With a sickening, distinctly audible “pop,” your season is over. Ahead lie months of recovery, usually involving expensive surgery. Send for a toboggan, and join the club of skiers who have torn anterior cruciate ligaments.
It’s a big club. Estimates vary, but serious knee injury, usually involving the ACL, accounts for some 20 percent of all ski-related injuries, probably totaling more than 24,000 per winter in the U.S. alone. It’s often identified as the No. 1 impediment to growth of the sport.
The advent of releaseable bindings largely solved the problem of boot-top “tib-fib” fractures once common among skiers. But that was half a century ago, and there’s been no equivalent advance in binding technology to solve the stubborn problem of ACL injuries.
So what if, after all these years, there was finally a binding that could significantly reduce your chance of ever hearing that ugly “pop”?
“It’s absolutely clear,” says John Springer-Miller, chairman and majority owner of KneeBinding. “We have solved the problem of knee injuries in skiing, to the same degree that ordinary releaseable bindings solved the problem of broken legs all those years ago.”
It’s a bold claim. But talk to Springer-Miller, and it’s obvious he has the courage of conviction. His binding, which has been on the market for six years, is designed to release laterally at the heel, which no other binding does. That’s the key to preventing ACL injuries caused by rearward, twisting falls, which are by far the most common kind. And Springer-Miller says that after five years, he has yet to hear of even a single KneeBinding skier sustaining ACL injury caused by a rearward, twisting fall. And that’s despite the fact that he believes early adopters of his technology are the very people most prone to ACL injury: women, for instance, and those who have already endured blown knees.
“It’s one of the best understood and best documented causes of injury there is, and there’s a well understood injury rate for the rearward twisting fall that causes an ACL injury, which is once for every 1,900 skier days. At that rate, we should have, at an absolute minimum, two or three hundred reported injuries. And we haven’t had one. … It’s absolutely irrefutable proof that we have solved the problem.”
Springer-Miller won’t say how many pairs of KneeBindings have been (hardly unusual in the business world). He says it’s offered by some 500 retailers in 12 countries.
And yet, take a look around in a liftline sometime: KneeBindings debuted in 2008, but still seem to be exceedingly rare. Maybe that’s just because skiers are a naturally skeptical bunch, slow to embrace change. (See: super sidecut skis.)
But workers’ comp insurance company analysts are more likely to take a rational approach to the product, and Springer-Miller says they’ve started taking a keen interest. The same goes for resort risk managers, like Kiri Moore, director of safety for Smugglers’ Notch Resort, which is just over the mountain from KneeBinding’s Stowe headquarters. Smuggs leased 100 pairs of KneeBindings last season and offered them as a perk to resort employees who ski on the job.
“The cost of the program is less than half of the cost of a single worker’s comp claim, which is about $50,000 at least,” Moore says. “If we can prevent just one worker’s comp injury, they would pay for themselves.”
Moore, a lifelong Smuggs skier who gets after it on her Völkl Mantras, says she’s happy with the skiability of the binding. It transmits energy well, she says, and she’s had no prereleases. She says it’s too soon to know if KneeBindings have prevented any injuries. Smuggs typically only has about one ACL-related worker’s comp claim per year. That was true last year, but the only blown ACL resulted from a freak lift-loading accident, not a rearward, twisting fall.
“I hate to call it a cure-all yet,” Moore says. “But it’s one more tool for any skier who wants protection. We all want to ski into our 80s, and this just seems like one more way to protect yourself.”
Springer-Miller says there are 20 to 25 resorts, including Vail Resorts, that are in “different stages of trials with the binding—all convinced of its safety.” And he adds, “Insurance companies are traveling to meetings with our binding, showing it to resorts and explaining why they need to adopt it.”
The story of the KneeBinding is at once hopeful and a little ugly. On the positive side, it’s made in Vermont by Vermonters, and it promises to spare skiers lots of pain and suffering—maybe even put the sport back on a growth curve. Yet its inventor, Rick Howell, who Springer-Miller says was fired from the company early on, has leveled withering public attacks and filed suit against the company. And in online message boards, there seems to be an incongruous amount of skepticism—sometimes even angry vitriol—surrounding the product.
As it happens, Howell was also involved—not as inventor but as product manager—in another Vermont-based binding designed to save the ACL. That product, the Pivogy, which was marketed as a sister brand of Line skis before Line was acquired by K2, quickly failed (despite an innovation award from this publication). It’s inventor, David Dodge, says Pivogy’s problems were manifold: The SARS epidemic in China hampered late-stage development; anxious investors rushed it to market with problems that could have been solved; and K2, already allied with Marker bindings, had no interest in the project.
Dodge, who owns scores of winter sports equipment patents (including several that would take heel-release binding technology “to the next level”), says he doesn’t see many KneeBinding’s on the slopes yet, “even at Stowe.” But he hopes they catch on.
“The major manufacturers don’t think anyone wants a safer binding,” he says, “so I’d like to see (KneeBinding) succeed to prove them wrong.
“Knee injuries are really damaging to the industry. Often when one family member blows a knee, the whole family stops skiing. There are things that can be done, and if this binding is successful it might finally prompt some movement from the majors to address the problem of knee injuries.”