a grave fate played out while trying to have fun is a bitter consequence even if you do not happen to be a feature film actress and the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and the wife of Liam Neeson. Even if you do not happen to be Michael Kennedy. Or Sonny Bono.


A helmet probably won’t save a skier or rider’s life if he or she smacks into a tree or collides with another skier, but on any given day, protective headgear can make a difference. Rockymountainnews.com reported that the 2007/2008 ski season claimed 17 lives in Colorado—a new record, breaking the one set in 2001/2002 at 16. http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/apr/07/a-random-record/
In a sport that claims lives each year, it’s best to hedge one’s bets and buckle on a helmet—also known in the parlance of ski bums and riders as a brain bucket. To say wearing a helmet is a no-brainer seems an unfortunate turn of phrase that happens to be true.

My heart goes out to Natasha Richardson and her family.

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