From the moment he puts On his skis," cautions famed Hannes Schneider, "the skier is on his own. He must watch constantly; he always has to keep control. Once he forgets and becomes intoxicated with speed, he's inviting an accident."
Hannes Schneider should know. During the past 50-odd years, Skimeister Schneider, who has taught skiing and himself skied probably as much as any man alive, has only had one crack-up—and that wasn't on a downhill run. It was while climbing up an icy mountainside, thinly crusted over with snow, that he slipped and broke his hip.
This weekend, Schneider and thousands of other skiers will take to the hills. For most, it will be a gala excursion. But some hapless few may find it a shattering experience. For out of every 2,000 skiers who go up with great expectations, 10 will have to be tobogganed down with a sprained ankle, dislocated knee or fractured leg.
Of the 4,100 injuries last season which required immediate medical aid, half of them involved headstrong skiers who tried speeds beyond their control and attempted terrain beyond their ability. Another 11% needlessly jumped or fell from a ski lift or tow. Contrary to the best cartoons and jokes, the man who helplessly ploughed into a tree or a pile of rock was relatively rare.
The expert may take his share of spills, but three times out of four the man who winds up in a doctor's office has never taken a lesson. Skiing is one sport which you cannot master all by yourself, principally because the theory fights most of our basic instincts. For example, you must lean down the mountain instead of back against it as when walking or climbing. And to turn, you lean over your downhill ski when everything in you says to hug the hillside. If you don't take lessons in golf the worst that can happen is that you play a lousy game. But if you don't take lessons in skiing, you may end up in a cast.
The witching hour for skiers is between two and four. For the snow, melted by the noonday sun, is starting to freeze again, and the afternoon shadows hide bare spots and small but treacherous bumps and gullies. Moreover, after schussing, a skier's legs, still unconditioned this early in the season, become fatigued, and his reflexes, numbed by the cold, fail in the clutch. All too often "just one more run" turns into "let me tell you about my accident...."
Considering the risk involved in plummeting down a snow-covered slope at breakneck speed on a pair of slender slats, and considering too the legion of seasoned veterans and intrepid beginners who eagerly chance this risk as often as possible, the amazing fact is that the number of skiing mishaps remains so low.
FIRST AID ON SLOPES
Credit for keeping the toll down belongs to the National Ski Patrol System, the first-aid corps of the slopes. Started 16 years ago by a handful of eastern sportsmen, the NSP now patrols every major ski area in the U.S. Each of its 4,000 members are volunteers (a few trails also have paid patrolmen) whose goal is: "To work toward greater safety and thus greater enjoyment in the sport of skiing."
To qualify to wear the distinctive rust parka and blue-and-orange shoulder patch of the patrol, each man and woman must take a minimum of 40 hours in first-aid and winter-safety courses, then pass a rugged skiing and sled-rescue test. They must also re-qualify each year by taking a refresher course of at least six hours before beginning a new season.
During the season, a patrolman sets out early to "break trail" at the ski centers, mark off safe areas and check caches of medical supplies. During the day, he skis the slopes, ready to treat or prevent any accident. At nightfall, he "sweeps the trail," checking to make sure that all stragglers are safely off the tow and slope.
Nonetheless, it's up to the individual skier to make skiing safe for himself. There are some precautions; all of them add up to "take it easy." On the slope, ski within your ability and in control. It's best to ski in pairs. Avoid curves that don't allow enough room-to swing a turn to a dead stop. Give the right of way to skiers running downhill. And always heed the cry of "track."
Just in case you don't trust the other guy—or yourself—$10 can buy a skier an NSP ski accident policy with up to $500 coverage. And in five states this year, the American Progressive Health Insurance Co. offers insurance by the day ($2) and weekend ($4), with benefits up to $1,000. Like air insurance, you can sign up before starting up.