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Public accountability needed in ski safety discussions

Ski safely!

Standing commission could help promote dialogue and develop recommendations

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — A couple of weeks ago, before putting my 12-year-old on a Breck-bound Summit Stage bus for a ski day with his friends, we went over the skier responsibility code together, not just reciting the napkin bullet points, but talking a little bit about why it makes sense that skiers and riders ahead of you have the right of way, and what the consequences of rope-cutting might be.

I’m not sure how much of that stuff stays in his head once he’s on the mountain, but I’m hoping some of it has started to sink in. In the end I tell him that it’s his responsibility to make the right choices, just like in every other aspect of life.

The subject has been near and dear to me ever since a sad day in Angel Fire, New Mexico back in the early 1980s, when I served as pall-bearer for a teen friend who hit a tree and died.

Along with teaching skiing, I waited tables in the base area restaurant, where I worked alongside 16-year-old Mike, the GM’s son. The family had moved from Arkansas to New Mexico to run the lodge, and playing in big Western mountains was a novel and exciting thing for my young friend. Mike’s eyes grew big every time the snow started piling up. Stealing quick breaks from our food-running duties, we’d sneak out the back of the kitchen and try and guess how much fresh powder there might be in the morning. I skied with him whenever I could. His enthusiasm for skiing helped refuel my own passion for the sport, keeping me from getting too frustrated by the many hours I spent on the beginner slopes.

Mike was athletic and a quick learner, and by mid-season, he was an advanced intermediate, competently skiing most of the advanced runs on our little mountain. He kept asking me to take him to nearby Taos, a mountain known for daunting steeps and tight trees. One day, it all lined up. A foot of snow, sunshine, and most importantly, a day off. We drove up winding Palo Flechado Pass and down through Taos Canyon past the old Kit Carson House, where magpies clustered on tilted cottonwood stumps, stopping for breakfast at Michael’s Kitchen before heading up through Arroyo Seco and to Taos Ski Valley.

Everything clicked that day. All the informal lessons about balance, rhythm, focus and staying relaxed apparently stuck with my buddy, and while he tasted powder more than once, he generally handled himself with good-natured ease, even on some of Taos’ legendary bump runs like Lorelei and Longhorn. We reveled in the glorious snow, flirted with every girl we met and exhausted ourselves utterly.

Little did I know it was the last time I would ski with him. A couple of weeks later, I went to visit friends in Colorado for a few days. I got back just in time for an evening shift at the Plaza, walking in to find glum faces and tear-stained cheeks. Rosa, one of the cooks, ran over and hugged me and blurted it out: Mike had been skiing in the trees on the back side of the mountain, lost control, hit a tree and died.

His father asked me to be a pallbearer at the funeral, the grimmest duty I’ve had to perform. And to this day, whenever I hear or read of a skier death on the slopes, wherever it might be, I can still feel the weight of that coffin.

So it’s with that in mind that I want to examine the topic of skier safety. As a reporter in a ski community, I’ve tackled the subject in a breaking news context, but that quickly becomes a formulaic story. Resort officials express their regrets to the family and promise to redouble their safety awareness programs. Coffee shop talk centers around the death, or deaths, for a few days, especially if there’s a cluster in the local area. Then it all fades, until maybe the end of the season, when you do a statistical recap of the season’s deaths, comparing it to previous years.

Every now and then, the issue takes on a higher profile. As is wont in our celebrity driven culture, this happens when somebody famous dies on the slopes. The deaths of Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy come to mind. When the national media starts to focus, the industry takes notice. It becomes one of those infamous “teachable moments.”

What sticks in my mind from those occasions is the mindless repetition of statistical comparisons between skiing, cycling and water sports. The point, I guess, is to show that skiing is not really all that dangerous. But the tactic reeks of damage control. Heaven forbid that we scare anyone away from the slopes.

