FAQ for Skiers/Riders

Subject: “Down A Slippery Slope” The Wallstreet Journal – (1/8/99)
Answer: My colleague Dr. Jasper Shealy and I were interviewed by the WSJ authors and their staff for this article. While we take some credit for redirecting their efforts, the resulting article is incorrect and incomplete. The interviewers made it very plain that they were looking for the sensational and were not interested in any good news. After stating that skiing is getting more dangerous, the authors give the reader two alternatives; 1) ski slowly and avoid high-tech equipment, 2) quit. There is more to the story.

“High-Tech ski equipment and ski area upgrades,” the lead says in a box on page one January 8, “has had an unintended consequence–a jump in debilitating, even catastrophic injuries.” Then in a page and a half of the Weekend Journal the authors proceed to de-construct much of their own thesis. Let me help them finish the job.

By “debilitating” injury the authors make it plain they mean serious knee sprains, usually involving the ACL. We first reported this epidemic sixteen years ago in 1983. Although the injury rate continued to rise, and now accounts for a quarter of all medically significant injuries and half the treatment dollars spent each year, the rate of increase has abated and is today relatively flat. There has been no recent “jump” and we can find no connection between “high-tech” equipment and this injury. In fact our studies show that the new shape skis may actually reduce the risk of injuries of all types if the skier goes through an orientation program.

However, of greater importance is what is left out of the article–the good news on knees. In a study published in the October 1995 issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine we reported a more than 55% reduction in ACL sprains among ski area employees following a highly structured video-based training session. The lessons learned in that study are now available to the public at any ski shop via a free pamphlet, “Tips For Knee Friendly Skiing.” More than a million have been distributed over the past three seasons, paid for by the major ski equipment suppliers.

The rest of the opening argument bears equal scrutiny. “Catastrophic injuries” is a nebulous term that has yet to be clearly defined and is therefore not a reliable statistic over time. It is also a hard statistic for a small ski area to report accurately. Small areas are unlikely to have a medical clinic and staff which can accurately diagnose a catastrophic injury and follow up to confirm the long term prognosis. As the number of ski areas decreases, leaving fewer but larger and better managed facilities, we can expect the reporting to improve. This process has been going on for decades but it has accelerated in recent years, thus further skewing the data. At present, there is no credible evidence that catastrophic injuries are increasing at a statistically significant rate. The statement regarding fatalities is equally specious. Expressed as a rate, the reported change over ten years is not statistically significant. We are certainly not looking at a “jump” in fatalities or any other category.

But in the most ludicrous argument of all the authors imply that ski areas are somehow negligent for providing faster lifts and better trail grooming and snow making, because skiers will take more runs and ski faster. By this argument we should indict Eisenhower for creating the interstate highway system. And while on the subject of highways, would we all be safer if we left the potholes unfilled? The problems of speed and congestion on the slopes are not unlike the problems on our nation’s highways and the solutions are not dissimilar. Loss of control and failure to properly assess the conditions are the root cause of most accidents in skiing. Skiers, like drivers, must learn the rule of the road (“Your Responsibility Code” available everywhere), learn to turn or stop quickly in an emergency, and most important of all, learn to expect the unexpected.

High speed lifts, while challenging the ski area to disperse skiers and avoid congestion are not, in our opinion, a contributing cause of skier fatigue as charged by the authors. It’s hard to argue that a long wait in line and a slow cold ride on a cramped lift will provide the respite necessary to avoid fatigue.

The risks of injury in skiing are not enhanced by the new hardware but there is ample evidence that they can be abated by new software for the on-board computer–the skier. Training–much of it non-verbal–is a proven and inexpensive means to make a popular risk exercise less risky and more popular.–CFE

Subject: “Group Offers Reward to Counter Skiers’ Deadly Road Rage” L.A. Times – (2/14/99)
Answer: This article, republished in dozens of newspapers around the country, follows in the footsteps of the WSJ piece of 1/8/99 (FAQ #1). Although the WSJ blamed the ski areas for an increase in injuries and the Times blames out-of-control skiers and snowboard riders, both perpetuate many of the same errors of fact concerning the risk of injury in alpine skiing and snowboarding.

The Times article, however, takes the subject of rageful and inconsiderate skiers, a valid issue, and then pads the discussion with a confusing and utterly disorganized array of myths and misconceptions. Even when the statement has a kernel of truth, it is often unrelated to the discussion. This article is not just shoddy journalism but really bad writing.

For the researcher it is vexing when the results of years of effort are misrepresented in the interest of sensationalism or in support of a myth which has been debunked for decades. All the more vexing when the reporter has missed a genuine opportunity to provide factual information of substantial value to the reader. By today’s standards of journalism fact and opinion, peer reviewed journals, newspaper editorials, scientific data, and third hand anecdotes are all thrown into the same pot. From this stew a story is assembled using whichever sources best support the author’s premise. In the process, information is often separated from its context or vaguely attributed to the generic “expert” without further qualification.

