February 6, 2012

Skiing With Kids: Safety

Skiing With Kids: Safety

Here's how it goes down: I'm riding an aging fixed-grip triple chair, holding my two-year-old daughter in my lap. My five-year old son sits beside us, asking if his ski tips are angled correctly—we're preparing to unload. I've thought about this situation for a while; can I handle it safely? And my thought has been no. Trying to deal with both of them on my own sounds too initimidating—especially without safety bars.

And so, riding on the chair behind us is a visiting relative. His job was to ride up with my boy, so I could focus all my attention on the girl. Instead, at the last moment, my son snuck up alongside me, hopping onto the same chair as Daddy and Sister. So here we are together, just the three of us, exactly the situation I was trying to avoid.

As the unload ramp fast approaches, I do my best to wrangle my girl and her dangling skis into my arms. "Okay," I say to her, when I think I've got her safely repositioned, and at that unintended cue, my boy hops off the chairlift—before we reach the ramp.

His skis auger into the ramp and stop. The chair steamrolls over him, slamming him face-first into the snow. I hear the pop (I hope!) of both bindings releasing and then he's gone, vanished under the chair, sliding backwards down the wrong end of the ramp. As for me, there's absolutely nothing I can do. I've got 28 pounds of squirming girl and skis in my arms. I get her safely off the chair, then kick off my skis and race back to the ramp and the screaming boy somewhere on the other side of it...

Safety First

Ah, safety. I often think the most glaring omission from the New Parent Brochure is the part about how you will spend the rest of your life struggling to keep your child safe—if you're lucky. In your new job you'll soon discover that the most innocent situation can abruptly turn deadly-serious, transforming you into a raging paranoid who'll eye the mere flap of a butterfly's wing as if were a pipe bomb.

Where safety is concerned, we parents tend to oscillate between periods of hyper-vigilance and exhausted resignation. While both are understandable reactions given the overwhelming task of being responsible for a child's life, neither is likely to prove optimal. Probably the best overarching safety strategy involves cultivating awareness and acceptance of risk simultaneously. That won't guarantee your child's safety (accidents, after all, are inevitable), but it potentially puts you in the best position to marshal your limited resources, as well as perhaps maintain some sliver of sanity.

Rather than delve into the fascinating but also rather technical science of Normal Accidents, or veer into an extended discussion of my own somewhat esoteric thoughts on existential realities, I think I'll focus instead on a few specific threats that worry me, and on the practical steps I try to take as a means to cope with them.

Regularize Everything

You've probably already figured out that doing everything the same way every time pays dividends when it comes to raising kids. Kids thrive on regular schedules. Think of this strategy as a natural extension of what you already know. Your goal will be to reduce randomness in your skiing adventures. We will do this very simply: by always going to the same ski area with the same people at the same time with the same equipment and the same clothing in the same weather...etc etc.

Trust me, you aren't in the slightest going to be deadening the richness of your child's ski experience. Variations will abound regardless. But by regularizing the day as much as possible, you are reducing your vulnerability to randomness. This is quite possibly the easiest thing you can do to stack the odds in your favor. Do not underestimate its potential impact.

Chairlifts

I haven't been able to find relevant North American ski area statistics, but my assumption is that chairlifts are a particular threat to persons in the 0-7 year age range (and possibly beyond). It may be that the actual incidence of chairlift-related accidents is low, but clearly these can be high-consequence events. I therefore rank chairlifts among my top two threats for toddlers and early skiers.

Do children fall off ski lifts? Yes, with occasionally-catastrophic results. Even when children stay put, there is a significant possibility of injury each and every time they load and unload. My quick tips are to always board lifts in a one-to-one parent-child ratio, choose detachable quad lifts whenever possible, ski without poles to keep your hands free, keep kids' binding DIN settings low, and use a safety bar whenever available. Keep a close watch and/or a good grip on your child at all times.

Collisions - Active

During the days when I was trying to transition my son off a leash, every tree, rock, and pole on the mountain looked like an unmanageable hazard to me. Surprisingly, I've since downgraded the threat of my boy crashing into something on his own. With proper guidance, children tend to develop into quite conservative little skiers, diligent about keeping their speed in check, committed to staying in control at all times, and remarkably capable at steering around obstacles.

