The dangers of the slopes: How to stay safe on the ski fields

Know your limits: overestimating your ability can put yourself and others at risk.
CAMILLA RUTHERFORD

Know your limits: overestimating your ability can put yourself and others at risk.

From out-of-control skiers to avalanches, the slopes are a potential minefield for those who turn up unprepared.

Falls are the number one cause of injury on the slopes, affecting beginners and seasoned skiers and snowboarders alike, according to Ross Lawrence, ski area manager at The Remarkables. 

"Skiing and boarding are activities that can include a bit of speed so when you underestimate a manoeuvre or you're just having a bad day, you'll 'stack it' as we say - take a tumble basically."

The snow code dictates that skiers further downhill have the right of way.
GEORGE HEARD/STUFF

The snow code dictates that skiers further downhill have the right of way.

Usually it's only pride that's hurt, but injuries such as sprains, fractures, breaks, dislocations and head injuries can occur. 

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If you find yourself in pain after a fall, it's best to signal the snow patrol team by raising your hand or get someone else to notify a staff member. If possible, someone should lay down their skis or board a few paces above you to stop others from running into you. 

Mt Hutt skifield fleet maintenance co-ordinator Rob Teasdale (left) with snow safety officer Ronan Maguire and their ...
HELENA O'NEILL/STUFF

Mt Hutt skifield fleet maintenance co-ordinator Rob Teasdale (left) with snow safety officer Ronan Maguire and their avalanche rescue dogs at Mt Hutt.

The ski patrol team will make their way to you on - surprise, surprise - skis to  check your injury and decide what treatment you need. Don't be afraid if they turn up with the horrific sounding "blood bucket". It's just the term used to describe the toboggan that transports injured people to the medical centre. 

On a commercial ski field, you can expect to be treated on-site by a registered doctor or physiotherapist. Ambulances and helicopters are on hand to transport patients to hospital in more serious cases. 

PREVENTION IS KEY

A helmet is essential for everyone on the slopes.
TIM CLAYTON

A helmet is essential for everyone on the slopes.

The best things you can do to avoid injury on the slopes, Lawrence says, are to make sure you're in decent shape before the season arrives and remain mindful of your ability. 

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As tempting as it can be to tackle the advanced trails or venture off piste, you put yourself and others at risk if you do so before you're ready. 

Out-of-control skiing is a major cause of collisions so it's important to stick to trails where you're able to control your speed and stop when you need to. When stopping, move to the side of the trail and ensure you can be seen from above. 

Constantly scanning your surroundings for others and remembering to look uphill before setting off also reduce the likelihood of collisions. As does keeping alert to snowboarders, who follow a different line down the mountain to skiers and can be blind to others on the turn. 

FOLLOW THE SNOW CODE

It's also important to follow the "snow safety code", which the New Zealand ski industry and ACC have developed to help prevent injury on the slopes. 

The number one "give way" rule on the slopes is that the skier or snowboarder in front has priority, so you must steer clear of them if you're further uphill. 

You're also required to ahere to any signage telling you to slow down or avoid a certain area. Enter a no-go zone and you could find yourself in white-out conditions, dodging rocks in a area of low snow cover or trying to out-race an avalanche.

BE ALERT TO AVALANCHES

Speaking of avalanches, they're a very real threat on New Zealand slopes year round and can see multiple tonnes of snow travel down a slope at more than 100km an hour. 

Anyone planning to head to backcountry alpine areas should check weather and avalanche forecasts before setting out and prepare for the worst conditions. 

At the time of writing, New Zealand Avalanche Advisory said there was "considerable" danger of avalanches in parts of Canterbury, Mackenzie, the Southern Lakes and Fiordland, requiring "expert avalanche skills". There was a "moderate" risk of avalanches in Tongariro, Taranaki and Nelson Lake, requiring "basic" skills. 

The New Zealand Mountain Safety Council recommends that anyone who ventures beyond the ski field boundaries should be well trained in avalanche safety and search and rescue techniques. 

There are numerous courses which will teach you how to recognise avalanche territory, cross potential avalanche slopes and use avalanche transceivers, probes and metal-blade shovels. 

If you do find yourself in the path of an avalanche, try to ski, snowboard or tumble to the side of it as quickly as possible. If you're caught up in it, you're likely to feel as though you're in a frigid, high-speed washing machine. "Swim" toward the surface, putting in the most effort when the avalanche slows.

If you're wearing an ABS backpack, pulling the trigger to release the airbag can help keep you "afloat". Do your best to keep snow away from your nose and mouth until the avalanche stops. If you're buried, spitting or peeing can help you determine the right way up. 

On commercial slopes, you're highly unlikely to find yourself in such a situation. 

Lawrence explained that commercial fields have avalanche prevention programmes which see experts evaluate risk areas and act accordingly. This may involve "controlled avalanching" or cordoning off an area. 

"Within the boundaries of the commercial ski field [avalanches] are very rare and shouldn't worry people," he says. "If you do see an avalanche, alert ski patrol staff to where it was and whether you can people in that area prior to it releasing."

BEWARE OF FATIGUE AND DEHYDRATION

Fatigue is another big cause of injury on the slopes so Lawrence recommends you pace yourself and ensure you stay hydrated and well fed. 

"It's also wise not to try anything new later in the day when you're tired," he says. 

Having the right equipment is also essential. 

"A helmet is a basic minimum but we also recommend wrist guards for those learning how to snowboard." 

Skiers should ensure the brakes on their ski bindings are fully operational, while snowboarders should use a leash when riding and hiking. 

Reassuringly, Lawrence says all injury can be avoided on the slopes if you stick to the trails you can handle, follow the snow code and keep your energy and fluid levels up.  

"However, this is an exhilarating activity that comes with an element of risk."

 - Stuff

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