Advice from Dr Tim Hammond, Chief Medical Officer for CEGA.
It’s not just skiing that may be enticing you to the slopes. There’s also snowboarding, snowshoeing, sledging, paragliding, ice-skating and ski jeering … the list goes on. And with this greater choice comes greater risk. Here are ten tips to help keep you and your family safe…
Get insured for a range of activities
The idea of paragliding may not appeal to you right now, but when you get close to the action you might change your mind. Find out about all the activities on offer at the resort you’re going to and take out a winter sports travel insurance policy that includes anything you or a family member may want to try – before you set off. “Remember that the European Health Insurance Card won’t cover your costs if you have an accident and need an emergency repatriation back to the UK from another European country,” says Dr Hammond. “It will only pay for basic state healthcare.”
Acclimatise to the altitude
Oxygen levels in high altitude resorts (such as those in North America) are much lower than the norm. This can cause altitude sickness, and, with it, nausea, confusion, headaches and shortness of breath. It can also affect concentration and reaction times. Symptoms will be worse at the top of a mountain and, if you’re taking a trip to the bar at the summit, bear in mind that alcohol won’t help. “Most people will acclimatise to high altitudes within a couple of days, and you can reduce the risks by drinking plenty of water, resting on your first day at a high altitude resort and even staying at a slightly lower altitude for a day or two on the way up,” says Dr Hammond. “Children and those with respiratory illnesses and impaired lung function will be worst hit.”
Get to the top safely
Falls from button lifts are common and you could find yourself off-piste and injured after slipping off. Getting onto a chair or ski lift, especially with a snowboard in hand, can also be tricky. Don’t be worried about asking an operator to slow lifts down for you (or your children), or for advice about how to get on safely. Always pull the bar down on chair lifts and make sure that loose scarves, clothing or backpack straps are well secured.
Stay on the official routes
Whatever you’re doing on the slopes - stick to the official routes. If you venture off-piste (even walking), always go with a guide, as trails may be difficult to follow - and check that your insurance covers you. “Without a guide, you’re more likely to invalidate your insurance, get lost and have an accident,” says Dr Hammond. “It’s also important to stay on the slopes that match your ability. If you find yourself out of your comfort zone, take off your skis or snowboard or get off your sledge and sidestep down the edge of the slope.”
Stick with other people
Unless you’re in the busy heart of a resort, it’s wise not to set out alone on the slopes. Even if you have a mobile phone, you may not be able to call for help in an emergency. You need to exercise the same caution at night – even in the middle of a resort. “If you’ve been out clubbing and have had a few drinks, don’t set off back to your accommodation on your own,” says Dr Hammond. “Alcohol can make you disoriented and increase your chances of getting lost - and, with dramatically reduced temperatures at night, mountain resorts are not safe places in which to be lost.”
Reduce the risk of injuries
The faster you go down a mountain, the more likely you are to have a collision and a serious injury. Ski or snowboard within your capabilities and wear a helmet to protect your head. Knee and shoulder injuries come top of the list of ski accidents, whilst wrist injuries are common for snowboarders. Maintaining a healthy weight and getting fit before setting off on a winter sports holiday may help to reduce risks.
Dress for a variety of activities
Clothing is especially important if you’re mixing sporting activities with sedentary spells such as sitting on a chairlift, in a paragliding harness, or outside a mountain restaurant. And, whilst the sun may be shining, you’ll need to think about wind-chill. “Layered clothing and zipped jackets will make it easy to quickly increase or decrease warmth and to adapt to your changing environments,” says Dr Hammond. “It’s also worth carrying a small backpack to store unwanted layers.”
Watch out for frostbite
Extreme cold and wind can cause frostbite – and so can touching frozen metal with bare skin. Keep all your extremities covered and exposed skin away from frozen metal. If your fingers, toes or ears start to feel numb, come off the slopes as quickly as possible to warm up. Don’t apply anything too hot to numb skin as you may inadvertently burn yourself. “Damage from frostbite can be irreversible and can strike within minutes if you’re stuck at the top of a mountain in harsh conditions,” says Dr Hammond.
Be prepared for sudden changes in weather
If the weather suddenly changes, you may find yourself in a “white-out” on the slopes, which will make it very difficult to see the piste markers and easy to get lost within moments. Stay close to other people and keep the person in front in good visual range until you reach the bottom of the mountain. Be wary of mountain winds – they can be hard to stand up against, and dangerous if you’re near the edge. In extreme cases, you’ll need to recognise the symptoms of hypothermia, which can include excessive shivering, weakness and exhaustion, as well as slurred speech and mental uncertainty. These are all signs that you need to seek help. Finding shelter from the wind under a tree, replacing wet clothing with dry and increasing your layers will all warm you up while you’re waiting for help to arrive.
“The scenery may be beautiful, but people often forget that the mountains are a hostile environment and that conditions can change within minutes – to the extent that you may not be able to see more than a few feet in front of yourself,” says Dr Hammond.
Stay off the alcohol
Drinking alcohol before setting off on the slopes can reduce your core body temperature, adversely affect your decision-making capabilities and even invalidate your insurance if you have an accident. It will also cause dehydration – made worse by exertion. Après-ski is the most sensible time to indulge.
“A couple of vins chauds at lunchtime may feel harmless, but they can dramatically impair your co-ordination, boost your bravado and make an accident more likely,” says Dr Hammond.