The key here, however, is that little phrase: with proper guidance.

Always keep your child on terrain appropriate to their age and skill level. Until they become rock solid on steeper pitches, even a short headwall can send your child shooting out of control straight down the mountain, faster than you can catch them. Always stress the importance of skiing in control, which means, we can always stop whenever we want to. Finally, mind your child's individual temperament. Leap-before-you-lookers will require closer monitoring, and perhaps actively telling them to slow down, turn, and stop as they are skiing. Again: terrain choice is the most critical factor.

Collisions - Passive

The real bogeyman, and my number one fear: someone else colliding with my child. Every year, it seems, I hear a story about an out-of-control adult traveling at high speed crashing into a small child. My nightmare scenario involves one simple equation: E = 1/2 mv². That is, energy increases exponentially as velocity increases.

I would like to believe that the idea of crashing into a child is abhorrent to all adult skiers, but the reality is that even expert adults will zip within feet of your child at high speeds as if they've never once caught an edge in their lives. Your defense against this threat is primarily one of judgement: choose runs that are wide and uncrowded, ideally without overhanging expert terrain from which people rocket down unexpectedly.

Some resorts are definitely better than others in this department. It is absolutely worth choosing ski areas based on terrain safety and even crowd vibe. If you do go, and for whatever reason conditions are not to your liking, change runs, take a break, or abandon the hill. Teach and practice safe skiing skills, including awareness of uphill traffic, and always stop in safe zones where you are at least visible to other skiers and better yet physically protected from them.

Expert skiers can attempt to use their own bodies as a defense of last resort. Stay close behind your child, but not so close that you prevent uphill riders from seeing that a child is present. The ideal technique may be to figure-8 your child's turns, although this can place you out of range at critical moments. Listen carefully for the sounds of out-of-control skiers (staccato skidding edges), and, if needed, put yourself between the threat and your child.

Helmets & Gear

Regardless of how you feel about helmets for your own use, I recommend thinking of them as mandatory ski gear for your kids. Helmets not only make your child more comfortable on the mountain, they also reduce the emotional impact of a fall, making them an invaluable aid in the process of teaching your kids to ski. Helmets obviously afford physical protection as well, and this includes protecting your child's head when they fall, which will be often.

There is no reason for controversy here—get one.

As for skis and bindings, the advantages of using modern, well-adjusted ski and bindings in good condition should be obvious. This is yet another reason why buying your own equipment—and not buying nor renting junk—is a good idea. Keep kids' DIN settings low. Knee injuries induced by skiing are probably rare at these early ages, but you want those skis coming off quickly when they need to, such as when a child's legs get tangled getting on or off a chair.

Talk About Safety

Talk about and practice good safe skiing habits when you ski with your child. You can use other people as examples of what to do and what to avoid. Key subjects include the importance of skiing in control, and being able to stop whenever we want to. Extending that subject, we stress the importance of using turns to control speed rather than snowplowing.

We also want to develop mindfulness of the presence of other skiers and snowboarders on the hill. You can use your own body to reinforce this lesson, skiing—carefully—within range of them close enough to where they have to steer to avoid you. As mentioned above, teach the importance of stopping in safe locations, where you are visible to those above, or better still completely protected from uphill traffic. Teach also the importance of always looking first for other skiers before you drop in yourself.

Looking Ahead

As time passes, and your child ages, the safety challenges they face will shift. Someday, even the menace of the chairlift will recede, to be replaced by things like rails, downhill racing, and inverted aerials—to say nothing of what awaits off the hill. While it is easy to feel overwhelmed by it all, I encourage you to make safety a conscious choice, and to infuse safe practices throughout the sport of skiing so that the two become inseparable to your child (as they should be for you as well).

Accidents, as I say, are inevitable, but that does not mean we should ignore their threat, nor allow fear of them to consume us. We can choose which threats are worth worrying about, and which are distractions. Most importantly, we can make a difference both in reducing the likelihood of an accident and in reducing its potential severity. And that is indeed a lesson worth passing on...

