As friends, family and fans of freestyle skier Sarah Burke mourn the athlete's death from a recent superpipe accident, the tragedy has drawn attention to the dangers of a daredevil sport. Burke's death, which followed a routine 540-degree flat spin and what started out as an innocuous landing, has also raised new questions about what might make high-flying snow sports safer.
Rules already require airbags on pipes to protect skiers and snowboarders during training. And athletes must wear helmets. But is that enough? Could better equipment prevent gravity-defying athletes from succumbing to concussions, traumatic brain injuries and worse?
Probably not, experts say. Studies suggest that helmets, boots, bindings and other gear do their part to lessen the risk of certain injuries. But every mechanical device has limitations.
Many products, such as wrist guards for snowboarders, fail to actually provide any benefit at all and can even make the situation worse.
And even as companies continue to release new protective gear, the rate of fatalities in snow sports hasn't budged since researchers started tracking the numbers 40 years ago. Our bodies just weren't designed to withstand hard impacts at super-fast speeds and upside-down falls from crazy heights, said Jasper Shealy, an ergonomist and ski injury researcher, now retired from the Rochester Institute of Technology. For certain kinds of collisions, it doesn't matter what kind of protection you wear.
"The landing gear called our legs are really marvelous and they work really well," Shealy said. "On the other hand, landing on your head is not a normal way to land, and we are not well designed to withstand that kind of impact. Landing on the back of the head or the top of the shoulders such that the athlete's feet are literally up over his head and he gets bent like a jackknife, you get horrendous injuries."
"No helmet can protect the spinal cord," he added. "No helmet can protect against rotational injuries similar to whiplash."
Each year, ski resorts get a total of more than 60 million visits, with the average skier hitting the slopes eight to 10 times in a season. Most runs end well. But between 35 and 40 people die every year from accidents while snowboarding and skiing, Shealy said, a tally that does not include events like heart attacks, avalanches or falls out of ski lifts.
That averages to a rate of 0.7 trauma-related deaths for every million ski-resort visits. And even though helmet-wearing has become more standard and protective gear has come a long way, the fatality rate hasn't dropped since scientists started tracking in the early 1970s. Instead, there has simply been a shift in the cause of skier deaths.
For skiers who aren't wearing helmets, head injuries are the cause of death more than 75 percent of the time, Shealy's research shows. When helmets are worn, deaths are most often due to trauma to the torso as a result of a direct, high-speed impact, often with trees, rocks, or other skiers, though nearly half of deaths among helmet-wearers are also the result of head injuries.
"If you strike something at over 20 to 25 miles per hour, you might be able to protect your head," Shealy said. "But you're not going to be able to protect your body."
For most recreational skiers and snowboarders, death is less of a concern than knee and leg injuries, said Carl Ettlinger, a mechanical engineer and founder of Vermont Ski Safety, an equipment and research company in Underhill Center.
After 40 seasons of tracking ski injury data at Vermont's Sugarbush resort, Ettlinger and University of Vermont orthopedic surgeon Robert Johnson have found, among other results, that improvements in boots and bindings led to a nearly 90-percent drop in below-the-knee injuries in the 70s and 80s.
Today, knee injuries -- particularly to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) -- make up as many as 20 percent of injuries in snow sports, with more than 20,000 skiers succumbing to knee sprains in the United States each year. The ACL is especially vulnerable because of the way the back of a ski acts as an unnatural lever, adding stress to the knee that our muscles and tendons weren't developed to handle.
For 20 years, Ettlinger has been working on devices that would detect ACL-threatening situations and cause bindings to release before injuries happen. But for now, learning to recognize when their knees are at risk can make a big impact in reducing injuries for skiers. With training, according to Ettlinger's research, ski patrollers at 42 ski areas succumbed to 62 percent fewer ACL tears.
Learning how to fall can also help.
"Imagine the posture of a parachutist just before landing," explains an advice page on the Vermont Ski Safety website. "Keep every joint in your body flexed moderately. Keep legs together. Keep your chin against your chest. Keep arms up and forward. Be prepared to use your arms to protect your head. After the fall, if you don't stop immediately, get into a position that allows you to see where you are going. If you attempt to stop yourself by engaging your skis, resist the instinct to fully straighten your legs."
As for protecting the head and neck, helmets work by diffusing the energy of a collision through the hard outer shell and decelerating impact by absorbing energy through the inner lining. And overall, helmets do a good job at protecting against minor head bonks, with research suggesting that they may prevent between 35 and 50 percent of above-the-neck injuries. Many public health organizations recommend helmets for skiers and snowboarders, especially for young ones.
But even with a helmet on, a direct hit at high speeds can sever the spinal cord. Whipping of the head and neck, likewise, can lead to rotation of the brain inside the skull -- a potentially fatal injury that, Shealy said, may have been what ultimately killed actress Natasha Richardson.
To add even more protective power to helmets, Shealy said, some researchers are working on adding slippery surfaces to the outer shell, which might reduce head rotation. Others are looking into new kinds of foam that would crumble or break upon impact, absorbing energy instead of transmitting it to the brain. Thicker helmets offer more protection, but an inch seems to be the limit of comfort for most people. Any bigger than that, and a helmet can hinder movement.
Helmets can also be a liability if they give skiers a false sense of security. Ask yourself if you would put yourself in a given situation if you were not wearing a helmet, Ettlinger advised. If the answer is no, don't do it with a helmet on either.
The official cause of Burke's death was a severed artery in her neck and subsequent cardiac arrest that that stopped blood flow to her brain, causing irreversible damage. But since Burke fell on flat ground, from a bounce onto her head after landing on her feet during a routine trick, chances are that a better helmet or body padding wouldn't have made much difference.
In an interview with the National Post, Peter Judge, CEO of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association, said Burke's accident was a "fluke more than anything else."
Burke simply accepted the dangers of her sport and, unfortunately, drew a bad straw. There was likely no equipment currently in use for skiing that could have saved her.
"This is a sport that has risk," Shealy said. "You can't be going that fast and expect to always not get hurt when you fall."