Why Helmets Matter This Winter, and Why You Should Care
Dazed, but still able to move, I stood clutching my left arm and wincing from the pain in my ribs with each breath while waiting for my friend to come back up the trail or for the other riders behind me to catch up. I took off my helmet. The foam was cracked like glass in all directions. I couldn’t stop staring at it.
I thought, this thing just saved my life.
Between semesters at grad school in Oklahoma, my family and I had moved back to Utah where I worked during the summer on an Army test range in the West Desert. We did our best to take advantage of the Utah sports scene with frequent trips to the mountains and red rock.
One weekend I went with some friends to ride the Mid-mountain Trail above Park City. The trail was perfect for a novice. Moderate climbs, non-technical terrain, and beautiful scenery made for a great morning ride. I was closely following my friend Aaron, who had invited me on the ride, found a bike for me to borrow, and loaned me his dad’s helmet.
Aaron is a skilled rider and knew the terrain, but I was probably not ready for the kind of speed he was accustomed to. Everything was going along fine until I rounded a slight bend and watched Aaron launch from a rise in the trail and clear two widely spaced whoop-de-doos before touching down and rounding a corner.
I was too late attempting to slow down and hit the rise with enough velocity to clear the first, but not the second, bump in the trail. I panicked. My front tire nosed downward and planted itself just ahead of the apex of the second bump, compressing my front shock to its maximum. Momentum and the shock’s spring shot me up and forward into the air where I seemed to hang inverted for several seconds before watching the trail rush up at my face.
Looking down (up?) to avoid the need for plastics intervention, I hit the trail like a yard dart, spearing the ground with the top of my head. Light flashed in my brain and went black again as I completed the rotation, coming down hard for a second impact against my left forearm and ribs before bouncing into the weeds on the downhill side of the trail.
My heart raced as I lay, crumpled and unmoving, beside the trail and attempted to breathe. I had no idea where my bike had ended up. I knew only that I was no longer attached to it, nor it to me. With what little remained in my lungs, I uttered a single syllable, “A!” I hoped that Aaron hadn’t gone too far down the trail to not notice that I’d stopped for a quick dirt snack.
But more pressing worries presented themselves. I stifled the urge to quickly jump up, instead taking stock of my injuries, limb-by-limb, until I reached my neck, which I rotated slowly. No grinding…good! No sharp pain…good!
It wasn’t until trying to stand that I realized how dizzy and disoriented I was. I stumbled up and looked around. My bike had kept going on its original trajectory and lay a few yards down the trail. I looked down and saw the swelling on my left arm that protruded like a bloody pillow just below the elbow.
Broken, I thought, though I felt little pain in it aside from a dull ache that mirrored what I was feeling in my skull. Adrenaline is masking the extent of my injuries. Luckily, I was wrong about that assumption.
Giddy with the knowledge that I’d survived the accident, I stumbled back and forth across the trail, pacing with nervous energy. At some point, I took off my helmet to examine it.
Cracks spidered in all directions from the point of impact and penetrated through the entire girth of the foam that had cradled my head. I stared at it and laughed, an almost involuntary response to the surprise, unease, and disbelief I felt in that moment.
Aaron heard the crash and my subsequent, breathless moan and came riding back quickly, wondering which bone he was about to see. The other riders arrived after a few minutes, and we stood passing around the helmet. At some point, I dreamily reenacted the wreck, buoyed by a cocktail of adrenaline and relief.
We were only a few miles from the end of the trail so getting home wasn’t too tough, but it was unsettling. My vision was shifty, registering as images in my brain only after I’d already turned my head. I felt as though I were in a continuous dream state, expecting that the trees and singletrack might melt at any moment before my eyes, and I should find myself riding a horse and buggy through the streets of an old city.
But the trees and trail remained, and the wheels of my two-wheeled carriage remained the aluminum and rubber variety as I distractedly coursed—slowly—down the rest of the trail and through the neighborhood to Aaron’s parents house where I got bandaged up, took some Tylenol, and lay down for a nap. (Note: I should have gone to a physician to be checked for a concussion. In hindsight, I believe I was concussed, based on the general dazedness I experienced for a few days after the wreck.)
Before this experience, I almost always wore a helmet. Following it, I wear one without fail, and I’ve made a commitment this winter to wear one when I ski. One need only glance at the headlines of the past couple of years to see the toll head injuries have taken on athletes at all skill levels, whether it be biking, skating, climbing, or skiing and snowboarding.
Two such examples happened right in our own backyard. Near my own accident, in fact, though much, much worse. Kevin Pearce and Sarah Burke each suffered massive head trauma on a Park City half pipe. Kevin was lucky to survive, but his life is now much different as a result of his accident. Sarah was not so lucky, and professional skiing lost an icon. More importantly, Sarah’s family lost a daughter, sister, and wife.
I recently watched a film called The Crash Reel that tackles the issue of traumatic brain injury, using Kevin Pearce’s story to move the film along. It’s probably the reason the topic is on my mind now, frankly. Kevin and Sarah were wearing helmets when they hit their heads, and both were still gravely injured, but they were also doing tricks that you and I probably wouldn’t attempt.
My story is silly compared to those, but it illustrates that accidents can happen to anyone at anytime, and it’s better to be protected. So this winter, make a pledge to yourself and your loved ones to do what you can to protect your brain from injury. Many are doing so with studies showing a 20% increase in helmet usage among skiers and snowboarders.
And the stats for helmet use in snowsports are compelling. According to a report published by the Swiss Council for Accident Prevention, head injuries account for 15% of all ski injuries, 16% for snowboarding. One meta-analysis they cite estimates a study-dependent 21–45% protective effect for snowsport helmets. The report also cites a study that looked specifically at concussion rates among individuals who sought hospital care following a snowsports accident: 5.8% of non-helmet wearers had concussions whereas only 2.3% of helmet-wearers did. That may look like a small difference, but it essentially translates to the fact that, all else equal, a helmet can prevent a concussion in more than 50% of accidents in which the head endures a concussive force trauma.
One thing snowsport safety experts agree on is that helmets cannot prevent all types of head injuries, but they do lessen the likelihood of a severe injury in most cases. The cost of a good helmet is negligible compared with the cost of an injury, no matter the severity. Unfortunately, not all helmets are created equal and it’s smart to do your research before buying. Helmets.org, a site that independently tests models from most manufacturers, is a great resource.
That said, don’t let a helmet lull you into thinking you’re invincible. The best advice I’ve heard is to wear a helmet, but to ski or ride like you aren’t.