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Conditions, inadequate gear spell danger for snow fanatics

Susan Wood
Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune/ Dr. Greg Nelson evaluates a wrist X-ray Monday at the Barton Memorial Hospital Clinic at Heavenly Mountain Resort.
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Jared McCrum’s brazen snowboarding style has sent him to Tahoe Fracture Orthopedic Surgeon Terry Orr’s practice for physical therapy twice in the last two years for a knee injury.

Two seasons ago, the 22-year-old South Lake Tahoe boarder landed on his knee at Northstar, tearing a ligament. He said he turned a 60-foot-long jump into 100 feet. Last season, he injured it on the same day in the backcountry, landing hard from a 15-foot-high jump.

“My body kept turning, but my board didn’t,” he said. He hasn’t slowed down since.

“I can’t get hooked up on a mental block,” he said.

For McCrum and others of the same mind set, Barton Memorial Hospital operates two ski medical clinics at Heavenly Mountain Resort between the aerial tram and California Base Lodge and at Sierra-at-Tahoe’s Main Lodge. The clinics are intended to treat minor injuries, alleviating unnecessary hospital care. They’re equipped with X-ray equipment as well as nurses and doctors, who most often splint injured extremities.

Orr said sometimes the only thing between a recovery from a fall and a serious injury is catching an edge just right.

“More helmets are great to see, but we usually get concerned when we see this kind of weather. Anything can happen,” said Orr, a U.S. Ski Team doctor heading to Turin, Italy, for the Olympic Games next month.

“And I think it’s surprising that dozens of kids are doing things out there now that seemed so far beyond what we thought was the extreme before,” he said.

National Ski Safety Week is Saturday through Jan. 20. Barton’s director of emergency services, Tony Willen, and other local medical practitioners who see hundreds of injuries every month have some advice for South Shore skiers and snowboarders.

First, be aware and consider the conditions.

“The way the snowpack is (now), the impact is much like falling on concrete,” Willen said.

So far this year she’s noticed a high rate of compression/fracture-type cases come through the South Lake Tahoe facility. Rain has pounded down the snowpack, creating a hard surface that brings a spike in knee, wrist, collar-bone, shoulder and head injuries to clinics.

The Heavenly-Barton clinic recorded 242 patients in December, its first month of operation. In December 2004, 298 were reported – but that caseload could be attributed to the longer ski season, Heavenly clinic charge nurse Cindy Burkart said. The average age of those injured was 21. Snowboarding and skiing injuries were split evenly.

Burkart said the reasons for accidents echo the ski areas’ code of conduct: “Don’t ski out of control,” “Don’t ski too fast,” “Yield to the downhill skier.” Every year, South Shore resorts remind guests to practice common courtesy. Notices are posted on everything from season pass agreements to bathroom walls. The ski industry beefed up the notices’ presence since a Colorado skier was convicted of manslaughter for a fatal collision with another a few years ago.

The staff of Dr. Nita Schwartz at Kirkwood Mountain Resort’s clinic reported 160 cases in its first month. Beyond helmets, Schwartz said she’d like to see more snowboarders wear wrist guards. She cited snowboarders’ blind spots and pattern of turns as the reason for a high incidence of collisions between skiers and boarders.

“At least more snowboarders are wearing helmets,” she said.

Schwartz also looks to the popularity of terrain parks and videos showing tricks as other reasons for injuries.

“I think it’s the culture and mindset of the age group that leads to these injuries,” she said.

“We see a significant number of injuries in the snowparks,” Barton’s Medical Director Lars Ensign said, adding that sometimes the tricksters injure themselves on the rails and boxes.

“I feel for these guys who come in here concert pianists and jewelry makers and hit their hands,” he said.

Ensign said general fitness and stretching helps, but all the conditioning in the world may not help if the conditions are ripe for a skier and boarder to come down hard.

Sierra and Northstar-at-Tahoe ski safety events:

— Free sticker by answering terrain park questions relative to ski safety

— Children’s poster contest

— Backcountry Awareness Day 10 a.m. Saturday

Skier responsibility code:

— Always stay in control.

— People ahead of you have the right of way.

— Don’t obstruct the trail.

— When merging onto a trail, look uphill.

— Observe all posted signs.

— Know lift operation.

Source: Sierra-at-Tahoe


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