Cover Image: All helmeted up with nowhere to go.
Before you say anything, yes, I know, the horse is already dead. Or, quite close, at the very least. The moment it flinches another thread appears on Newschoolers titled with the question, should you wear a helmet???? And the horse sighs, desperately wishing the flogging would just end. Yet, here I am, trodding back up the trail, in search of both conclusive answers about ski helmets and a poor horse that won’t quit.
Pinpointing the first historical usage of the ski helmet is a little tricky, although it’s catalyst is clear. While skiing’s existed for hundreds if not thousands of years, the renewed intensity of ski racing beginning in the early 1900s created a sporting environment with ever-increasing risk. The advent of metal edges, plastic-derivative bases, and longer skis drove land-speeds higher, and, in 1938, the ski racing world experienced one of the first high profile on course deaths with Italian athlete Giacinto Sertorelli.
Sertorelli’s death instigated change. Once helmetless racers donned various forms of leather helmets, which remained the standard for many years. Their successors, hardshell helmets, only became widespread after another downhiller lost their life, John Semmelink, who crashed in 1959 at Garmisch. The Olympic committee took note and made hardshell helmets mandatory for racing events at the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley.
The consumer market took several years to catch up, eventually spurred by new innovations led by a prominent bike helmet manufacturer founded in 1985 in California, Giro. This company, among others, pushed by new bike racing regulations, developed a slew of lightweight helmets whose designs were adapted to the skiing market. Even still, it took years of pressure, safety campaigns, and unnecessary deaths for ski helmets to reach their current status of cultural ubiquity. In 2005 (nearly 90 years after the death of Giacinto Sertorelli), roughly 9% of non-professional skiers used helmets, whereas today the number hovers around 70% to 80%. While the percentage of use in 2005 might seem shockingly low, it’s worth noting that the average skier doesn’t typically spend their day speeding 90 miles per hour down an icy race course. The racing community adapted quicker than the rest of us because they had to.
As you can probably guess, the glut of research demonstrates that ski helmets appear effective at reducing risk on the slopes. A research article titled Injuries of the Head, Face, and Neck in Relation to Ski Helmet Use published in 2008 by the journal Epidemiology found that “helmets may provide some protection from head injury among skiers and snowboards involved in falls in collisions”. While the tentative statement made by these researchers illustrates that our understanding of helmet efficacy may have been in its nascent phase in 2008, more concrete evidence has emerged since. In 2011, the jury no longer seemed to be out, as exemplified by an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) titled Helmets for skiers and snowboarders: Are protective, so better education and public awareness are now needed. This article treated the fact that helmet use translates to reduced head-injury risk as ubiquitous, and instead chose to emphasize the importance of helmet usage awareness campaigns.
However, an article published in 2018 by the UK news outlet The Telegraph, called these assumptions into question. The article cited a study done between 2011 and 2012, whose research found that while helmets do reduce risk of injury, they don’t necessarily reduce the greatest risk factor of all: concussions. This inference was explained by the assumption that helmet testing protocols were not rigorous enough to simulate the speeds associated with ski crashes.
Similarly, others have raised the issue of risk compensation. The concept of risk compensation can be best explained the following way: When I was younger I was watching a ski movie, I can’t remember which it was, although I’m pretty sure it was MSP. At some point the camera pans towards one of the riders (who I’m relatively certain was Rory Bushfield) who then stated something along these lines, “you know, I think wearing a helmet gives me a false sense of confidence, I'll pretty much hit anything wearing a helmet”. The following segment involved exactly what you’d expect, the rider in question hitting enormous anything’s, sometimes unsuccessfully. Risk compensation, therefore, refers to one's propensity to take greater risks while wearing a ski helmet, perhaps negating the initial advantages of the helmet.
Both of these helmet-safety caveats have been addressed to a degree.
A study (seperate from the initial article I noted) by the BMJ debunked the issue of risk-compensation. Their findings illustrated that while higher-level/aggressive skiers were more likely to wear a helmet, helmet’s themselves didn’t seem to encourage excessive risk taking behavior. And, regardless of helmet’s effectiveness related to concussion risk, all of the research I dug up urged skiers to always wear a helmet, as the data shows their successes in preventing a slew of head and neck injuries.
And the issue of concussion risk, while not fully put to rest, is being targeted by the proliferation of MIPs technology (Multi-directional Impact System) and others. MIPs is the brainchild of Swedish researcher and mechanical engineer Peter Halldin. Halldin and his colleagues' research spawned the MIPs system, which employs a rotational plate implanted in the helmet liner designed to redirect rotational force away from the head in the case of impact. MIPs technology has reached a similar licensure status as outerwear tech mainstay Gore-tex, meaning that just about anywhere you look, from Sweet Protection to Giro, you’re bound to catch it’s yellow logo emblazoned on the exterior of a helmet.
While an article on Peloton’s website, a bike magazine, suggested that fear of litigation (legal action) prevented MIPs and the companies who use their technology from outright stating that the system was the ‘safest’, independent research from the Annals of Biomedical Engineering offered some promising findings. Their tests found that a helmet equipped with a MIPs slip liner considerably outperformed it’s control counterpart in concussion reduction ratings. In addition, researchers from Virginia Tech place a slew of MIPs helmets at the top of their Summation of Tests for Analysis of Risk (Star) scores.
WaveCel, whose helmets were also tested in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering run, is MIPs primary competitor in slip-plate tech. In the testing process their technology performed similarly to that of MIPs, and, in some instances (like rear impacts), outperformed MIPs. They, like MIPs, also hold some of the coveted top spots on Virginia Tech’s STAR list. The popular helmet brand Anon recently adopted their technology for usage in a line of new helmets.
The debate between MIPs and WaveCel remains convoluted. Recently, MIPs dropped a press-release stating that they were “unable to replicate new Wavecel helmet technology performance claims” in a lab setting, effectively treating WaveCel to a corporate call-out. Thankfully, the jostling of brands doesn’t necessarily impact the recreational skier negatively. Both MIPs and WaveCel display a leap forward in concussion prevention tech as verified by independent researchers, and their differences appear more political than concrete.
My discoveries, while slightly more complicated than I initially guessed they would be, raise another question: given the sheer number of great options on the market, why wouldn’t you wear a helmet?
Somewhere in the middle of the climbing movie Meru Jimmy Chin and his partners are discussing risk and its relationship with climbing success. They all agree that the acceptance of risk is a critical component of climbing, and that climbers who can gauge their personal amount of risk acceptance most accurately are the likeliest to both bag a new peak and come home to tell the story. Everyday we all make risk calculations. While driving may be one of the riskier acts that the average person partakes in, we still opt to do it out of convenience. And, while getting to a 9-5 on time or the grocery store to grab Pop Tarts before it closes may be less exciting than grabbing a first ascent on Meru, I’d consider choosing to drive despite the degree of inherent danger another case of both successful and necessary risk management.
Skiing’s similar. Most days I wear a helmet. Some days, though, if I’m just planning on lapping groomers or shooting photos, I'll leave my helmet in the car. Why? I couldn’t really tell you. Maybe I think it looks cooler, or I think it’ll feel better (which is an issue I run into, given my large and misshapen head). But, regardless of my decision that day, I take comfort in knowing the numbers and my own skill level, because sometimes feeling the wind tousling your helmetless hair is worth a little roll of the dice.