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Natasha Richardson's Death Highlights Risks to Women Skiers

Posted: 03/22/09 04:30 PM ET

Natasha Richardson's death last week at the Mont Tremblant resort in Quebec has not only reignited the debate about the efficacy of helmets in preventing ski fatalities, but also highlighted a little known fact about this dangerous sport: though men are more likely to die in ski accidents, women, particularly beginners like Richardson, are at the highest risk of injury.

On family ski trips, experts say, the person most likely to break a leg, snap a wrist, have a cheek pierced by a ski pole, or, especially, to blow out a knee, is not the reckless teenage son or the show-off Dad, but cautious, careful Mom.

Fatalities like Richardson's are rare in mountain sports. According to the National Ski Area's Association (NSAA), only about 40 people in America die each year in skiing and snowboarding accidents; another 43 receive serious head injuries. Other types of injuries, however, are extremely common, particularly fractures of the tibia in the lower leg and torn ligaments in knees. In a study conducted by Steve Bollen, president of the British Orthopedic Sports Trauma Association, more than nine out of ten skiers with injured knees were women, with an average age of 40. Bollen blamed this on poor fitness.

At least some of the women in Bollen's study no doubt were mothers who took up skiing as a way to be with their teenagers, those impossible-to-please creatures who view their parents, whether they're movie stars or librarians, as hopeless dorks. According to the London Telegraph, Vanessa Redgrave told an acquaintance that she didn't understand why Natasha had gone skiing because her daughter disliked the sport. It's not hard to imagine that Richardson went to Mont Tremblant for her boys. That she died while trying to share an adventure with them makes her tragedy all the more heartbreaking.

Heaven knows, there are few things a mom can do -- other than fork over wads of cash -- to get a sullen, uncommunicative teen to notice her. With skiing -- a sport that involves going fast on expensive equipment while wearing cool clothes -- she's got a fighting chance.

That's what I thought, when I persuaded my family to take up the sport eighteen years ago. Though skiing combines three of the things I hate most in life -- cold, heights and speed -- I find the idea of skiing, of waltzing through pillowy, white hills in crisp blue winter, glamorous and romantic. Once, years ago, while ice skating in Central Park in Manhattan, I overheard a beautiful blonde with a Nordic accent say to her friend, "You know, that delicious feeling of exhaustion and exhilaration at the end of a day of skiing, when you kick the snow off your boots and go inside to sip wine in front of the fire?"

No, I did not know that feeling, but I wanted to. So, when my family moved from Manhattan to Chicago, which, in my New Yorker's sense of geography was the foothills of the Rockies -- practically in the backyard of the western ski resorts -- I booked us accommodations at Alta, the venerable ski resort in Utah, which is noted, as the local license plates proclaim, for "The Greatest Snow on Earth." Alta is an old fashioned place that hasn't changed much since it was founded 75 years ago. Most of the runs are natural, and there are no nightclubs, exclusive shops or fancy restaurants. It's known as a skier's mountain because of the severity of the terrain, but I was attracted by its literary associations. One of the resort's founders was James Laughlin, the New York publisher of Delmore Schwartz and Ezra Pound.

At the time, my son was a cheerful five-year-old, but I was anticipating his sullen, uncommunicative future. When that arrived, in the plan I envisioned, we would have established a routine during Christmas breaks of a week at beautiful, other worldly Alta, with no TV, no computer, and no video games, just a lot of wholesome togetherness.

First, my son and I had to learn to ski. While he headed to ski school, and I signed on with an instructor, my husband, already a solid intermediate skier, went off with friends. It took me the first vacation to catch on even to the basics of suiting up and riding the chairlift, and several subsequent trips to get so I could go down the mountain without shaking and bursting into tears. Meanwhile, my husband had progressed enough to venture down the expert trails. Needless to say, I never caught up. But what really put the kibosh on my family togetherness fantasy, was our son. Once he learned to ski, he decided he wanted to snowboard instead, which Alta doesn't allow. Every day of every vacation, he took a bus with a friend to another resort, and we didn't see him all day. In eighteen years of Alta vacations, the three of us skied together maybe twice.

Still, I persevered. Over time, my skiing improved, but I never overcame my fear. I was cautious to a fault. Once, faced with a particularly steep slope, I took off my skis and actually walked down the mountain, a humiliating experience made doubly so by the blind skier and the one-legged man in a chair mounted on a single ski, who raced past me.

Though I never suffered a serious injury, I took some truly spectacular falls, the worst one after tumbling on a slope of sheer ice. I was sore for two weeks with a bruise on my right leg that stretched from my knee to my hip. As it began to heal, it turned from black to rosy gold and looked exactly like a sunset over the sea in the Bahamas, where we should have been taking our winter trips all along.

One year, I thought a helmet might improve my confidence, and I rented one at the Alta ski shop. It was hot and uncomfortable, however, and I returned it after a day. Richardson's death, of course, has convinced me that every skier should wear a helmet, regardless of age, sex or religion, and I certainly will, if and when I ski again.

More than half the people in fatal skiing accidents last year were wearing helmets at the time of the incident. It seems they were traveling at high speeds beyond which the helmet couldn't protect them. For the average skier, though, helmets do seem to offer protection, reducing head injuries, according to some studies, by up to 60 percent.

Now Quebec is considering making helmets mandatory on ski slopes. Already in America, the vast majority of children under twelve wear helmets while skiing. Their parents make them. Kids should make their parents wear them, too.