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Ski Safety-How to Avoid Mistakes: I call myself an “Intermittent Intermediate”. Why is that? Having spent my early years in the US Southeast, I saw little snow growing up. After graduating from law school, I I decided to really learn to ski I needed to take lessons. A school friend and I headed to Killington, Vermont for a week. As luck would have it, when we arrived, we saw only green grass! Since New England winters are cold, the resort had man-made snow until the weather changed. The fun began with my first ski lesson. The rest of the group was lined up in a row facing across the slope. In making my first attempt at a parallel turn, I was able to stop. Unfortunately, I landed on top of the skis of all my classmates! We all fell in a pile like bowling pins. While my “ability” improved over time, skiing only once a year I have not progressed beyond the Intermediate level. I have lots of lessons learned as a result of my attempts to just stay even. The good news is that I have managed to ski in control and never had a real injury. Here are some of my personal insights of how to avoid mistakes.
Ski Safety-How to Avoid Mistakes:
- Clothes do matter: Beyond following the latest ski fashions, it is key to have the right gear. Unlike the usual outfits sold in shops for women, there are actually lots of pockets including those that zip in ski jackets and pants. Velco, snaps and hooks make it possible to carry a trail map, keys and even a phone and still be hands free. The tragic accident in Vail shows the danger of loose fitting clothing in downhill skiing. This differs from cross-country skiing where long scarves and layers are common and no problem. The main problem skiing downhill with layers flapping in the breeze is the risk of getting caught in a lift or suddenly not being able to see what is ahead. The first time I skied I quickly found this out. While still in school, I visited with friends on the New York border of Canada. They persuaded me to give it a try. On an Arctic day (22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit), I wore a long, dangling scarf. When I took the rope tow to the top of a small slope, my scarf twisted round and round as the tow turned choking me with each step. Luckily for me, the staffer in the guard house at the top hit the emergency stop button. As a result, the only damage was to my ego.
Solution: Avoid layers that can act like a balloon at the first gust of wind.
- Find a buddy: In many sports, a buddy system is common if not required. A top example is seen in scuba diving. This is key in case of an injury or other emergency. Things can go bad fast. On a recent trip to the slopes, my ski buddy ran afoul of the well-known adage to watch out for the “last run of the day”. In fact, it started even earlier. When he made the first run of the day, he had a severe fall and ended up with a broken rib and collar bone. I dashed down the slope to find the ski patrol and then off to the local hospital. In case of a head injury or life threatening event, a lone skier may not be conscious and may not be quickly found by passersby. So although I am a huge advocate of “solo” adventures, skiing alone requires taking extra care.
Solution: If you must go solo, find a small group ski class or ski group to join for the day. Learn which slopes are at your own skill level.
- Hold the ice! You may long for more ice when sipping a smooth tropical drink on a Caribbean vacation. However, be careful what you wish for when you think of ice and are about to hit the slopes. Based in Washington, DC, I am accustomed to the fast vacillating weather patterns between two climate zones in the Mid-Atlantic region. We have less cold weather than the Northeast but more than the Southeast. As a result, the ski season is very short and typically requires at least a one-two hour drive to get to the slopes. For skiers, that can mean really having to search for snow, natural or man-made, to be able to ski each year and in warm years to miss skiing at all. The danger in skiing at such low elevations in warm weather (or on sunny days at higher elevations) is that ice forms fast under such changing temperatures. Although it can be glorious to bask in the sunshine as you make your way down the top trails, the quick melt and re-freeze means ice will greet you, especially in the early morning. One of my past ski instructors always said: “The real problem is that whatever mistakes you are making will just be even worse when you hit the ice”. For me as an “Intermittent Intermediate” with no sign of improving any time soon, the minute I start to lose my balance I make the mistake of shifting my weight uphill just in time to catch an edge and then must try not to fall.
Solution: Go slow enough so that you can avoid ice and bare patches. Watch out if your goggles fog over, and you can’t see clearly what is in your path ahead. If you are not an expert, stick to the slopes that were groomed overnight.
- One “last run” could be the first run of the day if you don’t take care! Being tired can turn a good skier into a mediocre one. Be aware of jet lag when you have taken a long overseas flight.
Solution: Plan your trip with a break at the beginning and end. Hit the spa for a massage or to relax in the hot tub. Less experienced skiers should be realistic about how many hours to spend on the slopes each day.
Ski Safety-How to Avoid Mistakes:
- Watch out for the lift. It looks easy enough. However, there are only two risks on the lift (other than good maintenance by the resort): What you do and what someone else does to you causing an accident. On lower slopes where chair lifts are common, novice skiers can make getting off the lift a hazard. If they trip you with their poles, you can end up rolling around in the snow as others exit the lift. The other challenge? Making certain that you pay attention getting on and off the lift and not being distracted.
Solution: Watch what you are doing even if you are an experienced skier. In getting on, sit and balance your weight depending on the number of skiers in your chair. Use the bar. When you prepare to exit, first watch for the sign to lift the bar. Then “slide (forward), stand and then ski”.
