New safety squad hits the slopes
But the saddening death of a young woman last week after a crash on a beginner’s run on the Bachelor Gulch section of Beaver Creek Mountain reminds us all of how dangerous the local economic lifeline can be.
To further remind skiers of the inherent hazards on the slopes, a new safety squad made of up of volunteers from valley police and fire departments will soon be riding Beaver Creek Mountain alongside the resort’s own safety personnel.
“They have a small force out there. We’re going to be extra eyes and ears. But we’re not going to do enforcement; we’re going to do education,” says Avon police Officer Gus Pernetz, founder of the Eagle County Safety Alliance.
Pernetz, a former ski racer and ski coach with Ski Club Vail and the U.S. Ski Team, says his eight-member squad, which comprises members of the Avon and Vail police departments, the Eagle River Fire Protection District and Vail Valley Medical Center personnel, doesn’t aim to harass skiers and snowboarders or spoil the fun folks have on the slopes.
“I like to ski fast, but there’s a time and a place for everything,” Pernetz says. “We’re not out there to bust anybody. We’re out there to have friendly conversations and help people learn from their mistakes.”
In an attempt to make the slopes safer, both Vail and Beaver Creek mountains a few years ago created the “Yellow Jackets,” a volunteer force that patrols beginner areas and congested runs to help make sure skiers and snowboarders look out for each other.
Rather than feeling harassed by some extra uniforms on the hill, local skiers and snowboarders say they like the idea of the Safety Alliance.
“I’ve already been taken out once this year by a guy who jumped out of the trees,” says snowboarder Chantal Angot. “Someone needs to keep some people in control.”
Here friend, Jeff Parker, said he agreed.
“If the volunteers are going to improve safety, it’s all good,” Parker said.
Doug Lovell, who, as Beaver Creek’s manager of guest services, oversees the Yellow Jackets, says it’s all about telling skiers and snowboarders where they can have the most fun on the mountain.
“The more we can direct people to the appropriate terrain, the better off it is for people in our slow zones,” Lovell says. “We can explain that we have terrain parks for jumping, a race course for racing, black runs for skiing fast and that we reserve the slow zones for ski school classes and those who just want a mellow run down the mountain.”
“For instance,” he adds, “you can carry a lot more speed on Centennial than we would like you to on Gold Dust.”
Mike Gibbs, who heads Beaver Creek’s Yellow Jacket, says his squad has made the slopes safer.
“We still have our moments, but in the last few years we’ve seen a decreased craziness in the slow zones,” Gibbs says. “Over the years the problems have decreased immensely, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to let up or walk away.”
Skiers and snowboards are more likely to ride dangerously when there’s not a Yellow Jacket or ski patroller in uniform on the slope, Gibbs says.
“It’s like driving on the highway. If you don’t see a cop, you’re going 85. If you see a cop, you’re going 65,” Gibbs says. “When I’m out on the hill, I don’t see anybody speeding or jumping. But when I’m not there, I still hear about it happening from ski-school.”
The resort’s aim, Lovell adds, is not to man the mountain with cops.
“One thing we want to make clear is it’s not like we’re trying to put law enforcement on the hill. We’re not changing anything we’ve done. The nice thing about what they’ve established in they safety alliance is it’s a lot of professionals from law enforcement and medical agencies who’ve seen the end result” of dangerous behavior, he says.
Pernetz said one goal of the squad will be to help skiers and snowboarders – as well as advanced riders and beginning riders – better understand each other’s tendencies on the slopes.
“A skier sometimes doesn’t realize how much of a blind-spot a snowboarder has,” he says. “On the other hand, you’ll see snowboarders crossing right in front of beginning skiers.
“And on a catwalk,” he adds, “you sometimes see a skier or a snowboarder heading in and out of the trees and not paying attention to other skiers.”
Pernetz says his safety volunteers will not hang out on less-crowded steep slopes or tell skiers not to tear through moguls or cruise through glades. The squad will mostly patrol crowded areas – such as Born Free in Lionshead or designated “slow zones” on Beaver Creek Mountain, such as Gold Dust – to keep crowds from becoming dangerous.
The squad will also advocate wearing protective gear, Pernetz says.
“We want to tell people it’s smart to wear a helmet and other gear,” he says.
The company Napapijri has donated $9,000 worth of gear, including uniforms, to the Safety Alliance, Pernetz says.
And anytime someone mentions the Safety Alliance while buying a ski helmet at Venture Sports in Avon, 10 percent of the proceeds will go toward buying helmets for kids, Pernetz says.
Avon snowboarder Krista Schoenberg says she thinks the squad is a good addition to the slopes. She says areas where a lot of skiers and snowboarders are coming down the mountain can get perilously crowded.
“When it gets congested, it gets a little hairy,” she says.
Her friend, Samantha Means, says the mountain should be safer with more people watching how skiers and snowboarders ride busy slopes.
“I think the volunteers are a fantastic idea,” Means says. “It’s a fantastic idea to keep more people in control.”
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at