VAIL — It’s a blue bird day on Vail Mountain’s Golden Peak, and the resort has just dropped the ropes on the terrain park and super pipe. For most of the skiers and riders who have made a beeline for the area, it means fresh jumps and an open playground. For the mountain safety team, however, it means a slew of trick-happy youngsters, possible crashes and an influx of people converging on a busy section of the mountain.
Jesse Eckert, a three-year veteran of the safety team, or the yellow jackets as they’re nicknamed, skis along the side of the park to the bottom of the halfpipe. He and a handful of other crew members set up yellow signs toward the bottom of the mountain, and stand at strategic points asking people to slow down. The day starts out with a few minor injuries in the park, but things calm down as the safety crew arrives and the signs control the flow of traffic.
“This is where people are speeding out of the terrain park, but it’s also where a lot of ski school kids are coming down, so we want to keep people going slow,” Eckert said.
Cracking Down on Safety
Skiers at Vail and Beaver Creek may have noticed an increased number of yellow jackets on the slopes this season, and for good reason — in an effort to make the mountain safer, the resort is putting more mountain safety employees on patrol and cracking down on reckless skiing and riding.
According to Mountain Safety Assistant Director Steve Clark, there are usually at least 20 yellow jackets on the mountain on any given day, as opposed to 12 to 15 per day in past seasons. What’s more, Vail’s safety crew has given out about 600 warnings during the past three weeks, a big increase over last season.
Depending on the infraction, the most serious being skiing in closed terrain, two warnings could get your pass suspended for a week or more, and to regain skiing privileges, you’d have to attend a mountain safety class.
“We’re not out trying to be the buzz kill,” Clark said. “We want people to have fun, but our message is just to do it in a safe, responsible manner.”
The program extends to other Vail Resorts mountains, including at Beaver Creek, where people can expect to see the same yellow jacket presence at busy intersections.
As the busiest weeks of the ski season come to a close and the slopes are packed with people of all ability levels, there are some who don’t mind the crackdown on speedsters.
John Gorsuch, of the popular Vail-based retail store and equipment outfitter, said that in past years, he’s noticed many more customers are concerned about safety on the slopes.
People who have been customers for years have come in and talked about being hit or nearly hit by another skier or rider, and a few have even said they’ll likely take their ski vacation on a less crowded mountain in the future.
“How do we communicate that things are being done and challenge the perception that Vail is big, crowded and dangerous?” Gorsuch said.
The increased mountain safety presence hopes to address those fears, and the resort has also given public safety reminders through newspaper and television advertisements, said Vail Mountain Chief Operating Officer Chris Jarnot.
“Of course, we can’t control and avoid every collision on the mountain,” he said. “And probably if you ask some of the people we’re flagging down, they might think we’re doing too much.”
Just ask local snowboarder Jared Saul, who got handed a yellow warning card in December near the Lionshead skier bridge. Saul said he kicked out his tail and sprayed some snow on a sign on his way down the slope, not thinking anything of it. A mountain safety employee flagged him down, lectured him on damaging signs and gave him an infraction card. Saul said he was polite and didn’t realize he’d broken any rules, but the experience left him a little ruffled.
“After realizing how sensitive it was, I was scared I could get my pass pulled at any point in time,” he said, adding that he does support the increased safety measures. “I’m all for them keeping people under control. I’m a pretty proficient snowboarder and even then sometimes I do feel like it’s sketchy out there at certain intersections. I can only imagine if someone’s new and doesn’t know what they’re doing. It could be pretty scary.”
And, as Clark points out, there’s a balance between keeping the peace and needlessly handing out warnings.
“We try to educate people,” he said. “Most people are very courteous and get the message when we stop them. Sometimes people may not think they’re going that fast, but it’s about going with the flow. If you’re going noticeably faster than everyone else around you, we’ll pull you over.”
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Of course, we can’t control and avoid every collision on the mountain. And probably if you ask some of the people we’re flagging down, they might think we’re doing too much.”
Vail Mountain Chief Operating Officer