Science is always at a disadvantage when reporters are looking for fresh “facts.” The development of an established fact on any subject is time consuming, involving peer review of the entire process, often in multiple forums. While some researchers have been accused of peer review by press release (example – Cold Fusion), competent researchers will qualify preliminary findings and opinions very carefully.

A research colleague, Dr. Jasper Shealy of Rochester Institute of Technology, was quoted incorrectly and out of context in both the WSJ and Times articles. Dr. Shealy and I have worked together with Dr. Robert Johnson of the University of Vermont Dept. of Orthopedic on the largest and longest-running study of snow sport injuries to date, logging more than 16,000 injuries at a northern Vermont ski area over the past twenty-seven years. Separately Dr. Shealy has researched deaths and catastrophic injuries using a national data base including information collected by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). These studies led him to the question of helmet use in skiing and snowboarding. Shealy has presented his research on these issues to numerous professional and scientific groups over the past fifteen years. His most recent findings will be the subject of a keynote address to a congress of the International Society for Skiing Safety later this year.

In order to encourage informed discussion of these issues and to facilitate factual reporting by competent journalists, I have summarized below, from past publications and several of Dr. Shealy’s most recent position papers, points which bear on the Times article, along with our comments on injury trends overall.

According to the National Ski Areas Association, the number of snow sport participants has remained relatively constant at around 55 million skier/snowboarder visits in recent years, although the percentage of skiers has fallen as snowboarding has increased in popularity.

To determine injury trends it is necessary to analyze the change in the injury rate (not the injury count). Two methods in common usage today are mean days between injury and injuries per thousand skier visits. Over the past twenty-seven years, skiing injury rates have declined by half. The rate today is low, about one medically significant injury in every 400 skier visits. However, there has been no significant change in the past dozen years.

The most common definition used for “medically significant” is: the injury required medical treatment or the injury kept the person from skiing for at least one day. Although at least some minor injuries go unreported, most serious injuries are, and there is no indication that the rate of unreported injuries in general is changing. So there is no reason to believe that unreported injuries have skewed trends cited by researchers.

At present, there is no credible evidence that catastrophic injuries are increasing at a statistically significant rate according to Shealy. Catastrophic injury is a nebulous term that has yet to be clearly defined and is therefore not a reliable statistic over time. But even if it could be defined, the general category is a difficult statistic for a small ski area to report accurately. Small areas are unlikely to have a medical clinic and staff which can accurately diagnose a potential catastrophic injury and follow up to confirm the long term prognosis. Over the past twenty years the number of ski areas has declined by 50% with most of the attrition among small areas. As the number of ski areas decreases, leaving fewer but larger and better managed facilities, we can expect the reporting to improve. However, these improvements skew the raw data and can create the false impression of a trend, if changes in the quality of the reporting over time are not taken into consideration.

Deaths in skiing are not increasing at a statistically significant rate. But even death is not a certain statistic. Shealy believes a snow sport fatality should meet the following criteria for inclusion: a) the accident occurred within the ski area’s boundaries, b) death occurred within 30 days of the accident, c) the coroner determined the skiing accident to be the primary precipitating cause of death. But, as reasonable as this definition may seem, it is not everyone’s definition, and it is not always the criteria used by the Consumer Product Safety Committee.

Shape ski use by beginners through intermediate skiers, who have gone through some form of shape ski orientation, results in fewer than expected injuries according to our studies. However, we have found shape ski use by experts, who are not experienced or trained in shape ski technique, results in a higher than expected injury rate.

High speed, high capacity lifts reduce the time skiers spend standing around in the cold or sitting on a cramped lift. In our opinion, if the skier spends the time saved making a few extra runs or taking a little extra time in the mid station lodge over a cup of hot coffee, that is a personal choice. On the other hand, it’s the ski area’s job to make sure that uphill capacity does not exceed the down hill capacity of the trail network.

From our experience, trail grooming reduces the number of falls and, in many types of snow conditions, the number and severity of the injuries that result. However, trail grooming can tempt skiers to ski faster, in our opinion, which can lead to more severe injuries from collision. But areas have many devices at hand for controlling speeders which in the most extreme cases may require aggressive monitoring by ski patrollers.

According to Shealy, 85% of all fatalities are males, although males represent only about 55% of the skiers on the hill. Even though studies in the field of highway safety have shown women to be less crash-worthy than men, women and men sustain different types of skiing injuries, from different causes. Men more likely to sustain certain types of fractures, while women are more likely to sustain soft tissue injuries such as ACL sprains. The raw injury rate for women in skiing is higher then for men. But when ability, experience, and size (weight and height) are taken into consideration, the overall risk of injury for women in skiing is similar to men.

According to Shealy and contrary to popular myth, skiers are more likely to hit a snowboard rider than are riders to hit a skier. In his opinion, this is because skiers are likely to ski faster and spend more time in the fall line. There are also more skiers than snowboarders. Other factors may include the warning sound an approaching snowboard gives skiers and the blind spot snowboard riders have which prevents them from seeing some approaching skiers. Snowboards are also less maneuverable at low speeds than skis, so the snowboard rider has greater difficulty getting out of the way, even if warned of an impending collision. On the bright side, snowboard riders do not slide as far following a fall as skiers and therefore are less likely to collide with stationary obstacles, according to Shealy.

