From powder to pop: Ingredients for spring injuries |

From powder to pop: Ingredients for spring injuries

Many people agree that spring skiing is the best part of the season. With all the terrain open, and lots of sun to go along with the recent heap of late-season snow, it’s the best of all worlds at Summit County ski areas.

What skiers need to beware of, however, is the variability of snow conditions resulting from the high and warm late-season sun. The seemingly soft and pliable powder on south-facing slopes, for example, can turn out to be heavy, catchy goo in the afternoon sun.

Powder can become slush, peanut butter, mashed potatoes, corn, chicken heads … the names for various types of spring snow sound like a line-up of cartoon characters but are really ingredients for potential injuries.

For all for all the new snow that’s fallen in the High Country the past two weeks, the sun has been shining in full force, and the resulting combination – while creating the best of all worlds for in-bounds skiing – can twist knees and spines in ways that can put a damper on the end of the season for some skiers.

“I’m seeing a lot of knees from people getting their ski caught in deep snow,” said Dr. Ivo Waerlop of Summit Chiropractic and Rehabilitation. “If there’s new snow, it’s soft in the morning, then gets cementy as the day goes on. With snowboarders right now, I’m seeing a lot of elbows and wrists from planting the nose of the board in heavy snow, and whipping forwards. Associated with that is any twisting of their backs and necks.”

If there’s no new snow overnight, skiers might try a different timing strategy to find the best snow and avoid the worst.

“I’m not a snow expert, but generally this time of year, it can be deceiving,” said Jen Gotantas, clinic manager for Howard Head Sports Medicine, which treats the majority of patients admitted into Breckenridge Medical Center with ski-related injuries. “If you don’t wait for things to soften up, it’s tough on both beginners and experienced skiers.”

The snow is most deceiving to visitors who aren’t familiar with the sun-baking process. What might look like a fluffy stash of powder could actually be sun-cooked slop or rock-hard concrete.

“People start off on the groomers, pick up some speed, then they’re in eight inches of muck,” said Jim Patalan, director of Summit County operations of the Vail Valley Medical Center, which includes Keystone and Breckenridge medical centers.

“Last weekend, (doctors) saw 12 or 15 knees. That’s more than usual.”

Medical representatives say knee injuries are by far the most common skiing injury, and the incidence is higher this time of year with the ever-changing snow conditions.

“It’s a time when you’re feeling pretty confident on your skis,” Gotantas said. “Knee injuries can happen when one ski – the uphill or downhill – is more weighted. With the heavy snow, it just sucks that foot in and doesn’t give it back. Your body keeps going in a different direction. With snowboarding, it’s the same thing with feeling confident. People want to catch air and (ride) the trees, and this is the time of year when more cool terrain is open. People are hiking and going hard. But it’s important to be on top of your routine.”

Ligament tears are the most common knee injury, and, when skiing, result from when the skier is in the back seat, or when one ski is weighted more heavily and gets stuck in the snow.

“The usual mechanism of injury is when one foot’s been planted and the leg rotates inward, not toward the middle,” Waerlop said. “The knee buckles to the inside and stretches the meniscus on the lateral side. You can also do the fibula (the small bone in the lower leg) the same way. If you think about skiing, you’re always going to the inside edge to turn, so the (mechanism) makes sense.”

Back injuries can result from skiers or snowboarders carrying too much weight on the fronts of their boards, especially through snow that is deep and wet.

“They could plant both tips or have one tip forward and do a turbo face plant,” Waerlop said. “That can stress their mid back and can cause serious C-spine injuries when you put your head up to land on an endo.”

Taking it slowly through variable conditions is a good way to avoid injury. Medical professionals also advise spring-season snowriders to make sure they are familiar with the snow conditions, which can vary depending on the aspect of the mountain face, the time of day and the temperature. They also encourage beginners to take lessons.

“I’m a huge advocate of visitors and beginners taking lessons,” Gotantas said. “You need to just be a little more careful. Hopefully, everyone’s been doing their program up to this point, but if they haven’t, they need to start stretching and do strengthening exercises. It’s hard to prevent knee injuries, but a big part of it is knowing when to quit when you’re tired. When you’re tired, your legs aren’t reacting the way you want them to.”

Skiers who think they’ve had a knee injury should also seek treatment. ACL tears are characterized by a pop in the knee followed stabbing pain that subsides and is replaced by a wobbly sense of weakness.

Although the skiing’s good and the season is drawing to a close, skiers are also advised not to get ahead of themselves at the end of the season.

“This is really the best snow we’ve had in years, and we have a lot of local people out there and people coming up from sea level who are out of shape,” Waerlop said. “Make sure you’re in shape. Ski according to the conditions. So, if it’s really soft and mushy, loosen your (binding) settings so your ski releases. If you get tired, quit.”

Shauna Farnell can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 236, or at

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