safer than you think, but the accidents get plenty of
By Kate Clark
April 23, 2009 | A chilling spring breeze brushes
Jeff Smith's face as he speeds down the mountain on
his metallic orange skis. The sun is out, casting a
piercing glow off the pure white that drapes Heavenly
Valley ski resort at Lake Tahoe. Hours later, Smith
lies covered in blood on an uninviting Reno hospital
bed; 20 staples line the back of his skull and a piece
of his scalp is missing.
Every year as the first snowflakes begin to fall,
people rummage through their closets to recover their
dusty skis, boots and gear in preparation for the snow
season. During the winter months we hear of enough skiing
accidents and avalanches to convince any non-skier to
never hit the slopes.
As of 2004, skiing and snowboarding cause an average
of 42 serious injuries each year and 38 deaths, according
to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). Far fewer
than the 2,900 people who drown on average yearly or
the 900 people who die bicycling.
Smith was seriously injured while skiing, but he considers
On March 12, Smith left for a three-day trip to Reno,
Nev., with four friends to spend the weekend skiing
and watching the Aggies play in the WAC tournament.
They decided to ski during the day and watch the tournament
in the evenings.
On their last run before heading back to Logan, Smith
was skiing alongside one of his friends, when out of
the corner of his eye, he saw his friend veer toward
him. Out of instinct, Smith swerved to get out of the
way but was sent spinning out of control in the direction
of a nearby tree. Smith collided with the tree and he
was knocked unconscious. His body buried into the tree
well forcing ski patrolmen to cut his poles in order
to get him out. If his head had been three inches to
the left his brain stem would have been crushed by the
"It happens quickly. You can say that it's never going
to happen to you, but there's no time to change anything,"
said Smith. "Before I knew it, it was done. I was in
Smith was taken to the hospital where several tests
were performed to determine if there had been any brain
damage or internal bleeding. Five hours after he was
life-flighted to the hospital, Smith walked out on his
own, departing with only exterior head injuries and
a very sore body.
"I was blessed. For whatever reason it just wasn't
Smith, who participates in many extreme sports such
as wakeboarding and motorcycling, enjoys the risk of
fast speeds and the possibility of injury.
"I'm an adrenaline junky," said Smith, who is about
to turn 48. "I've never been that worried about getting
hurt because it always happens to the other guy."
On March 17, actress Natasha Richardson fell during
a skiing lesson on a beginner's run near Quebec, Canada,
just days after Smith's accident. The actress, who wasn't
wearing a helmet, complained of a headache and was quickly
flown to Lenox Hill hospital in New York. Her brain
was so badly damaged she had to be taken off life support.
It is a common misconception that most accidents happen
in snowy weather and on difficult runs at high speeds.
The opposite, in fact, is true. More people tend to
crash when it is sunny and on easier runs because the
risk factors appear lower.
However, the number of people wearing helmets on the
slopes is rising. Nearly 40 percent to 60 percent of
head injuries are avoided by wearing a helmet, the NSAA
"In my generation we wore a ball-cap and sunglasses,"
said Smith. "My three youngest kids that snowboard
wear helmets, but now my wife and I are going to wear
them too. I would have probably walked away with just
a sore body if I had one on the day of my accident."
"In some ways skiing is becoming a lot safer than
other sports," said Troy Oldham, who has been a ski
patrolman at Beaver Mountain since 2002. "New equipment
is providing better bindings, higher boots, and skis
are being constructed to carve and turn easier."
Every sport contains a fair amount of risk. In football,
you could land awkwardly while diving for the ball.
The risks are similar for soccer, basketball or any
other sport that involves speed and intensity. For skiing,
weather and visibility are huge factors. It comes down
to using the right equipment and realizing that you
could get hurt.
"I wouldn't say this has happened to me for a reason
but you get to look at life from a whole new perspective,"
said Smith of his accident. The things that mattered
a lot, or that I thought mattered a lot, have shifted
Smith doesn't regret his misfortune. His new laid-back
demeanor helps him to enjoy the simple things in life
and to spend more time with his family.
"Everybody should have the chance to realize that
not even all of today is guaranteed. You have this moment."