Shortest season ever for unlucky ski fanatic

OUT WITH INJURY: A zealous skier for 24 years, Jonathan Flett once wished to be cremated in his ski boots.
OUT WITH INJURY: A zealous skier for 24 years, Jonathan Flett once wished to be cremated in his ski boots.

Jonathan Flett was one of the first customers up the mountain on this season's opening day at Mt Hutt.

He was among the first to start skiing - and the first to fall. On his third turn, he stuck a pole under a ski and tripped. Result: a cracked bone in his lower leg and no skiing for at least six weeks.

"I wasn't out of control; my mind wasn't engaged with my body," Flett said. A zealous skier for 24 years, he once wished to be cremated in his ski boots. "I'm still hurting," he said, meaning emotionally as well as physically.

A Press analysis of Accident Compensation Commission (ACC) data from last season shows lower leg injuries like Flett's weren't that common, accounting for 6 per cent of claims. Skiers are much more likely to injure their knees (29 per cent of claims).

Last season, 44 per cent of injuries to skiers were from the hip down.

Snowboarders, on the other hand, were much more likely to hurt their upper bodies. The most common boarding injury was to the shoulder area (18 per cent), followed by back and spine (14 per cent), knee (12 per cent), hand and wrist (11 per cent) and arm (9 per cent).

ACC recorded 5697 "active claims" by boarders in 2012-13 compared to 8867 by skiers. The average cost of injury to ACC was $983 for boarders and $1483 for skiers.

The data do not give the full picture of snow sport injuries. ACC records claims made, not total injuries because not all injuries result in a claim.

Ski areas also collect data about injuries on their slopes but do not release much of it. Summaries of seasonal data by the Ski Areas Association found the injury rate among skiers and boarders has been generally falling, from about 4.5 injuries per thousand in 2005 to 3.87 per thousand in 2009 and 3.44 in 2012. The average 2009-2012 was 3.5. It is too early to know if last season's rate, 2.81, was an outlier.

A rate above three puts New Zealand roughly on par with North American and middle European ski areas, Miles Davidson, of the New Zealand Snowsports Council, said.

Scandinavian statistics can be half the New Zealand rate, but they include cross-country skiing, a less risky sport. However, New Zealand's rate may look better than it is because Kiwi fields have few trees, obstacles that injure many overseas.

The ski field data, entered into the National Incident Database (NID) by ski patrollers, is used as a "management tool" by ski fields, Davidson said. An analysis of injuries might turn up a rash of injuries in one spot.

"They might go out and find the snow-making machine isn't making very good snow there," Davidson said. "They can take immediate action."

The most recently published analysis of NID data, from the 2009 season, found the most common injury time was between 10am and noon. The rate trended downwards over the afternoon.

The most likely age of an injured skier or boarder was between 10 and 29 years. There was a steep decline in injuries among the over-30 crowd and an uptick among people over 50.

Men outnumbered women 57 per cent to 43 per cent.

Snow conditions made almost no difference, about 50 per cent of injuries happening on hard or icy snow and about 50 per cent on soft or spring snow.

Overseas data on helmet use showed they worked. A meta-analysis of nine snow sport and head injuries studies found helmets reduced risk by 35 per cent, the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported in 2010.

"Helmets won't necessarily help in high-impact collisions but they definitely help in lower-speed collisions," NZ Mountain Safety Council alpine manager Andrew Hobman said.

The study also found there was no evidence that wearing a helmet increased risk of neck injury.

Keen skier Flett is still frustrated.

"Why couldn't it have happened at the end of the day or the next day?

"Not in the first two seconds."

The Press