- Binding settings do matter, especially for other than expert skiers. It is key to have them tight enough that your skis stay on but loose enough to come off if you fall. I overlooked this simple safety precaution when I went skiing solo in Kranjska Gora in Slovenia. I ended up in ice (of course) and fell. One ski stayed on while the other would not come off. As a result, I suffered the humiliation of sheepishly being rescued by the ski patrol. The problem? They only took me as far as the chair lift! They sent me down the slope with my skis and poles in my lap. Since I didn’t speak or understand a word of Slovenian, I thought I could wait patiently for the lift to come to a full stop at the bottom. Amid lots of shouted (incomprehensible) advice, I quickly found out the lift was, in fact, not stopping! However, it did slow down enough for me to leap off juggling my skis.
Solution: Before you ski, check yyour bindings to be sure they are set for the then current conditions and your ability. My mistake at Kranjska Gora? When I had had my bindings set at the ski shop on the slope, I had them adjusted in keeping with a local skier of my height and weight. I failed to factor in my more limited ability and infrequent nature of my trips to the slopes. That was a major mistake since skiers living in the Julian Alps would have plenty of chances to ski and be at a much more advanced level than I would be, thereby needing less conservative settings.
- Double diamond, blue or green?? I was surprised to learn that these fabled categories from Beginner to Intermediate and Expert are not universal or uniform. They only relate to the classifications of each mountain. As a result, I found I could ski select red trails at Lake Tahoe but struggled with even blue runs at Big Sky. In the US, I was very surprised to see that both Idaho (Sun Valley) and Montana (Big Sky) were much tougher skiing.
Solution: Before you hit the slopes, check a trail map. Don’t go “off-piste” where avalanches are a possibility. Problems are more likely to occur, and help may be far away.
- Skiing solo abroad can result in (mis) adventures. Consider two issues. First, is there a language barrier? In case of trouble, do you know how to reach the ski patrol or other help? What if your cell phone can’t get a signal? In addition, many resorts abroad either may have less signage to show the difficulty of the trails or have a system less familiar for the first time visitor.
Solution: If your budget doesn’t allow for a group lesson or private instructor, study the trail map and talk to the ski school and ski patrol. Find out ahead how trails are marked and what hazards, like ice or bare spots, should be expected. Set your phone to the ski patrol or other emergency number.
- Each day find out what the local conditions are for the slopes you plan to attack. Why? Many resorts groom select runs over night. While groomed slopes work best for novices, they can be hard packed and therefore faster. As one expert offered, “If it is groomed, It’s not for experts!”
Solution: If there is no online update or other system daily, talk to the staff. Before hitting the slopes, novices should find out if conditions have changed and if so, switch to an easier slope.
- Pay attention to “merging lanes”. Where runs intersect, there can be traffic jams. Another risk is that skiers at various levels of ability and experience may converge.
Solution: Think of this like driving a car. Look uphill to be sure that you are not on a collision course!
- Watch your skis, or face taking the lift down! Pickpockets on the slopes are rare. However, I discovered your skis can still get away from you or more specifically leave you “flatfooted” in your ski boots. In Quebec, I took a day trip from the Chateau Frontenac. Having learned the hard way that I would do better with my own skis, at the slope I traveled with my Dynastar’s. When I went to reclaim them from the van that took us to the mountain, I was in for a surprise! Another passenger in the our van reached for my skis, too. At that point, we discovered that we both had virtually identical 150 blue Dynastar’s. In a freezing, howling wind, we went back and forth comparing bindings, settings and the bottom of the skis. We never could figure out which skis were the ones we had brought. With no other option, we each took a pair and hoped for the best. In Norway, it was even more challenging. I stopped at the top of the mountain to have lunch with one of my ski class members propping my skis against the side of the restaurant. When I came out, I discovered my skis were gone! My choices appeared to be walking down the slope or traipsing over to the chairlift which hopefully would stop to let me off without skis! As fate would have it, another solution magically appeared. As I looked across the snow, I saw a pair of unattended skis waiting for me. Apparently the person who took my skis by mistake (probably a mix-up) had left their skis nearby. I stepped into them and was off. (Not a great idea without checking the bindings!) Hopefully, that did not leave a third person left on the mountain looking for their skis!
Solution: When you buy skis, photograph them for insurance, and add an identifying mark. Invest in a universal, international lock for the new skis or to keep rentals from getting lost in the crowd.
Ski Safety-How to Avoid Mistakes: In a Nutshell:
If you are planning a ski trip, especially solo:
- Check out the conditions and ratings/skill level for your proposed destination.
- Take the right clothes to keep you warm but not distracted or blocking your vision. (Be sure they won’t get caught on the lift.)
- Check, update equipment whether you buy or rent. Always include a helmet. For savings, compare the price of bringing your own equipment and renting at the resort. (Most ski rentals are not priced a la carte but as a package so bringing, for example, skis only won’t save much, if any.) if you are a senior, be sure to ask if they have discounts on rental equipment and/or lift tickets.
For more on solo skiing, see “Great Destinations for Intermediate Skiing“, “How to Pack for Skiing” and “Adventure Travel Insurance-From Crocodiles to Cholera“.
Follow this 2020 update on how to ski safer during the coronavirus pandemic. Issues to consider:
- Drive or take a train. (See Winter Park, CO, for example.)
- Have lunch outdoors overlooking the slopes. This has been my choice when I didn’t want to struggle in and out of ski boots and gear to stop and go indoors.
- Skip the apres-ski since social distancing is likely impossible.
- Ride lifts alone or with your travel mate(s).