I’ll stay away from citing the statistics. After all, that would me back in the same loop I’m trying to get out of, and they’re readily available on the web. What’s missing is some context and thoughtful analysis of the trends, especially in the public realm.

I realize that I’m treading on thin ice with this topic. As a sometime ski writer, I’ve often been accused of biting the hand that feeds me, by raising issues perceived to be harmful to ski industry interests, especially when it comes to environmental topics. But I’ve never been one to shy away from a sensitive subject, so here goes.

I’d be the last to claim that skiing is particularly dangerous. I’m an avid life-long skier and advocate of the sport, and I’ve had my share of injuries: A left-leg tib-fib fracture (backcountry avalanche), four metacarpals (hitting a stump with my hand on a blue run), and a right-leg femur fracture (backcountry encounter with a hidden rock). So yes, I’m aware of the risks associated with my sport, and happy to take them. I don’t think we ever can, or should, try to eliminate all those risks. They are part of what makes skiing so appealing.

In spite of those incidents, I feel safer on the slopes than just about anywhere else, especially compared to the drive up to the mountain. But, with Mike’s coffin as an eternal weight on my mind, I must admit I spend some time thinking about what might cause some of these deadly accidents on seemingly innocuous trails. And yes, I’d certainly like to try and help anyone else from experiencing the emotional trauma of hearing that their friend, sibling, son or daughter died on the slopes.

I must admit, I don’t have all the answers. After Googling skier death statistics and browsing web pages for hours, I am even more confused than I was before. And yes, I’m aware that there are some basic, common sense answers, first and foremost of which is to always ski in control, in such a way that you can avoid obstacles and other hazards. I suppose if I always followed that rule, I could have avoided all my injuries.

But somehow, like the statistical comparisons, it seems like a glib answer in the face of personal tragedy.

What I’m advocating for is a very public discussion and examination of the issue, by way of a standing ski safety commission that would include all sorts of experts: Ski patrollers, risk managers, doctors, Forest Service ski experts, insurance agents, and yes, even lawyers. Most importantly, the group should include some members of the general public, perhaps people who have been personally touched by this issue.

This group would meet on a regular basis, not in response to a particular accident, or rash of deaths, but to discuss, share and publicize the latest safety related research and to make pro-active recommendations.

I acknowledge that the ski industry as a whole, and individual resorts, are intensely safety conscious, and have done much to try and address the issue. What’s missing is the public component. Behind the scenes, resort risk managers, operations experts and patrollers work feverishly to identify the accident hot spots on their mountains. What the public sees as a result may be a new slow sign, or some fencing to control skier flow, or even yellow-jacketed safety patrollers who can make personal contact with dangerous-looking skiers.

The educational efforts have been impressive, with a strong focus on prevention. What’s missing is some depth and background. One thing I’d like to see publicized is a comparison of accident rates at various resorts around the country, encompassing both skier versus skier collisions, as well as terrain park accidents and collisions with trees and other obstacles. Hey, the auto industry probably doesn’t really like vehicle comparison tests, but consumers sure benefit when it comes to making choices. I would argue that, especially since the majority of resorts operate on public land leases with the U.S. Forest Service, that agency should take the lead in making this happen

Once those numbers are out there, it would quickly become pretty clear if there is a correlation between skier density and collisions. It seems pretty much a common-sense, foregone conclusion, but what the heck, let’s put it out there for everyone to see.

In fact, one resort in Southwestern Colorado did just that a couple of years, favorably comparing its accident rate with industry-wide figures. When I called to get more information, the PR department said the risk manager who compiled those stats was gone, and wouldn’t discuss the topic any more.

At the same time, that same resortalso announced a slew of stiff penalties for reckless skiers involved in collisions, with mandatory loss of skiing privileges. Other areas are trying a more educational approach. If they catch offenders, they revoke skiing privileges until the perpetrator attends a ski safety session.

