Ode to the Helmet

The making of a believer.

By Sam Bass

The only times I’d ever skied in a helmet were when I had to, for super Gs I’d competed in as a teenager. Even then I didn’t own one—I’d borrow my uncle’s huge snowmobile lid with its tinted, full-face visor. Ski-specific helmets were hard to find then, and when they did hit the market, I didn’t really notice. I wasn’t anti-helmet; I’d just never worn nor thought I needed one for recreational skiing. But I was glad I wore one when I head-butted a 20-inch-thick aspen at 25 miles per hour.

I was cat-skiing in Utah’s Uinta range—there to demo a variety of new equipment, including a POC helmet. I stuffed my beanie into my pocket thinking I would take my helmet off after a run. But I never really noticed I was wearing the helmet, so it stayed on.

I was cruising down soft wind-buff when the open slope choked into an aspen stand. I attempted to thread through to another open patch beyond. The terrain was mellow and I was on autopilot, vaguely watching for the occasional downed tree. The tree I hit, though, was upright and alive, and I saw it when it was two feet away. I didn’t ricochet. I stacked—hard—into the trunk and crumpled at the base, taking the brunt of the impact with my right upper forehead and left hand.

When I got to the hospital, I learned I had compression fractures in thoracic vertebrae one, two, and three, a broken left hand, and a minor concussion. The shell of my POC Receptor was slightly deformed and its hard inner foam was cracked.

To those who asked me if I skied recklessly because the helmet made me feel invincible: bullshit. I forgot I was wearing it. Had I changed into my beanie, I would have crushed my skull and died at the scene. To the friends who backboarded and carried me to the rescue helicopter: Thanks for having wilderness medical training, a sat phone, and strong arms. Sorry I ruined your day. To my wife, thanks for taking care of me. And my son, sorry we couldn’t wrestle for awhile. I’ve ordered helmets for us. To my new daughter, freshly adopted from Ethiopia, I’m so happy I was able to meet you.