In a typical year there are about 135,000 medically significant snow sport injuries in the US. Shealy has found 2.5% (3400) of the 135,000 are potentially serious head injuries. However, 77% (2600 of the 3400 per year) of all potentially serious head injuries are mild concussions, which do not usually require any treatment, and normally do not result in any long term consequences. In other words, on an annual basis in the US we can expect about 800 head injuries that will have some consequences, in a population of 10 to 15 million participants.

Shealy has found that approximately 60% of all fatal injuries in skiing involve the head. Virtually all of these are the result of a high speed impact, 90% occur on intermediate terrain, and 90% are to intermediate or expert skiers. Helmets are a known and proven effective means of reducing the likelihood of head injury, or in the alternative, of reducing the severity of a head injury, if one is struck in the head, or strikes one’s head against some object or surface. However, helmets are probably more effective at preventing skull fractures than concussions. Yet skull fractures account for only 0.1% of all skiing injuries in comparison to concussions, which are about 2.5% of the total. It is not practical to build enough deceleration time and stopping distance into a helmet to be sufficient to provide a great deal of protection beyond a 12 to 15 miles per hour direct impact with a solid fixed object. Speeds that are routinely encountered in skiing range from 25 to 40 miles per hour on intermediate slopes. Thus, if a skier on the edge of an intermediate trail were to lose control at typical speeds and strike his or her head on a tree, it is unlikely that any commercially available helmet will be of any great assistance in the prevention of a devastating injury. If it were required that everyone wear a helmet while skiing, it would cost 1 to 1.5 billion dollars the first year (10 to 15 million skiers times 100 dollars per helmet) and approximately 50 to 100 million dollars per year to maintain the inventory after that, with no assurance that helmet use would substantially attenuate the severity of the roughly 800 serious head injuries or prevent very many of the 20 head related deaths which occur each year (the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates 11 would be prevented).

For every death due to a head injury in skiing roughly a thousand times as many Alpine winter sports participants (20 to 25,000 per year) will suffer a devastating knee injury (ACL), each of which will cost ten to twenty thousand dollars in direct medical costs alone. This works out to 200 to 500 million dollars annually. But, there exists a solution that has the promise of cutting the toll of ACL injuries in skiing in half or better (see TIPS). According to our calculations, implementation of a national program, using what we already know can help to reduce the risk of this devastating injury, would not be more than $2.5 million dollars spread over the first five years and about $100,000 a year to maintain the program after that. The savings envisioned through such a program could be 125 million dollars per year.

The core of the knee injury abatement program above is skier education, the same subject at the heart of any program with the potential to reduce fatalities, and the critical factor behind the success of shape skis in reducing the risk of injury to skiers of lower skill levels. So, if you really want to cut your risk of injury in skiing you won’t wait for the multi-million dollar multi-media behavior modification campaign to brainwash you into taking better care of yourself, you’ll act now and check out EIGHT STEPS to Safer Skiing.—CFE

Subject: Knee-Friendly Advice
Answer: Yes, by studying the pamphlet: “Tips for Knee-Friendly Skiing” and by viewing the companion ACL Awareness video. The pamphlet is available free to the skiing public at ski shops and ski areas in a program funded by the major Alpine equipment suppliers. Pamphlets are also distributed by ski clubs and by physicians and physical therapists. To date over one million copies have been published.

Subject: How to Pick a Good Ski Shop
Answer: The problem isn’t just a matter of finding a shop which offers price and selection but being able to identify shops which offer price, selection, and service. And not just where you live, but where you ski on weekends and vacations. Of the three, service, in our opinion, is the most important and the hardest to judge.

If you are the 50th percentile skier/rider you ski or ride 10 to 12 days a year on average and turn your equipment over every 2 1/2 to 3 years. But when you add up annual equipment inspections, tunings and waxings, and the occasional repair job, you are out looking for service a lot more often than for the best price on a major item of equipment.

Good service starts when you walk in the door. First impressions count. But it’s more than a cheerful greeting, neat appearance, and good eye contact that you should be looking for. Before you let the staff impress you with how much they know, check out the store’s service policy. If you are serious about finding out just what to make of the shop, drag along the oldest set of equipment you, a family member, or friend is still using and see how the staff reacts.

If you are met with a “we can’t work on that,” they probably shouldn’t and you’d be wise to check out another facility. But if the shop takes the time to explain why the equipment ought to be retired or discusses what it will cost to make the equipment serviceable, then the shop is worth a second look. When you walk in the door with a piece of older equipment too many shop employees see only problems. What you should be looking for are the ones who instead see opportunity.