All fine and well, but how about a public discussion of statistical trends over time? How do some of these measures work? Have the accident rates dropped at resorts that implement intensive safety programs? Plucking a year’s worth of numbers, or even several years, gives a snapshot of the issue, but it would be interesting to know if the pattern of accidents is changing. All good questions for an independent group of experts, who could issue pithy, plain-English reports for publication in newspapers and ski magazines.

Is there any correlation, for example, between the widespread use of wider, shaped skis and the number of skier versus tree collisions? Many of the experienced ski instructors and patrollers I’ve talked with seem to think so, others say there’s no clear link.

The idea is that the newest technology quickly enables people to make guided turns, using the edge of the ski to steer. But do they ever learn to control a skid once that edge breaks free? Has over-grooming contributed to people getting up too much speed, eventually ramming other skiers or shooting off into the trees? More good questions.

Speaking from personal experience, ski teaching has also changed over the years. Where the emphasis was once on teaching the fundamental skills — however long it takes — that enable controlled skiing, it now is at least equally important to get people onto the trails as soon as possible.

Using Magic Carpet conveyor belts for beginners, for example, is a great way to increase the number of beginner students a ski school can accommodate. On the other hand, the old way of side-stepping up a hill helped give people a very fundamental sense of the fall line and how to use their edges to keep their skis in place. I would argue that you shouldn’t be allowed to ski down the mountain before you can walk up it.

These are just a few examples that come to mind, and to be honest, I don’t know if, and to what degree, any of these things factor into serious and deadly accidents. But I’m sure that somebody, somewhere, who knows a lot more about it than me has at least a partial answer.

It’s understandable that ski resorts want to hold a lot of this information close to the vest. There is very likely a considerable amount of insurance money at stake, not to mention the potential liability of publicly acknowledging any problems.

But to have an honest and open discussion of ski safety requires breaking out of that trap. I think the automotive industry is a valid analogy, and I, as a skier to the core, would be thrilled if the ski industry stepped up and took the lead in such an effort. Creating an impartial commission without vested interests could be a first step toward breaking the cycle and adding a layer of public accountability to ski safety discussions.

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5 Responses

  1. I know the ski areas are trying, and I know the patrollers can’t be everywhere at once, but I find it ironic that I was out yesterday, during Ski Safety week, skiing slowly down at the bottom as I neared the chairlift, only to almost be run down from behind by a snowboarder right in front of a slow skiing sign. I try to ski defensively and take a tight line when I’m up skiing on the trails to lessen the chances of being run down from behind, but you’d think as you near the chairlift people would be a little more careful. What’s the solution? I sure don’t know. When I’m overtaking a slower skier I always give them plenty of room and am prepared for sudden evasive maneuvers, but lots of folks don’t seem to feel the need for this. Probably the same people going 80 miles on hour on I-70 when it’s snowpacked and icy.

    • I don’t really want to get into the whole snowboarder-skier thing, or judge people for their actions. I’m advocating for more transparency and public participation in safety discussions and calling for the establishment of a group that would compile information and release it in a form that would help the public understand and make choices, and would also help the industry.

  2. Good article Bob. Any open discourse would benefit if it considered human factors like competitiveness, exhibition (showing off), and the overconfidence effect. While these factors are part of what makes skiing so very appealing, it is also a tipping point for poor judgment.

  3. [...] to compare the safety records of ski areas ‘ in Colorado or nationally. It also keeps consumers in the dark about what measures to take to protect [...]

  4. Most blurbs I read after a ski resort imply the skier is totally responsible for his accident! The NSAA information seems to say the same. It is of course totally false! While the skier likely has most of the blame in most cases, the ski resort management makes many decisions that increase or decrease the likely hood of an accident occurring on the slope.Some of these are: protection from tree collisions by a barrier (shrubs or bumpers) , collision protection especially at slope curves & trail crossovers; grooming, mogul design and location; decisions to close or warn properly of a hazard such as ice; not separating boarders & skiers of separate slopes; etc

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