Lake Tahoe skiing: Injuries are avoidable with good decision making |

Lake Tahoe skiing: Injuries are avoidable with good decision making

Sebastian Foltz
A pair of skiers enjoy near mid-season conditions on Heavenly Mountain Resorts slopes during opening day Saturday, Nov. 14. Doctors say that with the proper precautions, many early season injuries can be avoided.
Sebastian Foltz / Tahoe Daily Tribune |

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — With the snow continuing to fall, there’s a renewed excitement in the air.

Ski and snowboard season is here, and it’s starting to look like a good one. But with that excitement should come a little bit of caution. No one wants to end his or her ski season on a ski patrol sled, and definitely not before it really even gets rolling.

Injuries are a part of any sport, especially one as demanding as skiing or snowboarding. But the truth is, when it comes to getting out on the hill, many of those injuries are avoidable.

It’s all about knowing your limits, not pushing too hard and making good decisions. Then sometimes it’s about knowing how to fall.

With those ideas in mind, we spoke with Barton Health’s emergency department and ski clinic director Dr. Lance Orr about the kinds of things he sees passing through his clinic early in the season. He also discussed what can be done to avoid a personal introduction to his facilities.


The big key, especially this time of year, is to remember it’s been a few months since you’ve clicked or strapped in.

“You’re not necessarily going to pick up where you left off,” Orr said. “Especially early season, start slow.”

Skiing and boarding are all about muscle memory, and most people don’t use the same muscles during the rest of the year. So maybe hold off on charging that black diamond on day one. Unconditioned muscles and ligaments can be more susceptible to injury.

Orr said it’s critical to be especially cautious off of groomed runs early in the year.

“People try to get out in the trees before there’s enough coverage,” he explained, describing the resulting potential for injury.

Early season storms can make tree skiing look enticing. But with minimal coverage, obstacles just under the snow can ruin a day fast. Catching a ski on an unseen log can cause anything from a leg fracture to substantial ligament damage or a shoulder injury after you land.

“It’s the whole gamut,” Orr said.

Another big early season consideration is the volume of traffic on limited terrain.

“When people are more condensed on a limited number of runs, you have to be especially careful,” Orr said. “Any busy weekend, you have that increased possibility of collisions.”

Limited terrain means everyone from the uncertain beginner to the experienced ripper are riding the same area. It’s always important to have your head on a swivel, especially early in the year.

“Give people space for unanticipated moves,” Orr suggested.


The condition of your equipment is also important when it comes to avoiding injury. Whether it’s brand new or coming out of storage, both can be a cause of concern.

Orr said to remember to break-in new gear: “It may respond differently than what you were riding last year.”

Get a feel for your new skis or board before you start pushing the envelope. Depending on how drastic the change in ski/board design, you may find it will take some getting used to.

Rushing to the slopes before a proper tuning on your existing setup can be just as detrimental. Dull edges or bindings that don’t release properly are also frequent concerns in the early season, and among reasons people find themselves in the clinic, according to Orr.

A ski that doesn’t release properly will dramatically increase the potential for a knee injury. Along the same lines, be careful with borrowing from a friend. If the skis are set up for him or her they may not be right for you. Renting properly fitting skis is never a bad idea.

Dull edges will also increase the odds of a fall, especially on hard-packed, heavily traveled early season slopes. Tuned edges grip better, plain and simple.

Throwing down the $25 to $30 for a proper tune can save you aggravation in the long run.


Conditions often dictate the types of injuries likely to occur.

“There’s a difference, powder days versus firm days,” Orr said.

Firm snow days result in more impact injuries, like fractures and concussions, where as powder days tend to result in more ligament strains and tears — especially if the snow gets heavy.

Having a looser release setting on bindings is a good idea for deeper snow days. With the popularity of terrain parks, some higher-level skiers may ramp up their tension settings (dins) to keep they’re skis on through the higher impact moves when jumping.

That same setting can be dangerous, however, if you get tangled up in the deep stuff. Your leg can twist without as much pressure on a ski to release.

Conditions awareness is critical and can help extend your season.


Falling properly is just as important as staying upright, maybe even more so. All too often a skier or snowboarder will do anything in their power to stay on his or her feet and that’s often how injuries happen.

It’s a time-tested ski instructor theory: there are those who know how and when to fall and there are those who don’t. Guess which one has the better odds at an extended season.

Fellow Barton doctor and U.S. Ski Team physician, Dr. Terrence Orr (no relation) recommends to “let it slide out,” referring to proper falling technique.

The strain put on joints while attempting to recover from a fall can be far more dangerous than simply allowing for the fall to happen. It’s during those recovery attempts that catching an edge can put added torque on the knee, torque the ligaments can’t handle.


Proper conditioning and appropriate terrain selection are also key.

“Having good, strong legs helps prevent injuries,” Dr. Lance Orr said.

If you haven’t been on the hill much, give the legs an opportunity to adjust. Consider exercises that build strength in the quad and calf muscles.

Also remember to warm up properly. A pre-ski stretching regiment can make a difference.

“We like to think of your muscles as rubber bands,” Barton certified athletic trainer Andy Borah said. “If you go out cold, you put yourself at risk for injury.”

Lastly, one of the more common causes of injury is a skier or snowboarder finding him or herself in terrain that exceeds his or her ability.

“Stay within comfort level,” Dr. Lance Orr suggested. “Anybody can push their limits too far.”

Don’t rush to a black diamond when your skills on the blues could still use some work. Any ski instructor will tell you that you can work on advanced skills on pretty basic terrain.

Jumping into difficult terrain that doesn’t match a skiers skill set will lead to less-controlled skiing, which ups the injury risk.

Taking all those ideas into consideration could help extend a season. Be safe out there.

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