Don’t Mention The S Word. Our Moral Obligation

May 12, 2014 No Comments by
Bansko medical

Door to Bansko medical centre

The ski season is well and truly over. And I’ve been spending time thinking about the “S” word.

Yes, you thought right.

I’m talking about safety.

Visiting skiers and boarders in the emergency clinic at the Bansko gondola lift over the years made me reappraise my attitude to ski and snowboard safety. And what it means to all of us.

I felt a little uneducated on the matter. So I went on an investigation of the psychology of why we have incidents, how we can avoid them and how different cultures view risk.

So read on for my research which includes some top tips on helping to ensure that both I and you won’t become a “customer” of ski emergency services.


The moral obligation

I have always been a fairly fast skier and this season I took some time to reflect on what I see both on and off the slopes and what I read about safety.

But I’m not here to preach on safety.

My discussion is on the psychology of what makes us take risks. Risks that we are, in one way or another, not equipped to make. I’m searching on how to look for those signs. I am also reflecting if safety = fun. And our attitude to sport versus safety.

OK, I do not profess to be an expert in this topic. In fact I welcome comment here as I want to remain accident free in my ski career, of some 44 years now. My only qualification is observation, internet research and having gone to the assistance of a fair few people over the years.

One in particular incident was in March 2013 when I helped out my sister in law, Sue, who had suffered a badly injured shoulder when another skier collided into her.

It took over 12 months for a her shoulder to stop being an issue. So, like most of us, we have witnessed the huge inconvenience of recovery to breaks, twists, sprains, bruising etc. Sometimes the effects of theses incidents are with the injured for the rest of their lives. And this is from a sport that, in spite of much safer equipment than we had 40 years ago, still suffers similar accident rates as then.

Some of what I apply to my safety psychology comes from watching others both in skiing and in observing debates in other sports — most notably in paragliding.

The most important reason to think about safety is because it affects our loved ones. Last season there were 700 hospital rides in an ambulance to a hospital. An average weekend day will see in a ski resort, like Bansko — around 25+ injuries being attended to. These are not usually the ones severe enough to warrant an immediate ambulance ride. They exclude ones that never make the medical centre. There were are around 700 (unofficial guesstimate) ambulance rides to hospitals (Sofia/Razlog).

The consequences are really significant.

Not just for those individuals, but for their loved ones who will no doubt be spending hundreds of hours nursing these injured husbands, wives, sons and daughters back to health. The economic impact, such as time off work, is secondary but should be considered too. I believe we have a moral imperative to not ski/ride/mtb in a way that endangers ourselves or others.


Peer pressure

Skiing and snowboarding is something we do individually, but it’s usually in a group of differencing skills and experience. How often I have heard how someone want to “keep up” or to “get down a black” as a badge of honour.

So my number one risk factor is peer pressure and our ego that makes us push the limits in an unsafe way.

Another sport I enjoy is paragliding. Here safety, like everything in aviation, is the number one priority. After over 18 months out of the flying scene, due to non sporting related shoulder impingement problem in 2013, I spent many hours reading and listening to causes of accidents in the hope that I am preparing myself for both a flying and ski season that are incident free.

It was this time that inspired me to write this blog post. In fact, I doubt anyone who has lived has not felt peer pressure and pushed a little too far too fast.

So there I was, making the 25 minute walk to take off  point on Vitosha mountain in Sofia. I decided to take my gear up there after I had seen some people flying there in, what appeared to be from the city, in calm conditions.

I arrived to see one pilot, Ivan. All alone and getting frustrated in his attempts to take off. After my witnessing his first aborted attempt, I introduced myself. Feeling his stress and knowing that he was keen to follow his friend down, I said “Don’t worry I will not be flying with, what is now, a tail wind. It’s not worth the risk. There’s always another day”

The wind had turned 180 degrees (evening katabatic breeze) and was only very light when his more experienced friend had successfully taken off and flown down safely.

Ivan agreed with me that the wind “from behind” has strengthened. He thought better of it and he packed his wing up in its bag. I suspect that he was happy to have a saved ego and walk back down with me to the car. This walk whilst chatting philosophically about the beauty of Vitosha mountain, turned out to be rather pleasant.

We discussed the topic of risk and decision making. He realised was about to commit to something that could have caused injury. Silently I reminisced of occasions I too had done stuff skiing or on a mountain bike that was due to a testosterone fed ego, rather than rational thinking. The power of that moment struck home to me.

