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Ups and Downs

Features
posted: 12/14/2000

February 20, 1999, was a big day for U.S. Ski Team veteran Jim Moran, but the only event he can remember is "taking a piss next to a tree." And though the former Olympian has watched the videotape of what happened next, no amount of rewind and replay can jog his memory back.

Then 26, Moran (whose career highlights include two World Cup mogul victories and the creation of the helicopter iron cross) sped out of the starting gate at the slopestyle event of the U.S. Freeskiing Open at Vail. Competitors in the terrain park-based competition flow from jump to jump and are judged on their tricks. Moran lofted high off the first large terrain feature, a tabletop-style jump, and spun into a 1080 (three full helicopters linked continuously), a stunt he'd aced many times before. He went big¿and off axis, torquing into the landing and cracking his face onto the hardpack like a whip. Moran was wearing a helmet, but it couldn't stop his brain from smashing against his skull when his head came to that sudden, dead stop. Three weeks later he emerged from a coma with partial paralysis on his right side and damage to his speech, memory, and what a hospital spokesman called his "higher cognitive processes."

Jim Moran was not a terrain-park newbie. He began hitting kickers and doing tricks in the air before he was six¿long after early freestyle skiing's more radical aerial maneuvers had left skiers in wheelchairs but well before the proliferation of terrain parks began provoking questions about how to reconcile risk with stoke. The question lingers: How can skiers enjoy the tremendous range of thrills available in sculpted terrain features and still be safe?

The first ski-area halfpipe was built by hand at Southern California's Snow Summit in 1988. The world's first known snow terrain park debuted at adjacent Big Bear Mountain in 1991 with six hits and a serpentine. What grew naturally out of Southern California's fertile surf-and-skate culture soon spread, igniting a vibrant youth movement that gave currency and fresh dynamism to the stale business of snow sports.

It also gave small ski areas with limited natural terrain a viable way to compete. In the nine seasons since Snow Summit opened its first "freestyle" park, the 230-skiable-acre hill has become a new school powerhouse. People come from all over the world to ride the 130 to 150 features in the cutting-edge parks, jibbing through the amusement zone at the rate of 1,000 boarders and skiers per hour. At California's Mammoth Mountain, where more than 3,500 skiable acres offer considerably greater diversions, the terrain-park system gets 2,000-2,200 riders per hour. A full third of all Mammoth guests use the terrain park at least once (some if only to spectate the scene); 25-30 percent are on skis. Parks are booming beyond the Golden State, too: At most recent count, 259 of the 503 ski areas in the United States had a terrain park, a halfpipe, or both. How many skiers and snowboarders have suffered a fate similar to Jim Moran while playing in those parks and pipes is not known.

Correction: Someone knows how many skiers and snowboarders have been critically injured in parks and pipes nationwide, but the ski industry as a whole would rather not discuss it on the record. Spokespeople from the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), individual ski areas themselves, law firms that represent those areas, and insurance companies that carry their coverage prefer not to address this topic.

What they prefer, instead, to emphasize is this: Using a terrain feature is no different in terms of ski-area liability than skiing on a groomed slope. What happens in the park or pipe is the user's responsibility. The industry as a whole is doing what it can¿such as eliminating gap jumps, increasing full-time park staffing, improving park grooming, and designing longer landing zones¿to increase terrain-park safety. But there are risks inherent to park and pipe play, and when yovoluntarily engage in the fun you voluntarily assume those risks.

"The industry's worst accidents have been by poor-skilled, lower-judgment people on midsized features," says Dick Kun, president and general manager of Snow Summit (which saw no catastrophic park injuries last season). "Especially people who are drugged or boozed."

"Overall, the accident rate in parks and pipes isn't so bad," reveals a risk-management specialist from a leading U.S. resort, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's certainly higher than the industry average, because people are getting air. Most accidents are minor. But what's scaring everyone are the catastrophic injuries. The numbers are up to more than a dozen a year. That's huge. Twelve kids who are quadriplegic per year."