This attitude is particularly true of bindings. The staff of a well-managed shop, even if they lack the parts, tools, and technical information to properly service your pair, will at least take the time to inspect the system and point out why it is worn out, incompatible, or obsolete, and if it’s not, they will either pass you along to a shop more familiar with the make and model or they will ask you to sign a statement documenting the limitations of the work they are able to perform, and then make a good faith effort to service the equipment. Watch out for shop employees who examine a list hidden behind the counter and shake their heads (see Used Equipment FAQ for more help in dealing with this problem).

Similar problems may be encountered in attempting to get boot fitting help or ski repairs. However, unless you’ve picked the right shop, it’s more likely that you’ll get more help than you need, not less. There is a general feeling among many on both sides of the counter that no matter how good the tune or the fit, for enough money it can be still better. Just as in the field of healthcare, take at least 51% of the responsibility by providing accurate feedback and documenting what works and what doesn’t. Treat a good ski tune or boot fit job like a prescription which you can have filled the next time you have the problem. If you’ve picked the right shop they’ll be happy to do just that.

Each year thousands of ski shops across the country must fill many thousands of positions, and each year an ever increasing percentage of these new hires are also new to the ski industry. To help meet this annual training challenge the SKI AND SNOWBOARD MECHANICS WORKSHOP, in cooperation with the major equipment suppliers, has conducted hands-on training for boot, binding, ski, snowboard, and rental mechanics, and their managers at sites across the country (see our Workshop Descriptions for information on what these programs cover). To start your search for a good ski or snowboard shop in your area or at the resort you’ll be visiting, check out our SHOP LIST for the names and locations of shops that sent staff to these Workshops.–CFE

Subject: Used Equipment
Answer: No matter how recently you bought your last pair of bindings, your entire release system–boot, binding, and ski–should have a complete in-shop inspection before the start of each season and after every 15 to 30 days of use. This practice is recommended by all equipment suppliers. The advice that follows is intended to motivate you to make that visit and prepare you to communicate effectively with the shop’s staff. For help in finding a shop in your area, check out our SHOP LIST. The shops we’ve listed have, in the last year, sent their staff to the most advanced hands-on training program the ski industry has to offer.

If you can’t remember when you bought your current pair, or you were not the first person to own them, your binding may be a prime candidate for replacement. The staff of your local shop will be able to give you many good reasons to consider the merits of the new bindings on their shelves, including ways many of today’s models influence ski performance. However, even if they succeed, and sell you new equipment, there is still one more decision to be made. What do you do with your current set? Typical choices include: use them for your rock skis, pass them on to a friend or relative, donate them to a swap, nail them to the wall over the hearth, or trash them.

In any case, check your equipment against the criteria that follow and then, if you still have questions, have your shop’s technicians put your equipment through a complete inspection. If your bindings fail, they not only don’t belong on your skis, they don’t belong on anyone’s.

Age is not the most important factor in deciding whether or not your bindings have another year or more left in them, but it is not a bad place to start. Here are some conservative guidelines to get you thinking about the inevitable:

  1. Bindings more than twenty years old are most probably obsolete by design, and should be retired, regardless of condition.
  2. Boots more than eighteen years old may not meet current standards for sole shape and slipperiness and are probably worn out by this time anyway. Therefore boot-binding combinations of this era are often found to be incompatible, requiring the replacement of either boot or binding, or both.
  3. Bindings over fifteen years old probably don’t have many of the low-friction materials and friction compensation devices used in bindings today and therefore may require constant lubrication and care, which in most cases is not practical. Bindings of this era are also likely to be worn out.

Some bindings still in use, regardless of their age, are obsolete by design and should be retired. Following are a few guidelines for identifying these design deficiencies:

  1. Contact points with boot toe (or sole in the toe area) are metal and not low friction plastic. Exception – a binding which does not require the boot to slide with respect to the toe piece until after release.
  2. The sole rest (often called the AFD for Anti Friction Device) is not Teflon or a properly functioning mechanical AFD.
  3. Any toe or heel piece which allows less than 5 mm. of movement of the boot relative to the ski prior to release.
  4. Plate bindings of the 1970s, even if not worn out, are incompatible with modern boots and skiing techniques which can cause these systems to inadvertently release in backward lean.
  5. Any system in which the boot or the plate pivots about a point forward of the middle of the foot. Exception – releasable Telemark systems which allow the boot heel to lift freely.

While the issue of age and design may be cut and dried, our research shows that only about 3-5% of the equipment in use at major ski areas falls into these categories. For most skiers the criterion which decides retirement will be condition–not description–and that will take more than a quick read of the paragraphs above. It will require a trip to your local ski shop.

If you’re fortunate, the shop mechanic will classify your equipment into one of the following two categories:

  • SERVICEABLE – with normal maintenance and recalibration, the equipment can continue to provide useful service.
  • REPAIRABLE – with replacement of parts/components, maintenance, and recalibration the equipment can serve adequately.

RESULT – for a modest fee your equipment can remain in service or if you wish, you can pass your bindings along to a friend, relative, or charity.

