Hats vs. Helmets
February 10, 2004
Nearly 10 years ago, while snowboarding with his daughter on Snowmass Mountain, Bill Rodman had a close encounter with a tree that changed his life.
After peeking over his shoulder to check on his daughter, Rodman caught an edge, slipped on his back, and slid headfirst down Bull Run, narrowly missing a tree. If he’d connected with the tree, Rodman said, his head would not be the same, especially since he wasn’t wearing a helmet. Now, Rodman wouldn’t be caught dead on the mountain without a helmet.
But it wasn’t just his own personal experience that persuaded him to purchase a brain bucket. As a trauma surgeon at Aspen Valley Hospital, Rodman has seen more than his fair share of severe, skiing-related head injuries, and many that would have been less serious if the victims had been wearing head protection.
“While a helmet will not prevent an injury, it will bring it down a notch or two,” Rodman said, adding that brain damage could be reduced to a concussion, and a bad concussion could downgrade to a minor headache.
“It certainly downgrades it and improves the patient’s outcome,” he said.
To wear or not to wear
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While helmets are becoming increasingly popular, many still choose not to wear them. As skiers and boarders funnel into the base of Ajax on a typical afternoon, the ratio of hats to helmets seems roughly equal.
Most people with helmets say they do so for one main reason: safety. Non-helmet wearers had a variety of explanations for why they don’t protect their heads. The most popular answers were helmets are uncomfortable, too hot, too expensive, and make hearing difficult.
Dianna Oliva-Day, from Pasadena, Calif., doesn’t think skiing is nearly as dangerous as some routine daily activities, like driving ” and she doesn’t wear a helmet when she drives.
“The L.A. highways are much more dangerous than skiing,” she said.
Others like Spence Maxcy of Baton Rouge, La., and Theresa Berousek, of Mequon, Wis., feel their talent levels don’t warrant helmets.
“I don’t really test myself,” Maxcy said.
Said Berousek: “I just started and I’m not that good.”
Karen Birch, of Aspen, said she just doesn’t feel like wearing one.
“I don’t have any desire,” she said.
Others just didn’t seem to care about the consequences of not wearing a helmet.
“There’s nothing worth saving,” joked Morty Gurrentz of Aspen.
And then their are the skeptics, including Gurrentz, who believe that helmets don’t really do any good, or may even increase the risk of serious accidents. Even the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) admits that helmets only work to a certain extent.
“A helmet can make a difference in reducing or preventing injury but they are most effective at providing protection at speeds of 12 mph or slower,” the NSAA Web site states. “If you hit a tree, object or another skier at moderate or high speed, a helmet may not prevent or reduce a serious injury.”
And that’s how Gurrentz, and many non-helmet wearers feel.
“I’d say probably in 90-plus percent of accidents, [helmets] won’t do you any good,” Gurrentz said. “And they probably give you a false sense of security.”
Cari Kaplan, of the Snowmass Ski Patrol, said doctors have discussed that issue in medical training seminars.
“Most [doctors] are pro-helmets, but sometimes you get the doctor that thinks the helmet is kind of a safety net that gets people to go faster and more out of control than they normally would.”
But Corey McLernon, a skier from Snowmass Village who started wearing a helmet five years ago following a bad crash, said he doesn’t push himself any harder than he did when he wasn’t protecting his head.
“It didn’t change my skiing at all,” he said, “It just makes me think I’m smarter.”
Dr. Rodman feels it’s misleading to assert that helmets make skiers more prone to accidents.
“That’s the wrong comment, the wrong take,” he said. “Everyone has their own personal choice, but I’m afraid many people don’t understand the consequences of a head injury.
“Helmets will decrease the severity of the injury, and one must remember that a concussion is not a benign process, you never return quite to baseline … people could experience changes in smell, persistent headaches, become easily frustrated and have difficulty staying on task.”
In the late 1990s, Rodman conducted his own study of victims admitted to Aspen Valley Hospital with ski-related head injuries.
“Forty percent of people who had a severe head injury hit just the snow, not trees, signs or other people, and it often occurred on a run at or below their level of expertise,” Rodman said. “Of those wearing helmets we had no deaths, and two people who were not wearing helmets died.”
And while local ski patrols have not conducted any official studies on helmet usage as it pertains to head injuries, Kaplan, who’s been on the Snowmass patrol for seven years, said she’s certain helmets have made a difference in the severity of accidents.
“Oh for sure, we all have, everybody who lives here [has seen accidents where helmets have made a difference],” she said.
Dinah Thomason, of the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol, agreed.
“As far as injuries where you fall and hit your head, helmets are great,” she said.
Stubborn or just practical?
Strangely enough, neither Kaplan nor Thomason wear helmets, and according to Kaplan, neither does roughly 75 percent of the Snowmass Ski Patrol.
Their reasons for not doing so are varied, but somewhat logical. Kaplan said helmets make it difficult to hear her radio, which is a fundamental part of her job.
“One of the other reasons I don’t is ” for the most part ” when I’m working I’m not skiing that aggressively. I’m skiing slow.
“Freeskiing and working are completely different things, and some patrollers wear helmets when freeskiing.”
Thomason had her own reasons for wearing a hat instead of a helmet.
“Hats give you your individuality, especially when you’re in uniform. If I wore a helmet then I couldn’t wear cute hats,” she joked.
But when you get down to it, Kaplan feels most patrollers don’t wear helmets for one main reason.
“They’re a lot of stubborn old farts,” she laughed. “It’s the old-school thing ” nobody wants to change.”
Jeff Hanle, the communications director for the Aspen Skiing Co., feels simply that old habits die hard.
“I think a lot of it is how you grew up ” it’s habit,” Hanle said. “Kids now grow up wearing helmets, and they’ll continue to do so as adults.
“A lot of people wearing helmets now do so because of their kids.”
It’s the law
Three years ago, in the midst of a season that saw particularly high numbers of ski-related head injuries, Skico initiated mandatory helmet use for children under 12 wishing to partake in ski school lessons. The following year, the policy became official.
“We’ve recommended helmets to everyone for some time, but we leave it up to adults to make their own decision,” Hanle said.
And while it’s not mandatory for ski instructors to wear helmets, most do, said Peter Engelhardt, a 30-year veteran of the Ski and Snowboard Schools of Aspen.
“It’s a no-brainer,” he said. “Helmets are cool.”
Greg Jones, a telemarker from Denver, said he’s on the verge of buying a helmet.
“You may have caught me on one of my last days not wearing a helmet,” he said.
And his reason? “I’m having a kid.”
Stephanie Wampole, a former ski racer from Whitewater, Wis., said it’s not her own ability or mistakes that has caused her to a wear a brain bucket.
“It’s everybody else you have to worry about,” she said.
For Bob Baum of Aspen, it’s very simple.
“You can’t be a hero too long,” he said. “Heroes are dead, usually. I like living.”
Said Dr. Rodman: “You wouldn’t drop your laptop from 6 feet up, would you?”