So I place peer pressure and not always wanting, or even able, to take responsibility of our own decisions as a key factor in determining safety levels.


Risk homeostasis

My research lead me to look at risk homeostasis. This is a fancy word for risk compensation (see link to wikipedia: risk compensation) when balancing risky behaviour vs safe behaviour:

  • Expected benefits of risky behaviour (e.g., gaining time by speeding, fighting boredom, increasing mobility)
  • Expected costs of risky behaviour (e.g., speeding tickets, car repairs, insurance surcharges)
  • Expected benefits of safe behaviour (e.g., insurance discounts for accident-free periods, enhancement of reputation of responsibility)
  • Expected costs of safe behaviour (e.g., using an uncomfortable seat belt, being called a coward by one’s peers, time loss)

This theory is especially interesting in light of the high profile incident and head injury of Michael Schumacher.

Do we up the risk level when improvements to safety improve?

More from wikipedia..

“… Recent studies indicate that skiers wearing helmets go faster on average than non-helmeted skiers, and that overall risk index is higher in helmeted skiers than non-helmeted skiers.Moreover, while helmets may help prevent minor head injuries, increased usage of helmets has not reduced the overall fatality rate.

Other recent studies have concluded that helmet use is not associated with riskier behaviour among skiers and snowboarders, and that helmet usage reduces the risk and severity of head injuries.”

Putting my helmet evangelism aside, my experience is that protection from small injury from branches, when going through trees as well as a warm head make it no sacrifice at all.

As for hard impacts, then I think helmets still fall way short of protection from very high impacts at speed — and probably will for many more years.

TIP: new helmet technology is on its way… so I’ll take a look at the new helmets soon.

As for helmet use in mountain biking, I believe that the risk compensation theory applies here and evidence suggest that injuries outstrip the growth in the sport. I have a cut on my face from an mtb fall that I am sure I would never have had if I had not been wearing a helmet. The helmet gave me too much a sense of protection. (a full face would have saved me though).

Whilst I believe that wearing a helmet is a given, it does not prevent most of the trips to the medical centre. Other protection equipment for back and wrists seem sensible but again is avoiding rather than protecting that is where it’s at.

I reflect that maybe it was risk compensation that caused a snowboarding friend to be on the receiving end of minor injuries whilst boarding. All the more surprising given him wearing more protection than I knew existed in the market.


Stuff happens. Check list theory.

Herein lies a problem.

It’s one thing reading all the things we should do to minimise safety, but another for us to have the head space to actually apply them when we’re thinking about other stuff. I know too well the excitement on arriving at the top of a mountain with friends and the prospect of fresh tracks in powder. Then the glorious sight of snow sparkling in the morning sunshine.

We are not always in the frame of mind and caution can easily be thrown to the wind. But it’s times like these that incidents happen.

The commercial aviation industry realised this a long time ago. They learnt that check lists were the key to improving safety. Leaving it to pilot memory “guess work” that wings have been deiced, flaps are down, ATC clearance and so on would now be considered criminal.

Lists allow us to take correct actions in avoiding a trip to a medical centre. I’m not joking… I was in the medical centre and there was a young guy and his friend there. He had a nasty cut on his hands. He had forgotten their gloves and cut his hands on the sharp edges of his skis. I’ve seen nasty sunburn due to forgotten sunscreen. Plenty of slipping on ice due forgotten decent walking shoes / boots. And alcohol compounds these apres ski dangers.

Parents and young children are well advised to use lists to ensure a smooth holiday. Something like… Lift pass (well no reason it should ever leave ski jacket), goggles, helmet, cream, money, phone. The idea here is to eliminate chance and have a process that works.



This crops up again and again as a cause of injury. Often known as the one more run syndrome.

I’ve skied and snowboarded when not really fit enough. Often at the very start of the season. The result is that legs feel like jelly… I tire quickly. Day one, I push it. Day two, I may push on and the adrenaline keeps me going for day 3.

But day 3 is statistically (if US statistics are to be believed) the time we hurt ourselves the most on our ski holiday.

And it’s statistically most likely to happen around 3pm. We are getting confident after two days getting back into it — but we’re more tired than we admit, and that is the time we are at most risk of injury.

Combine tiredness with peer pressure and the risks increase further.