If you’re not so lucky you’ll get the bad news. The mechanic has found that your equipment falls into one or both of the following categories:

  • INCOMPATIBLE – the boot and binding do not function together adequately. Replacement of one or both is recommended.
  • WORN OUT – the binding is no longer serviceable or repairable and replacement is recommended.

RESULT – your choice–trash bin or mantle piece.

In making the above assessment, today’s binding mechanic will employ some or all of following diagnostic procedures:

  • ANTI-SHOCK TEST – Displace the boot five to ten mm. off center and check to see if it returns freely. This test is part of every inspection.
  • COMPATIBILITY TEST – Test the release torque, first clean and then after lubricating the contact points between the boot and the binding, to make sure the difference between these tests are small and that the boot and binding are compatible. This is a particularly important test for bindings which are not boot-tolerant, such as toe pieces which contact the boot at only two points and require the boot to slide with respect to the binding during release. This test is conducted if the condition of the boot is in doubt or the binding is well worn, known to be boot intolerant, or unfamiliar to the mechanic.
  • RELEASE INDICATOR VERIFICATION – Compare the release torque with the manufacturer’s specifications to make sure results are within a specified range and the binding is not worn out or otherwise defective. This test is conducted whenever a chart, applicable to the binding, is available.
  • ACCELERATED LIFE CYCLE TEST – We recommended bindings over six years of age or models with a known history of failure be inspected at the top of their release adjustment scale during their annual pre-season inspection. This procedure may precipitate a component failure in the shop where replacement can be made quickly rather than out on the slope where failure may lead to far greater inconvenience. This test is particularly important for all-plastic models which have been stored in an adverse environment. WARNING – be prepared to sign a form acknowledging the risk of breakage implicit in this test.

There is one other category that you may run into–UNSUPPORTED. If the binding has been “orphaned,” meaning the manufacturer is out of business, or if the supplier no longer provides parts, tools, and technical information for that model, it is classified as Unsupported. This classification can greatly limit the types of service the shop is able to provide. But, a well trained technician will still be able to perform an Anti-shock Test and an Accelerated Life Cycle Test

If your equipment fails, the shop will have no choice but to terminate service, at which point your choice for the binding’s future will be between trash barrel and mantle piece. If your equipment passes, the mechanic should be able to recalibrate your bindings based upon your weight, height, age, and skier type, or you can elect to have the settings returned to their original value. However, without appropriate technical information the shop will not be able to conduct all the tests necessary to determine if the system is worn out or the components incompatible. For this reason even a well-trained mechanic in a properly equipped shop may, at some point in the transaction, find it necessary to suspend service until the limitations of the service the shop can provide are explained. If you decide to authorize further service you will probably be asked to sign an acknowledgment of those limitations before the mechanic proceeds.

Another problem you may encounter, even with relatively new equipment, is a shop that is not qualified to service your bindings because it is not a dealer for that brand and therefore the staff may lack the specific training or technical information or tools or parts to do the job adequately. In such cases the employees of a well managed shop will cheerfully pass you on to a shop in the area that can furnish the service. If that is not practical, the technician may agree to proceed, provided (as discussed above) you acknowledge the limitations of the services the shop can perform.

Ski swaps, garage sales, or a relative’s attic are not a good place to begin the equipment selection process. Other people’s outdated equipment can be even more of a hassle than your own. If you are new to skiing or it has been a while since you last skied, check out equipment at your local shop first, or visit one of the many reputable shops which specialize in used equipment. At least then you’ll be better able to recognize a good buy when you see it.

BAG JOBS (and other ways to waste money)
If you carry your bindings to the shop in a paper bag, don’t be surprised if you get them back in the same bag. Likewise, if you bring in an old set of skis and bindings and a new (or new-to-you) set of boots, don’t be surprised if you get the bindings back with the heel pieces moved to the rear of their sole length adjustment tracks, and find all four release settings at the bottom of their range. If you bring in equipment that is not in skiable condition and you refuse to authorize all services the staff determines are necessary to put the system into proper working order, you aren’t going to get it back in any better shape than when you brought it in and you’ll probably get a bill for the work it took to make that determination. To save money, go over the points covered in this FAQ with the shop technician before contracting for service on any well-used or vintage equipment. But don’t expect the staff of a well-managed shop to compromise. When it comes to issues which involve your safety they’ve been trained never to do less than their best.–CFE

Subject: Eight Steps to Safer Skiing
Answer: Please review our EIGHT STEPS TO SAFER SKIING.

1) Equipment Selection and Maintenance – At the beginning of each season visit a well-equipped ski shop that maintains a staff qualified to properly service your bindings, tune your skis, and evaluate your ski boot’s fit and function. This website, vermontskisafety.com, can be a resource. If the age or condition of your equipment has been giving you any concern, go over the material in the FAQ on used equipment. If you have experienced an unacceptable incidence of inadvertent binding releases, study our FAQ on separating hardware and software problems before your shop visit.

