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Winter Guide 2005: Winter Ain't No Time for Sports

November 2, 2005, 12:00 am
By
Unless your idea of "fun" is two billion dollars worth of broken bones.


***image3***Winter is an all-or-nothing affair. It's the kind of season you love to hate or hate to admit to loving. Late October's inaugural snow flurries never fail to conjure memories of annual family trips to the latest winter-sport-resort. My own very bourgeois parents, who did not play golf or go to Europe or take Mexican vacations, stayed at lodges and snow skied every January. And every January their daughters-one younger, bright-eyed and adventurous, one wary, older and sullen-took a week off school and learned to ski.

The winter I finally dug in and refused to hit the slopes with all the other family bunnies, my entire clan was appalled. "What do you mean you're not going?" They gasped. "What did you come here for? Don't you like to ski? Don't you want to try snowboarding again? Does this mean you're not going snowmobiling tomorrow? What will you do instead?"

I shrugged. "Sit in the lodge and read?" At the time I was embarking on a long love affair with Dave Eggers, which ended only recently and very bitterly. Also on my mind was the previous winter's annual injury, a fractured right wrist on the first run of the first day-and the humiliating ride to the infirmary on that bright red emergency snow plow.

The first few years, there were lessons. Combine: one shaggy-haired twentysomething instructor who followed good powder the way hippies used to follow the Dead, a gaggle of awkward, puffy-suited adolescents from Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska and Louisiana. Stomping around at the foot of the bunny slope, the slow and arduous collective migration to the top of the hill. Straining against unwieldy equipment all the way downhill.

***image1***Later on, it was a solo affair: 20 minutes negotiating 20 or so pounds of still cumbersome equipment through a long line with scores of other awkward people negotiating their own equipment, the sweep of the lift chair around the corner, the two-second panic: "Oh shit, it's going to knock me over," the chair thwacking into the backs of the knees. Then a half-hour ride up the mountain, dangling over an abyss, boring conversation with your chair neighbor. Huddled into a turtleneck and dreading the touchdown all the way to the top.

The tiresome ride up the slope was always followed by an exhilarating careen downhill, true, but three minutes of extreme speed simply does not make up for 40 minutes of tedium in its pursuit. Not to mention the numerous and mind-boggling interim pitfalls. Or those freezing extremities, for which there are a multitude of witch doctor cures. Little baggies that heat up to just below body temperature when you break them open? Slip them into your mittens! Curl your brittle, frostbitten fingers around the suggestion of warmth! Cotton socks absorb the sweat from your feet, then promptly freeze. Wool socks repel water-but toes marinating in cold sweat distract the mortal skier from breathtaking mountain vistas. Try taking off pounds of new-fangled water-repellent synthetic clothing in a narrow bathroom stall! Arrive home chilled to the bone only to discover one's face and neck covered in second degree burns from the relentless sun reflected up off the snow. Wake up the next morning aching and cranky and do it all over again!

Consider, before you buy your next lift ticket, the excessive cost of winter sports injury: this year, more than 270,000 winter injuries are
projected to be reported. After health care, insurance claims and legal bouts, the cost of snowtime fun gone awry will peak at $2 billion.

***image2***Per 1,000 days of skiing, there are 7.9 injuries to the average female skier and 4.9 injuries to the average male. Factor in experience level and vulnerability of knees and ankles, and you're looking at one battered little snow bunny. Last weekend I reclined around a campfire and bore witness to increasingly gory, horrific tales of injury on the slopes. Comrades recounted sprains, ACL tears, compound fractures, head trauma and dozens of bones broken in the name of winter fun. It doesn't stop at skiing either: In a bizarre portent of my future loathing of vigorous winter activity, I ran over a rock on my first sledding excursion and broke my tailbone.

The risks associated with winter "fun" can run the gamut from humiliating to lethal. Michael Kennedy and US Rep. Sonny Bono: two of the finer pop culture icons of our age, both winter sports enthusiasts, both felled in their prime while recreating on ski slopes. The dubious German music star Falco also ate it on the slopes, I believe. One careless moment on a vacation can result in months of excruciating pain and humiliation, or the loss of precious life. The University of Michigan's annual Winter Sports Report lists potential risks for each winter sport: For downhill skiing, sprains, breaks and ligament tears are the rule; for snowboarding, don't even think about catching some air or you risk concussion; snowshoeing and cross-country skiing put your arms, legs and sundry extremities in peril; common sledding injuries occur around the face and mouth; and snowmobiling? You may as well make like a New Mexico politician and drive around drunk.

Yes, if you don't freeze or fry or crack your skull open on an errant rock, winter sports might be a thrilling way to pass time. But so is drag racing, which is illegal. Consider, before you resort to recreating in ugly synthetic clothing and with burdensome equipment, your alternatives: My friend Mike used to wrap his leg up in plaster of Paris pilfered from his doctor-father's clinic before his parents took him skiing. He found this the best way to sit in the lodge, unmolested, sipping hot coffee and scoping cute girls. Mike has the winning formula for a truly lovely, luxurious and safe winter vacation.

 

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