Accidents on California’s ski slopes are on the rise. How to Play GoPros and Gum

Accidents on California’s ski slopes are on the rise.  How to Play GoPros and Gum

Last month, Marius Verga, a doctor in Long Beach, saw a break in his busy schedule, so he grabbed his skis and headed up Mount Baldy to enjoy the gorgeous new snow left behind by a recent storm.

A former ski instructor, he was carving a fine line, and was lost in the rhythmic pleasure of crisp turns when out of the corner of his eye he saw a young snowboarder rushing toward him from above.

Wirga swerved to avoid the impending collision, struck a ledge and hit the ground so hard that he felt his right arm sticking out of the shoulder socket. It stretched as far as the muscles and tendons would allow, then rebounded with bone-shattering force. The pain took his breath away. He slid about 100 feet down the hill knowing he would soon be in the emergency room.

Skiing always has its risks, but the true number of injuries is difficult to ascertain. Resort staff respond to most infections, so resorts will likely have detailed statistics. But the numbers they share with the public are broad and general. The National Ski Areas Association, a trade group, acknowledges that about 80 catastrophic injuries and deaths occur annually in the United States.

One sign asks skiers and snowboarders to stay at least 15 feet apart.

A sign on Mammoth Mountain asks skiers and snowboarders to keep a safe distance from each other.

The Times’ analysis of the state’s extensive database of hospital visits paints a much larger picture: In California alone, more than 6,000 skiers and snowboarders visited emergency rooms in 2022 for injuries sustained on the slopes, according to data kept by the California Department of Health Care. Access and information.

Of these, 193 people were injured so badly that they had to be hospitalized for prolonged treatment.

The number of recorded infections is rising alarmingly. State data show that ski-related emergency visits rose 50% from 2016 through 2022. During that same period, the number of skiers and snowboarders remained essentially unchanged in California, according to industry data.

This suggests that the slopes at popular resorts like Mammoth Mountain in the eastern Sierra and idyllic Lake Tahoe destinations like Heavenly, Palisades Tahoe and Northstar are becoming more dangerous.

Public relations managers at Mammoth Mountain and Tahoe’s top resorts declined to answer questions about the number and types of injuries their clients sustain. The Times’ efforts to speak with ski patrollers, who are usually the first responders to accidents on the slopes, were rebuffed.

But former ski patrollers, emergency medical technicians and hospital staff in mountain towns say they’re seeing a rise in accidents — and they blame some underlying factors.

The first is the increased recklessness on the slopes that seems to have emerged post-pandemic, the behavior often exacerbated by people consuming gummies, magic mushrooms or copious amounts of alcohol before hitting the slopes.

Another major factor: Skaters are so focused on taking selfies and filming videos for their social media feeds that they are oblivious to what’s happening around them.

“It’s getting significantly worse,” said Jessica DeMartin Miller, an emergency nurse at Mammoth Hospital. “People have just been screened. They have their headphones on, their video cameras going, as if their experience is the most important experience and that’s all that matters.”

    A skateboarder scrapes the top edge of a halfpipe.

A skier scrapes the top edge of a halfpipe at Mammoth Mountain.

DeMartin Miller used to be a search and rescue nurse in Yosemite National Park, and in her spare time she ran a company leading private clients on mountaineering adventures. She is no stranger to well-managed risks. But the crowds hitting the slopes after the pandemic display a level of irresponsibility and reckless abandon that makes them nervous.

“We have people in the emergency room with serious injuries who say they just had a couple of beers, but they smell like alcohol,” she said. Or you’ll ask them if they smoke pot, and they’ll insist they haven’t, almost indignantly. But when you ask them if they’ve eaten gum or mushrooms, “they say, ‘Oh, yeah, sure.'” ”

It does not seem that only the number of infections is increasing. And also the danger.

Doctor standing in emergency unit.

Dr. Kyle Howell, an emergency room physician at Mammoth Hospital, says sledding injuries are increasing in number and severity. Among the reasons he cites: crashes on the slopes and the growing popularity of Olympic terrain parks.

On a busy Friday shift in early March, Dr. Kyle Howell said he saw four patients rushing down the slopes into Mammoth Hospital’s emergency room with punctured lungs, and two of them with air in the chest cavities around their hearts. He spent hours “fixing the face” of a child who had crashed into a tree.

Howell said he doesn’t usually have to juggle so many serious cases at once. But the injuries were all too common. At least two patients with punctured lungs did not collapse on their own. They have been hit from behind by skiers or snowboarders who have gotten out of control. The impact broke their ribs and blew out their lungs.

“Personally, that’s my biggest fear when I ski,” said Howell, who has worked at the hospital for more than 20 years.

He doesn’t push himself too hard on the slopes now because he’s too afraid of falling, but getting hit — especially by someone out of control — haunts him and many other locals.

“There seem to be a lot more collisions than there were before. That’s what worries us all,” Howell said.

Diagnostic image of a broken wrist.

Dr. Kyle Howell shows a diagnostic image of a skier’s broken wrist that was secured with hardware.

Also playing a role in the severity of the injuries Howell treats is the rapid expansion of terrain parks equipped with massive ramps and giant half-pipes designed for the kind of soaring acrobatics you see at the Olympics.

Years ago, when kids built mini ramps on the side of the ski trail, ski patrollers would tear them down with shovels and threaten to confiscate the kids’ lift tickets.