2) Protective Gear – If you decide to purchase a helmet, we recommend you select one that is snow-sport-specific and not only fits properly and is adequately ventilated, but one that does not interfere with vision or the use of goggles and does not impede hearing. Don’t let yourself be lulled into a sense of invincibility while using a helmet. When you feel that rush of adrenalin while skiing, ask yourself if you would be doing what you are doing if you were not wearing a helmet. If the answer is NO, you should reconsider the activity. For more information on other protective gear, clothing, and how to rent or buy equipment, visit gearingtogo.com.

3) Awareness Training – Study the strategies outlined in Tips for Knee-Friendly Skiing and, if practical, view the companion video, A Guide to Knee-Friendly Skiing. Check our website for new information at the beginning of each season.

4) Exercise – We are not aware of any proof that an exercise regimen will reduce the risk of the most common or the most serious injuries in skiing. But, in our opinion, you might help to avoid less serious (though none the less painful) muscle strains if you have prepared yourself with skiing-specific exercises. See early season copies of your favorite skiing magazine or talk to a professional trainer before you hit the slopes. You’ll also get in more skiing with less fatigue and you will be better prepared for the rare emergency requiring strength or endurance.

5) Rules of the Road – Learn “Your Responsibility Code.” It’s everywhere at your local ski area. These simple rules will help you learn what to expect of others and what they expect of you.

6) Equipment Orientation – In order to get the most out of your equipment, take a lesson whenever you upgrade. Of most importance is to learn how the equipment will respond during emergency turns and panic stops, and during attempts to recover control after a loss of balance.

7) Fall Training – Learn how to fall, when to fall, and how to stop after a fall. In our opinion, if you do not have a well-practiced plan for the falls you normally experience, imagine the posture of a parachutist just before landing. Keep every joint in your body flexed moderately. Keep legs together. Keep your chin against your chest. Keep arms up and forward. Be prepared to use your arms to protect your head. After the fall, if you don’t stop immediately, get into a position that allows you to see where you are going. If you attempt to stop yourself by engaging your skis, resist the instinct to fully straighten your legs. After you stop, try to remember as much as you can about what worked and what didn’t, and modify your tactics accordingly. In time your falling technique could become as expert as your skiing.

8) Terrain Analysis – Develop an understanding of your fall zone–the area through which you will probably slide if you fall. Imagine your fall zone as a shadow that you always cast while skiing and make sure it never covers an obstacle. Remember, as you ski faster or the slope becomes steeper or harder, your fall zone will become longer, and when you traverse it may become shorter but because of the uncertainty of your path, it will also become wider. Snow conditions and clothing will also influence how fast and far you will slide. Avoid smooth, shiney outer garments and favor instead textured materials. Don’t ski in garments designed for other purposes such as foul weather gear and never use a plastic bag as a temporary poncho while skiing.—CFE

Subject: Separating Hardware from Software Problems
Answer: STOP!! Put away the screwdriver and study the following:

Most retention problems are not related to the release setting and many are not even caused by the equipment at all. Often release, retention, and even performance problems are Software–that is skier–NOT Hardware related. Talk the problem over with a well-trained and experienced binding mechanic. If you have trouble finding a shop that will listen, check our SHOP LIST for shops that have sent staff members to the Ski and Snowboard Mechanics Workshop. If they don’t have the answer they will at least have an idea of where to find it.

The RATCHET Effect — A good example of the rush to readjust is what we call the Ratchet Effect on the release adjustment screw of competition bindings. Race bindings are tightened for a variety of reasons (most of them wrong), but are rarely loosened. All research efforts to date show that the magnitude of the load a skier applies to a modern binding toe piece decreases with speed (even during competition) and yet all problems of retention (inadvertent release) are blamed on the binding setting. Over time competitors at all levels employ ever increasing release settings, usually at both heel and toe, to address problems real or imagined. Setting increases are even precipitated by rumors of someone else’s bad experience. This practice is dangerous and unnecessary.

PLEASE NOTE: The discussions that follow are intended to motivate the reader to be observant and accurately report problems involving the release/retention system to a qualified shop mechanic. The hypothetical hardware problems are rare, especially for well-maintained equipment. However, the software problems described below can be real for any skier using even the most current bindings. To diagnose any retention problem, provide your shop’s mechanic with a few critical pieces of information:

  • What were you doing before you and the ski parted company?
  • What happened to the ski immediately after release?
  • Which way did you fall?
  • What was the position of the heel piece when you recovered the ski?

The FLEX Effect — Inadvertent releases experienced by racers and hard/fast skiing non-competitors are often the result of the inability of toe and heel piece to stay the same distance apart during rapid flexing and counter-flexing of the ski–what we call the Flex Effect (or the Effortless Release). The most common cause of this problem is a sluggish forward pressure mechanism in the heel piece which can cause a gap to form between boot and binding and thus allow the boot to escape without releasing the binding. Cranking up the release adjustment screw at heel or toe has no effect on this phenomenon and may even exacerbate the problem.