Andy Lewicky

ANDY LEWICKY is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer who enjoys good books, jasmine tea, long walks in the rain, and climbing and skiing the big peaks of the California Sierra. email | follow



  1. Jed says:

    Andy,
    I gotta say that these kid articles are among your best work. I’ve followed the site for years now, and have enjoyed watching the tone and content ebb and flow with the rhythms of your life. I do not have kids yet, but your passion for sharing your passion is inspiring. Makes me want a couple little skiers of my own.
    Jed

  2. Andy says:

    Jed, thanks for the encouragement! I’ve been having a lot of fun on the snow with my kids this year — an unexpected perk of a dry backcountry…

  3. Andrew says:

    Andy,

    What would you say is the best mountain in the SoCal area to teach young children – and I suppose adults who might want to learn also? I’m a Baldy devotee but it seems like a relatively bad place to bring beginners.

    Thanks!

  4. Andy says:

    Andrew, I take them to Snow Valley. The terrain is among the best I’ve ever found anywhere for beginners and kids (and I don’t get bored), skier traffic tends to be light, and it’s economical.

    The chairlifts are difficult to load with kids, and don’t have safety bars, which is the only (significant) downside.

  5. Scott says:

    Andrew, you’re right, as much as I love Baldy and it’s great advanced terrain (at least other years where they had enough snow to open), it is a terrible, terrible place to take beginners, adult and child alike. The lack of actual beginner runs (save for that 200m bunny thing from the lodge to lift 2) combined with no safety bars or detachable quads pretty much means beginner skiers have a miserable day up there. Heck, many of my intermediate skier/boarder friends don’t have fun up there, either. It’s just not a place to go if you like wide open and groomed and not too steep because there’s just none of it. I actually worry about the sustainability of keeping Baldy open even in good snow years because of this, but that’s a separate issue.

    I would also avoid Mt. High. While on paper it’s fantastic for beginners because it has a puzzling number of detachable quads for its size and plenty of mellow terrain, it is nearly always crowded and high traffic and a significant portion of that traffic is teenage park-rats, in my opinion the most dangerous traffic because they are riding fast and loose but unlike hard terrain chargers they’re doing it on the same slopes as the beginners. I just think having a terrain park next to the bunny slope is a bad idea (shakes cane at the dang kids).

    So yeah, I second the Snow Valley recommendation for beginners.

  6. Peggy says:

    Andy! You never finished recounting you son’s fall before the ramp. Is he okay? Banged up? Did his skis release as you hoped? Continued w/your day of skiing? Called it a day? Please advise!

  7. Andy says:

    We were worried about his knee for a while, but he appears to be fine. We got lucky.

    Re: Baldy – of all my friends who take their kids to Mt. Baldy to go skiing, none have kids who ask to go skiing. Mountain High East has a good beginner chair, at the top of the hill, but it’s rarely open. There is also a beginner chair between the two MH resorts (walking distance to East) which is also good, but again rarely open.

  8. Paul says:

    My 6 year old and I just skied at Snow Valley today. We had a great time and I agree this is the best local area for teaching kids due to the light crowds and terrain. My two boys, age 6 and 7, learned to ski at Baldy over the last 4 years and love skiing there. They both ski down black diamond runs and ask to go to Baldy whenever they see snow on the mountain (not this year!).

    Forget skiing with kids on a busy weekend and remember the sunglasses or goggles.

    Keep up the blogging and pray for more snow!

  9. Colin says:

    I too am enjoying your kid articles, Andy.

    I taught in the kids program at Boreal for 10 seasons and one thought I had regarding “the bar”:

    I’d obviously rather chairs have safety bars than not, for a number of reasons. That said, unless they’re the type of bars that you see on newer detachable quads with the crotch bar (and usually the accompanying footrest) that prevents you from sliding forward, I’d caution anybody teaching kids from relying or becoming too confident on the bar.

    It was our policy when I was teaching kids to constantly harp on them to sit back in the chair and often *not* use the bar unless a kid was really freaking out.

    Simply put: if you put a bar in front of a child, many of the more adventurous kids will lean forward and lean on it. If they’re screwing around, say with another kid, there’s a much greater chance they can slide underneath it. In fact, there’s a much greater chance that they’l screw around with the false sense of security afforded by the bar. Granted, kids are more likely to play around on the lift in ski school than with a parent, but I just thought it worth mentioning.

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