Learning curve

Like all sports, we progress at different rates. Sometimes it’s easy to not understand that progress takes both time and practice. Comparing ourselves with others is a losing game.

It’s not worth getting competitive… especially where remaining injury free is concerned.

Best to realise this and not look upon envy at the “pros.” is not easy. My tip is to embrace the learning curve.

Taking lessons is something that helped me hugely back in 2009 when I started out having a Bansko season and blogging here.

Accelerate the learning makes us safer to ourself and others. I recommend a private lessons or two for regular skiers to hone those skills. I’ve never met anyone who has regretted this investment.


Understanding cultural differences

Any regular visitors to Bulgaria, who are from Northern Europe, will be alarmed at the risks taken by many road users when driving on the roads here. A topic in it’s own right; but the official statistics (on the British foreign and commonwealth web site for Bulgaria) say that road accidents are 350% higher than in the UK. Stats are adjusted for number of road users.

This awful statistic manifests itself in loads of unreported bumps and scrapes. Shockingly, most drivers who have insurance for damage have a claim rate per year of 100%.

The high insurance premiums reflect this. The cause may include a number of things such as driver training — but most of all it’s because there is no financial discrimination for high accident claim rates.

But the real issue is deeper than that. I think there is different perception of what risky driving is and the over confidence ,and ego, that causes so many road incidents.

NOTE: I use the word incident and not accident… as like most ski “accidents” the cause was an avoidable incident. Accident implies an unlucky and random event.

So without offending the many nationalities that  come to Bansko… I will leave it by saying that some nations have different attitudes to health and safety and the perception of risk. These attitudes may endanger themselves, and others, both on the piste as well as on the road.

If skiers/boarders are simply out of control, it may be because they have decided on a self taught and tips from friends route.  Most ski resorts, like Bansko, have suitable slopes to safely improve skills but the temptation to venture prematurely onto less suitable slopes proves overwhelming when there’s no one there is assess that you are safe to do so.

Going back to my sister in law… the person who collided with her did stop and see how she was. Then admitted he was out of control… and had not taken lessons.


Tips for staying safe on a ski trip

  • Observe signs, they are there for a good reason.
  • When on a merging piste, look uphill.
  • When over taking it’s your responsibility to keep clear. We don’t have eyes in the back of our heads.
  • Stop at the sides of the piste — where you can be easily seen. Not in the middle of the piste.
  • Remain visible for those coming down from above you .
  • Stop skiing when tired or cold.
  • Don’t borrow equipment that has not been professionally fitted for your weight.
  • Don’t lie about your weight when having ski fitted.
  • Don’t use equipment that has not been properly serviced.
  • Don’t attempt to use equipment that’s not not suited for your ability.
  • Keep your phone inside your pocket warm to preserve battery life in case if need in an emergency.
  • Remember sunscreen and prepare for weather changing quickly.
  • Caution when showing off for GoPro, video and camera shots.
  • Trying to beat your personal speed record using the Bansko App (guilty as charged, m’lord!).

This short list excludes tips for back country as these have their own extra security imperatives (gps, airbag, transponder, shovel etc) But would add that, whatever our experience, we clearly need to be more careful.

It’s not cool (well maybe if you’re a teenager it may be) having a plaster cast encasing your limb. .

As for risks when driving in Bulgaria, all Bansko Blog transfer drivers are monitored for speeding. A zero tolerance attitude to speeding is taken.

My same philosophy applies to other activities in Bansko, and elsewhere, such as MTB guiding, hiking, horse riding, rafting as well as general tours. I have to be sure that the attitude to safety is the correct one;  that no corners are cut in the pursuit of commercial interest.

If you’re looking to improve your skills, then limited private lessons spaces are available in peak periods — last season we turned away many people in February and New Year period.

So please book early to avoid disappointment.


Your comments

What are you views on ski safety? Have you ever been injured snowboarding or skiing? Please comment below or on

Please share this article if you found it useful.

To be notified if more tips for Bansko subscribe to newsletter. You receive my E-Guide “The Essential Guide To Bansko” for free.




Living, Skiing & Snowboarding

About the author

I enjoy tech, apps, entrepreneurship, podcasting and collaboration with others. I love travelling as well as skiing, hiking, MTB, paragliding, cooking and good food.
No Responses to “Don’t Mention The S Word. Our Moral Obligation”

Leave a Reply