A Sluggish Forward Pressure Mechanism In The Heel Piece — If the ski continued to go in the same direction after you two parted company, and the heel piece was found in the closed position, it could be the Flex Effect. Many times your mechanic can solve the problem by simply cleaning, lubricating, and correctly adjusting the forward pressure mechanism. With certain binding models, however, interference between the underside of the heel piece and the top surface of the ski may require the use of shims (small washers) to raise the heel piece slightly.

Thick Lifters And Soft Skis — But the problem could also be complicated by excessively thick lifters under the binding or a ski that is very soft under foot. If you feel you need lifters, you should consider binding models with a lifter function built-in, and if you are partial to really soft skis, your best bet may be a binding model with a band or bridge connecting toe and heel piece, designed to allow either toe or heel to float with respect to the ski. These free flexing models make flex/counter-flex much easier for the heel piece to handle.

The HOUDINI Effect — On the other hand, if the heel piece is found in the closed position and you are pretty sure from your own trajectory (after you and the ski parted company) that you were leaning forward at the time, the problem may be insufficient forward pressure. In this scenario, which could be called the Houdini Effect, the heel piece begins to open and thus presents an inclined plane to the boot’s heel ledge. A little counter flex of the ski can also help to increase the mechanical advantage of that inclined plane, which then drives the heel piece rearward, thereby allowing the boot heel to escape upward from the heel piece. Since the heel piece did not actually release, the heel lug magically snaps back into the closed position, thus hiding its involvement in the affair. This condition can usually be reproduced by a binding mechanic with the aid of a ski binding test device. If the Houdini Effect is confirmed by the mechanic, the solution is usually to clean and re-lubricate the forward pressure mechanism and then increase the forward pressure adjustment. However, if the forward pressure spring is damaged or weak, for whatever reason, you may have to replace the heel piece or more likely, the entire set of bindings.

The JET Effect — Insufficient forward pressure can also lead to an inadvertent separation of the boot from the ski binding during a (pardon the arcane terminology) jet turn . In this case the ski leaves your boot and shoots up and forward as you come off the mogul. This Jet Effect can occur with bindings that offer upward release at the toe as well as with models that are not designed to release upward at the toe at all. However, the problem is most often encountered among models that control upward release at the toe with the forward pressure mechanism of the heel piece. Because the ski flexes dramatically as you come into the mogul and then counter-flexes as you jet from the mogul, the real problem may not be just a weak forward pressure spring, but any of the problems associated with the Flex Effect discussed above.

The BOW Effect — However, if the ski stays in the same place or shoots rearward following release, it may be a totally different problem. It is possible through the execution of poor or inappropriate technique to produce an inadvertent release of the heel piece at virtually any setting. The event has been termed the Bow Effect because, like the archer who allows the bow to slip from his grasp while flexing the bow in preparation for attaching the string, the skier flexes the fore body of the ski in reaction to a bump or rut thereby storing the energy that propels the ski rearward after release.

Poor Technique ‘Pulls’ The Heel Piece Open — The inadvertent release is precipitated by the skier driving the shin rapidly forward at the same time as the forebody of the ski flexes sharply upward. It is most likely to occur to a ski that is only partially weighted. The inadvertent coordination of these movements by a skier who is otherwise erect and in balance can put the lower leg momentarily in tension, thereby allowing the skier to pull the heel piece open with no apparent effort. This classical example of poor technique (bad software) can only be avoided through education–smoother, better coordinated technique. Cranking up the heel piece is not necessarily the solution. Once learned by our testers, this scenario could be repeated, even at release settings on the heel piece well beyond the setting range of any binding now available to the public.

Wide Tip, Narrow Waist, and Soft Flex — In theory the Bow Effect is most common with relatively soft flexing skis and skis which are much narrower in the waist than the tip, especially when used in conditions which allow the ski under foot to sink with respect to the shovel. But virtually any ski has the potential to exhibit this effect if used improperly.

You Can’t Compensate For The Bow Effect — The Ratchet Effect is a very real danger for skiers who fail to recognize and deal with the Bow Effect. In the laboratory we have simulated the Bow Effect and compared the results to a simulation of the classic weighted forward fall. In these tests the difference between what our load cell (an instrumented artificial leg) sensed in the simulated forward fall was more than four times what the load cell sensed in the Bow Effect simulation. The lesson should be clear. If you try and compensate for the Bow Effect by increasing the release setting of your heel piece, you will put your leg at risk in any weighted forward fall, and yet you may still not have solved your retention problem.

The SUPERMAN Effect — Another software problem, created and controlled completely by the skier, is what some might want to call the Superman Effect. The problem occurs most often at relatively low speeds and is usually precipitated by the environment (snow conditions).

Pitch, Roll, And Yaw — Release setting requirements are based upon the loads involved in skiing under packed powder to powder conditions. Using the analogy of flying a plane, the movements you make to maneuver a ski are largely pitch (moving your knees forward and backward) and roll (moving your knees from side to side), not yaw (twisting your lower legs clockwise or counter-clockwise). Yaw only comes into play during a transition, as we end one maneuver and begin another.

