I haven’t always been a helmet advocate. In fact, I never skied in a helmet until I moved to Lake Tahoe in 2001. I bought a helmet that winter but found myself skiing without it, out of habit more than anything. One early season day I crashed head first mere feet from a sharp pile of rocks.
My best friend and roommate at the time suggested that I start wearing my helmet, and I did. Later that winter the same friend took an innocent tumble, catching the point of a rock hidden just below the snow surface in the back of the skull.
He spent 2 weeks in the ICU in an induced coma before he succumbed to the injuries to his brain. He was 24. His untimely death has haunted me ever since, as have the words of his doctor who said, “If he had been wearing a helmet he would have skied away from this accident.”
I’ve never needed another reason to wear a helmet, I’ve worn one obsessively ever since. This past spring, however, I was reminded just how important wearing a helmet can be.
In April, my girlfriend and I left Lake Tahoe to spend some time skiing in Europe. Our good friends spend their winters in Chamonix, France, and we decided to visit them and get the grand tour. Chamonix is a no-nonsense place to ski and having someone to show you around is a huge benefit.
Two weeks into our three-week stay we headed into the Aiguilles Rouges to a steep line on the northeast face of the Aiguille de Encrenaz. The line started out around 55 degrees for a couple hundred feet then travesed exposed above the crux of the line, a hundred-foot cliff. We slowly picked our way down to it, taking great care to not tumble off the cliff below. A quick traverse and a couple of turns brought us down to our anchor and a 20-foot rappel into the relative safety of the chute below. Once off rappel, the chute was walled in for another 1,000 vertical feet or so and held it’s 40 degree pitch nearly the whole way.
I had turned my back to the group to coil our rope when my girlfriend started falling. She wasn’t even skiing. She was just waiting and moved only slightly when her tip hung up in the snow causing her to fall. We figured she might stop after the first tumble, but the slope was just steep enough to keep her moving downhill. After about three full tomahawks it became very obvious that she wasn’t stopping, she was rag-dolling, arms fully extended, following the fall line, bouncing off the skier’s left wall and directly off a 30 foot cliff. She disappeared from our view and I started down the chute, full throttle, fearing that she would be severely injured, or worse, when I got to her.
She came to a stop on the apron below the chute roughly 1,000 vertical feet from where she started tumbling. I dodged an assortment of gear on my way down to her: skis, poles, goggles, probe all strewn haphazardly about the chute. As I got closer I heard her yell. “I’m okay!” Expecting to see a bloodied and broken body I couldn’t believe she was even conscious, let alone “okay”. Her helmet and her backpack were still on, but she had a cut on her nose and already had a black eye and a bruise forming on her forehead. She said she thought she blew her knee and it was obvious from the marks on her face and helmet that she’d hit her head as well.
By counting the marks on her helmet we concluded that it made contact with rocks three times. Luckily, her helmet was multi-impact. Not only did her helmet stay on, but it maintained its integrity protecting her head from the brunt of the impacts, leaving her skull, and more importantly, her brain, unscathed.
Her intact but battered helmet remains as a memento worthy of the trophy shelf. I’m not sure what would have happened that day if she hadn’t been wearing her helmet and I’m really glad I didn’t have to find out.
The helmet in question: POC's Receptor +