More hard hats hit slopes
Almost half of skiers wear protective headgear, industry group says
Tim Brown figured it was time to wear a ski helmet when he left the groomed trails for the tight turns in the trees.
“I started skiing the trees, and all my buddies were wearing one, so I thought it was a good idea,” said Brown, a rancher near Palisade who has skied for 51 of his 58 years.
Before joining the ranks of the estimated 48 percent of all skiers and riders who now wear protective helmets, and like most newcomers to wearing a lid while skiing, Brown was a reluctant convert.
“I really didn’t want to,” he admitted. “They looked like a hard hat, and I have some neck problems, and I didn’t want to mess with them.”
But since adopting a helmet a year ago, Brown, who takes advantage of the winter to ski and last year logged an impressive 40 days at Powderhorn Resort, now finds he never skis without it.
“I wear it all the time,” he said. “It’s comfortable and warm, and it feels like a regular part of my ski outfit. It’s like something is missing when I’m not wearing it.”
Brown isn’t the only one accustomed to wearing a helmet while skiing or riding.
According to the National Ski Areas Association, helmet usage grew 12 percent last year over the previous season, and 48 percent of skiers and riders now wear helmets, up from only 25 percent six years ago.
Some of that increase might be the imitation factor, said Troy Hawkes of the National Ski Areas Association, but much of it has to do with an increased awareness about on-snow safety.
“I think it’s partly ‘monkey see, monkey do.’ The more you see more people wearing one, the more likely you are to wear one, too,” Hawkes said. “Obviously the incident with Natasha Richardson, or anytime you have a high-profile incident like that, shines the spotlight on helmet usage.”
Actress Natasha Richardson wasn’t wearing a helmet when she fell in soft snow during a routine lesson on a beginner slope last March at Mont Tremblant, Quebec. Even though she initially shrugged off the accident, her condition worsened, and she died the next day from internal bleeding caused, said a doctor, by “blunt force trauma” to her head.
Her death refocused attention on what’s become an ongoing topic of debate: Should helmets be mandatory equipment or remain a personal choice?
Some resorts take the mandatory route.
Aspen Skiing Co. has required students 12 and under at its ski schools to wear helmets since 2002. “We strongly encourage helmet use by all our employees and guests, but we only make it mandatory for children 12 and under while taking lessons,” Aspen spokesman Jeff Hanle said. “A child 12 and under couldn’t be expected to make their own educated decision, and we decided to make it easy on everybody.”
Vail Resorts now requires all its on-snow employees to wear helmets, the first resort to do so, and requires children 12 and under to wear helmets during group lessons.
It joins the list of resorts tightening their rules on wearing helmets during ski and riding lessons, particularly for young skiers and riders.
Intrawest, which owns Copper Mountain, Winter Park and Steamboat, now requires all those under 17 to wear helmets in terrain parks and in ski school and issues helmets with all youth gear rentals.
Next season, Intrawest will require all on-hill employees to wear helmets.
Other resorts, such as Powderhorn, take the route that stresses personal responsibility.
“Powderhorn recommends, but does not require, our guests to wear a helmet,” resort spokeswoman Sarah Allen wrote in an e-mail response to the question about helmet use. “We encourage all guests to make wise decisions regarding all of their skiing/riding equipment. It is up to the discretion of the individual.”
She said the only mandatory helmet use is for instructors and students using the resort’s terrain park.
She said skiers and riders without a helmet may rent one for $5 per day at the resort.
According to the National Ski Areas Association, nearly 80 percent of children under 10 and 63 percent of adults over 65 wore helmets last season. Still, fatalities from skiing accidents during the past decade remained constant at about 40 per year.
Even though skiers and riders seem to know that wearing a helmet is cool, helmet sales locally have lagged a bit recently.
“Helmets probably are more accepted, but we haven’t sold as many in the last couple of years,” said Kent Foster of Board & Buckle Co. in Grand Junction. “We’ve actually trimmed our orders back a little from, say, 40 to the 25 range because we weren’t seeing the sales.”
Some of the reason might be the cost of a ski helmet, Foster said.
“We usually say it’s not as easy selling ski helmets as bike helmets,” he said. “A bike helmet is around $35, and a ski helmet can cost $100 to $160, so it’s not as automatic (to buy a ski helmet) as a bike helmet.”
Foster said he religiously wears a ski helmet.
“I love my helmet. It’s warmer than a hat,” he said. “It’s comfortable and just feels good. I wear it every day, whether I’m skiing the trees by myself or skiing with my grandkids.”
The National Ski Areas Association’s Hawkes said the prevalence of helmets on professional and Olympic skiers and riders, as well as new designs and technology, have helped improve the helmet’s image.
“Helmet manufacturers have gotten the message, and helmets today are lighter, stronger, fit better and you can get them personalized with cool graphics,” he said. “Also, seeing high-profile athletes wearing them makes you feel like a racer-athlete, too.
“When you see your idols and icons wearing a helmet, that makes it cool, and if you wear one, you can be cool, too. If it’s cool, it snowballs from there.”
But helmet or no, it’s still up to the individual to ski or ride responsibly, Hawkes said.
“We certainly promote the use of helmets for skiing and riding, but at the end of the day, helmets are only one safety device,” he said. “It’s equally important to ski in control and in a responsible manner.”