According to data released by the NSAA, the long-term average of catastrophic injuries (paraplegia, quadriplegia, other spinal injuries, and serious head injuries with lasting effects) is about 29 per year nationwide, which amounts to less than one such injury per million participant visits. In the 1996-1997 season (the most recent season for which catastrophic-injury statistics have been released), catastrophic injuries on ski slopes numbered 45¿still less than 1 per million skier and snowboarder visits but clearly an increase of "more than a dozen" irrevocably altered lives. Whether this increase is related to terrain parks is not known. What is known is that the same group that incurs the highest rate of serious injury on the slopes¿young men from their late teens to late 20s¿also uses parks and pipes the most.

Catastrophic or not, there's a lot you can do to keep from getting hurt. "Flat landings are the bane of both skiers and snowboarders in parks," explains Craig Allbright, a manager at Mammoth Mountain's Sports School, which offers park-and-pipe clinics three afternoons a week. "You want to land on a slope that will help you absorb the landing. So the most important factor is gauging how fast you have to go to land in the target zone."

Other suggestions include watching where other successful riders start their run-ins. Keep in mind that skiers starting from the same spot as snowboarders will actually gain more speed. Test your speed by skiing alongside the jump first. Overshooting the landing, which many skiers do, can lead to blown knees when skiers land forward and hyperextend their knees. Landing short¿on the flat transition zone of a tabletop¿is a symptom of biting off bigger hits than you're ready to chew. Start small and work up.

Many big injuries happen on the first jump someone tries in a park. Allbright and other pros urge riders to survey even their home parks by lapping through them each day before jumping to check out the condition of the hits and the speed of the snow.

Other easy-to-avoid risks: Landing on another rider. (Solution: Use the park at off-peak times or ride with a friend so you can spot each other's landing zones.) Getting landed on yourself. (Solution: Stay alert. Don't stop or linger in someone else's run-out or landing zone.) Landing on your head. (Solution: Don't do inverts. If you must, then do what the smartest tricksters in the world do: Practice extensively on water ramps first.)

"A great type of park jump no matter your level is a hip jump," says Chris "Gunny" Gunnarson, referring to a feature built with a straight take off and a reentry-style side-banked landing. The 27-year-old president of Snow Park Technologies, Inc. is considered America's foremost park-design guru; among his many clients: Snow Summit, Copper Mountain, Vail, and the X Games. "It's one of the few jumps that doesn't have a blind landing. And when they're built right you can catch two feet of air or 100 feet. It accommodates all levels of riding."

Another tactic to have a blast while minimizing your risk: Do your riding in parks that have nightly grooming and a full-time terrain park staff who shovel, rake and keep their eye on the condition of the park throughout the day. Don't assume that a hit is safe just because it's open.

"Know this before you go in," says Jim Moran, who has regained his speech skills, much of his cognitive functioning, and virtually all the motion and strength on his right side. "The jumps are not perfect. The landings are not perfect. Everything has unsafe factors. Youhave to decide."

Despite $450,000 in medical bills and a life that is unalterably changed, Moran still waxes enthusiastic about terrain parks, halfpipes, and the love of catching air. "I always knew how dangerous it was, but I was so willing to take the risk." He laughs like a little kid. "I tried a helicopter on Blackcomb this summer and I stuck it perfectly. It was awesome. I did a helicopter iron cross, too. Then I said, OK, that's enough. I didn't want to throw the risk factor in there too much right now. I just wanted to show myself I'm getting better."keep their eye on the condition of the park throughout the day. Don't assume that a hit is safe just because it's open.

"Know this before you go in," says Jim Moran, who has regained his speech skills, much of his cognitive functioning, and virtually all the motion and strength on his right side. "The jumps are not perfect. The landings are not perfect. Everything has unsafe factors. Youhave to decide."

Despite $450,000 in medical bills and a life that is unalterably changed, Moran still waxes enthusiastic about terrain parks, halfpipes, and the love of catching air. "I always knew how dangerous it was, but I was so willing to take the risk." He laughs like a little kid. "I tried a helicopter on Blackcomb this summer and I stuck it perfectly. It was awesome. I did a helicopter iron cross, too. Then I said, OK, that's enough. I didn't want to throw the risk factor in there too much right now. I just wanted to show myself I'm getting better."

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