The ski patrol at Powder Ridge in Kimball, Minn., keeps a cracked and badly dented helmet prominently displayed in its first aid room. “This could be your helmet or your head in a split second,” the souvenir implies.
Attention, ski patrol, helmets are mandatory in our family. Last winter, we were more grateful than usual. The radio crackled with our 16-year-old son’s name for a terrain-park wipeout and Christmas-break concussion. A month later, a wicked sliding face-plant left Jon scraped up with one eye almost swollen shut with a look that had everyone wincing in sympathy.
Two nights later, after begging to get back on his board and promising “No jumps,” he went for big air, lost his balance, snapped his left wrist and kissed the winter sports season goodbye.
Broken wrists top the list for most common snowboarding injury (usually from instinctively reaching out to break a fall), followed by concussions, broken collarbones and dislocated shoulders. Most at risk are inexperienced or overconfident boarders going for gravity-defying tricks on jumps and rails.
Overall, though, life on the slopes has gotten safer and better in myriad ways, especially for skiers, observers say.
Better grooming equipment has improved snow conditions. Lighter, more durable materials have improved equipment, and warmer, lighter-weight outerwear makes even the coldest days more tolerable.
Chris Setchell, Afton Alps’ Ski and Snowboard School director, said ski injuries have dropped 50 percent since the 1970s. Maybe that is not all that surprising, but that’s especially good news for anyone who’s a bit rusty or trying to psyche up for a maiden trip down Minnesota hills.
“Everything about skiing has changed,” Setchell says. “The risks have gone down, and the comfort has gone up.”
Here’s a look at how to transition onto winter slopes, prevent injuries and ramp up the fun.
If bigger ski hills seem intimidating, check out the Three Rivers Park District. More than 8,000 schoolchildren try skiing for the first time at Bloomington’s Hyland Hills, an epicenter for fifth- and sixth-grade field trips. Maple Grove’s Elm Creek also has downhill slopes. Passes start at $17 per person ($22 with equipment rental).
Beginner boarders or skiers should invest in lessons that help them get comfortable, learn how to slow down and stop, and learn how to navigate turns and avoid collisions. Weekdays and evenings when it’s less crowded can be the best times to learn at busy places such as Afton Alps. Women’s group lessons also can be popular. Most ski places split kids and adults for sessions unless a family group is learning together.
If you have a partner who’s already into it and hounding you to join the winter fun, it’s usually best to get lessons from a professional instructor and increase the chances it will be a positive experience, Setchell said. If both partners want to improve their skills, a Monday date night special pairs couples’ lessons with dinner vouchers.
Choose boarding or skiing
Deciding between snowboarding and skiing can be tricky. Anyone with skateboarding experience has an edge in learning to board and figuring out how to carve into the snow and control the speed and direction. Many ski places have three-lesson packages, which can provide a lesson in each sport with a third class for practicing the favored choice.
Every Minnesotan who doesn’t want to huddle indoors all winter should invest in a good base layer. These soft, thin synthetic tops and bottoms have come a long way since the days of saggy waffle-weave long underwear and do much to hold in heat without adding bulk. Add a nice layer of lightweight fleece over top, followed by a windproof jacket and snow pants to protect from winter winds — especially on chairlifts.
Also a good investment: Mittens with insulating materials such as 3M’s Thinsulate or Primaloft and warm socks with a blend of wool and acrylic or nylon, said Joe Rauscher, third-generation owner of Joe’s Sporting Goods with his brother, James. Goggles, too, protect eyes, offer some sun protection, and help you stay warmer. “If your nose, toes and fingers get cold, you’ll be in the chalet,” Rauscher said.
Boarders should look for extra-tough, sturdy palms on mittens or gloves. Some terrain park tow ropes can shred lighter materials.
Rent or invest in a helmet. They won’t prevent concussions, but they can help prevent the severity of injuries. With a lightweight balaclava beneath them, they’re also much warmer than a hat. Sturdy wrist guards can be helpful for boarders who want the extra support.
Helmets work best when skiers and boarders are going less than 14 miles per hour. They need to be replaced if damaged or dented, said Jeannine Mogen, alpine patrol supervisor at Three Rivers Park District. She advised skiers and boarders to be wary, especially when at larger ski destinations where trails may merge. “Be aware of your surroundings and who is on the ski hill,” she said. “Ski as if you’re not wearing a helmet.”
Use modern equipment
If you haven’t touched the dusty — and likely rusty — snowboard or skis in the garage for close to a decade, it’s safer to rent newer equipment and repurpose the old gear as a funky shelf or decoration. In the past 10 years, skis and boards have evolved from fiberglass to lighter blends that use carbon. Rauscher said skis weigh about 30 percent less, and the design has changed to a tapered style with rounded tips.
“It makes a big difference,” he said, as does an annual tuneup that sharpens edges and knocks off rust from summer humidity.
Crisp edges help control skis while a fresh coat of wax helps them glide across the snow. That protective layer of wax can be especially important for snowboards that get beat up on rails and jumps, leaving the board’s core vulnerable to the elements.
Never mind age
Kids as young as toddlers can learn to ski, Setchell said, and most Minnesota ski hills have core groups of retirees who take advantage of uncrowded weekday skiing.
“It’s not too late [to learn] if you’re 45 or 55,” he said. “A good portion of our instructors is over 60. My mother is 84. She skis four days a week and with her great-grandkids.”
Lisa Meyers McClintick, St. Cloud-based author of “Day Trips from the Twin Cities,” writes about travel and the outdoors. (lisamcclintick.com)