Torque Is A Consequence Of Less Than Perfect Technique — A substantial twisting load (torque) is not required to maneuver a ski. Torque is largely a consequence of less than perfect technique. Applying greater twisting loads than are required for the maneuver is like applying excessive rudder control on an aircraft. You probably won’t fall out of the sky but by making an uncoordinated turn you may lose speed, and at the least you are going to waste fuel (effort).

Mass, Gravity, And Muscle Strength — In skiing we are limited by our mass, not our strength, in how great a twisting load we can actually apply to the ski and still remain in control. Under most conditions all we have to work against is gravity. We can in fact consider ourselves one-legged skiers because, in most situations, we lack the ability to work one leg against the other. We can not, for example, engage both inside edges or both outside edges at the same time while applying opposing loads in twist on each leg. If we do, our skis will steer apart or cross. However, when in heavy powder, breakable crust, or just plain crud, we have the ability to use our strength because we have something to push against. But the strongest person you can imagine does not need a stronger steering wheel, shifting lever, or brake pedal–no type of driving requires that–and skiers shouldn’t crank up their bindings just because they have the strength to release them in certain situations.

Don’t Blame The Hardware…Improve Your Technique — Unless Superman turns on his powers he is just Clark Kent. In unguarded moments on the slope we are all Clark Kent and risk serious injury if we are using unnecessarily high settings. Don’t look to hardware solutions for software problems. Whether you have succumbed to the Superman Effect or the Bow Effect look to improvements in your technique before you blame the hardware and grab a screwdriver.

When To Re-Evaluate Your Release Settings — If the ski and skier part company with the ski heading in a different direction and rolling over almost immediately, and if the heel piece is found in the closed position, probably an honest (possibly even necessary) release of the toe piece occurred. Likewise, if you fall forward, with the ski tumbling after you, and you find the heel piece in the open (cocked) position, you probably had an honest (possibly even necessary) release of the heel piece. If you feel the release was unnecessary, the problem persists, and you and your mechanic have ruled out all of the above, it may be time to re-evaluate your release settings.

How To Reclassify Yourself — You can most easily modify your setting by reclassifying yourself for Skier Type. The Skier Type Classification Chart defines three Skier Types: I, II, and III. But it makes absolutely no sense to crank up the toe piece for a heel problem or vice versa. Therefore, we suggest you reclassify yourself on the shop’s service agreement using a [ / ] to separate toe piece from heel piece classifications. So, if you were a Type II and you decided you needed more retention at the heel you could classify yourself as a II/III. Increasing you Skier Type Classification by one category has the effect of increasing the release torque of those units by 15%. But remember, as you increase your margin of retention you decrease your margin of release thus increasing the risk of injury from the ski acting as a lever to cause injury to your lower leg in a fall.

Recalibrating Your Bindings To The New Settings — If you go ahead with this reclassification, your mechanic will consult a table provided by the binding manufacturer to determine the Initial Release Indicator Value separately for toe and heel piece. In addition to your Skier Type the mechanic will also consider your weight, height, and age. After adjusting your bindings to the initial settings, the mechanic will release the bindings with a Ski Binding Test Device and then compare the results to the Release Torque Ranges provided by that same chart. If necessary, the mechanic will fine tune the binding setting until each unit falls within the proper range. The mechanic will then record the Final Release Indicator Value for each unit on the service agreement.

Marking Your Skis So You Don’t Forget — If retention has not been a problem you might even consider using the method above to experiment with lower release settings. But in any case, to keep track of what you have done, we recommend that you write the Final Indicator Value close to each unit in the area between the toe piece and heel piece with a paint (or indelible) pen. So that you don’t forget the Skier Type decisions you made, we recommend you include them as well. To accomplish this for the example above in which we used a Skier Type II for the toe piece and Skier Type III for the heel, you might consider using a convention such as II=[?] (where [?] is the Indicator Value) for the toe piece and III=[?] for the heel piece. That way, if you do find yourself in a situation that DEMANDS an IMMEDIATE correction to your release settings, you can make the temporary change yourself and then later return your bindings to the original setting or reopen the Skier Type discussion with your mechanic.

Caution — Skier Type is a term intended to help you and your mechanic communicate better. Each definition has two parts. The first part is a brief guide that covers a general description of the type of skiing that applies to each classification. The second part is a warning of the trade-off involved in making each Skier Type selection. Although the second part is an irrefutable consequence of your choice and the laws of natural, the first part should be viewed as a helpful hint that may not work for everyone. It should, therefore, not be considered a hard and fast rule but a work in progress that may be redefined when necessary. A new definition that has been developed in recent years for those with concerns that can not be satisfied by Skier Types I through III, is the concept of a I(-) for settings lower than would be provided by Skier Type I and a III(+) for settings higher than would be provided by Skier Type III. Such settings have been termed Discretionary and should only be requested when all other options have been exhausted.— CFE