Icy slopes, eager skiers a recipe for injuries
The holidays have yet to pass, but already Care Flight helicopters have transported a handful of winter athletes with traumatic injuries from local ski resorts to medical facilities in Reno.
With large holiday crowds and early-season conditions on the ski hill, local physicians say this is one of the busiest times of the year in the emergency room.
Some 60 to 70 patients a day are walking through the emergency room doors at Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee seeking treatment, said Dr. Michael MacQuarrie, director of emergency services. About three-fourths of those injuries are classified as traumatic, including fractured wrists and clavicles, shoulder injuries, shoulder dislocations and head injuries.
MacQuarrie said he expects the emergency room to remain at the busy pace through the New Year.
“This is our busiest week, usually,” he said.
Two individuals were flown by Care Flight from Northstar this week. One was a 23-year-old male snowboarder who, according to a witness statement, was speeding down advanced terrain Thursday and caught an edge, taking the brunt of the fall on his head.
Resort officials said the Northstar snowboarder was not wearing a helmet, but was conscious when Care Flight arrived before noon to take him to Renown Medical Center in Reno.
Another longtime local, extreme skier Justin Menichiello, was flown to Renown last weekend after he launched off a cliff at Squaw Valley and attempted a flip, unsuccessfully. The resort’s ski patrol responded immediately, and resort officials said he cracked his ribs.
The Alpine Meadows ski patrol called in Care Flight on Wednesday morning when a 24-year-old man suffered a head injury.
Medical personnel said the injuries were typical for this time of year. The sparse snow coverage and hard-packed icy slopes of the early season haven’t exacerbated the customary traffic into Tahoe Forest’s emergency room, MacQuarrie said.
“The conditions, being less than optimal, are not creating any more injuries than we would anticipate,” he said.
MacQuarrie credited the efforts of the ski industry for minimizing the number of emergency visits ” by reducing as much of the risk on the ski hill as feasible.
“The fact is, these conditions, if [the resorts] had not groomed, would be a lot worse,” MacQuarrie said. “They work hard at giving these slopes a good groom to make it safe for people.”
It’s Michael Gross’ job, as Squaw Valley’s director of safety and risk management, to assess potential hazards across the mountain, and take the necessary steps to prevent as many injuries as possible.
“We take extraordinary measures to keep people safe,” Gross said. “It’s a priority.”
From sanding the parking lot, to posting cautionary signage, to analyzing the traffic convergence ” Gross communicates regularly with resort management, ski patrol and industry officials about the overall picture of ski resort safety. His job is one of proactive accident prevention and reactionary risk assessment.
“We try our hardest to put the message [of safety] throughout the mountain,” said Squaw Valley spokesperson Savannah Cowley.
Education, spread through a grass-roots effort that targets the youngest shredders on the slopes, is paramount to skier safety.
“[Skiers] are taught from the very beginning,” Cowley said. “They know the skier safety code.”
But when all is said and done, there is only so much Gross and his team can do. After all, the inherent risk of the sport is part of the thrill, individuality and expression of it all, he said.
“It goes back to the freedom of the sport,” Gross said.
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The Truckee Town Council has unanimously approved of a pilot program to remove snow on privately maintained paved trails in the area.