These days, resorts are building huge slopes for their clients. They are a big draw and feature heavily in marketing materials. This hype tempts inexperienced people to go faster, bigger and higher, with predictable results.

“It is not uncommon for me to treat several patients on a given day who have experienced falls from 40 feet when they went beyond landing in big jumps,” Howell said. “These are just huge, massive falls, and they cause the types of injuries we’re used to only seeing in professional athletes.”

The technician performs a diagnostic examination on the affected ankle.

Mammoth Hospital technician Kylie Hansen performs a diagnostic exam on a skier’s injured ankle.

Social media delights in chaos and rewards people who depict it with seemingly endless attention. An Instagram account called Kookslams, which specializes in clips of surfers and skateboarders going hard and biting hard, has 2.4 million followers.

One video that went viral this month shows a skier launching off an impressive slope and rising so high that he crashes into a moving chairlift in midair. It’s both frustrating and funny, and everyone interviewed for this story seems to have seen it. It has been cited by many as a prime example of social media’s uncanny ability to document and inspire reckless behavior.

Another clip seen by almost all of my interviewees shows a 16-year-old girl falling 30 feet from a ski lift in Mammoth last month. It was filmed from multiple angles, and the clips received more than a million views on YouTube.

The suspense was part of the draw: The teen dangled for what seemed like an eternity as resort staff and volunteers scrambled to get to the bottom with a net. It looked like they had things under control until the girl let go of the ball and mostly missed the net, falling to the ground.

She survived but not without injury. What happened to her is not an isolated incident.

The number of emergency room visits for accidents involving ski lifts more than tripled — from 16 to 53 — between 2016 and 2022, according to state hospitalization data.

A skier wearing a helmet smiles after a fall.

A skier falls on the slopes at Mammoth Mountain.

On a recent Friday morning, Mammoth’s Broadway Lift, which serves mostly intermediate terrain just above the main lodge, was busy with locals taking a few last rides before the arrival of the weekend’s big crowds — and the chaos that comes with them.

All but one had an emergency room story to tell.

Rob Connor said he was beaten twice by skateboarders who hit him from behind. “I heard a voice, and the next thing I knew I saw stars,” he said the last time.

When he came to his senses, Connor said, he saw the skier who hit him waiting a little further down the hill, staring at him. He seemed to be making sure Connor wasn’t dead before speeding off without a word.

Another local skater admitted that he was the one who caused him to collide with an ice skater. He failed to look up the hill to make sure no one was coming before crossing where two paths intersected. He said that the collision resulted in a separated shoulder, while the snowboarder suffered a knee injury.

The only elevator companion who didn’t have an injury story to share, just before he got off at the top, revealed that his wife worked at the resort and he wouldn’t tell the reporter even if he had an accident.

“The mountain doesn’t like to talk about these things,” he said, laughing.

There is an orange sign on the ski slope warning users to slow down near the intersection.

Signs posted at Mammoth Mountain warn users to slow down near road intersections.

Skating and partying have always gone hand in hand; It is a sport that attracts fun lovers and thrill seekers. But before the pandemic, most debauchery was saved for afterward in the hot tub.

This seems to be changing. To adapt, DeMartin-Miller said she and her colleagues have a way to know if they’re about to get busy: They check webcams on mammothmountain.com To see if the outside bars are filling up while the elevators are still running.

Loud parties might be good for a fishing trip or golf outing, said Caitlin Cronk, chief nursing officer at Mammoth Hospital. But skiing is a sport that requires fine motor skills and reasonable inhibition. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to do that while drunk.

“You’re like a 30-mph weapon, pounding the hill with swords on your feet,” Cronk said. “This is just a recipe for disaster.”

Aside from broken legs just above the top of a ski or snowboard boot — known as “tib fibs” in emergency parlance — more serious, life-threatening injuries are also very common, she said.

People fall on ski poles and rupture their spleens. They accidentally drop phones in their pockets and tear out their livers. But what’s worse are the head injuries sustained by the number of skiers who refuse to wear helmets, but their number is still significant.

“That’s our big incentive, is requiring people to wear helmets,” Cronk said. “We can fix everything else. But if you hit your head, there’s not much we can do for you.”

Cronk said she was amazed by the number of complete beginners who went above and beyond in search of the perfect social media post. A classic mistake is taking a gondola to the 11,053-foot summit to take a selfie with the landmark marking the summit, only to discover that there is no easy way down. These people often end up spiraling out of control on steep expert paths.

“It’s just missiles over there,” Karnak said, disbelief clear in her voice.

An emergency nurse tends to an injured skier.

Corey Ferguson, an emergency nurse at Mammoth Hospital, right, cares for a skier with an ankle injury.

Like many Mammoth natives who grew up as avid skiers, Cronk said she mostly avoids the mountain now, especially on weekends. When she goes, it is to make sure no one molests her young son.

When Wirga, the Long Beach doctor, arrived at the emergency room after his accident, X-rays confirmed what he already suspected. He had suffered a serious fracture and dislocation of his shoulder. He underwent surgery and was warned to avoid strenuous exercise for a year.

He said that the child who caused the accident was cute and was clearly worried about him. He would hang around and ask over and over if Virga was okay. “I told him I understand (things) happen, but I’m definitely not feeling well,” Wirga said.

He seems to want reassurance that his reckless behavior has no consequences in the real world.

“I didn’t give him that,” Wirga said. “I didn’t give him that forgiveness.”

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