Pleased with the safety push
Leaders in the Colorado ski industry say the most accurate numbers show only a fractional drop in injuries over the last few decades during which many resorts have expanded, more slopes are groomed, snowboarding has become almost as popular as skiing and the technology of equipment has allowed all riders to go faster.
But among the paramedics who take injured skiers and snowboarders to the hospital –and the skiers and snowboarders themselves –there seems to be a guarded consensus that ski safety campaigns are reducing the severity of crashes and collisions, those around the industry say.
“I have no doubts that helmet programs and the other skier-safety programs have contributed to fewer injuries, minimized injuries and prevented certain injuries,” said Lyn Morgan, director of the Eagle County Ambulance District, which treats skiers on Vail and Beaver Creek mountains.
Both resorts Friday wrapped up their annual ski safety awareness weeks. Their campaigns, aside from a flood of safety signs going up on the slopes, included free helmet rentals, health and fitness discussions, avalanche rescue demonstrations and sessions on skiing and snowboarding etiquette.
Signs placed throughout both mountains urged skiers to be aware of each other, keep in control and give right-of-way to those below.
The industry’s national safety slogan is “Space, Not Speed,” which means the distance between one skier and another is often more important than their speeds.
Vail Mountain Chief Operating Officer Bill Jensen called it a “very positive week” of conveying safety messages to out-of-towners, Front Range skiers and locals.
“I think we’re doing the best job we’ve ever done this week,” Jensen said. “You can’t help but notice there’s a message out there about skier safety.”
Jensen says the number of injuries has remained constant over the last 30 years, though the slopes have changed drastically with the inception of freestyle terrain parks, more extensive grooming and technological advancements.
“Everything that happens in the sport of skiing, if you look over the last 50 years, is always evolutionary,” Jensen says. “Do skiers and snowboarders get along better? Yeah, every year it gets better. Do I think the safety situation has improved over where it was three or four years ago? Absolutely. Are we going to stop trying to improve? No.
“Year in and year out,” he adds, “we have to get better.”
Skiers and snowboarders surveyed by the resort give it good marks for safety. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being excellent, skiers and snowboarders give Vail an average score of 4.3 to 4.5, Jensen says.
Vail Mountain is so big, however, that skiers and snowboarders bear a lot of responsibility for avoiding injuries and collisions.
“Part of the essence of skiing is that the responsibility for your safety rests with you and is shared with those around you,” he says. “With 5,300 hundred acres, we can’t put two people per acre to make sure everyone is skiing responsibly.”
Ski patrollers and members of mountain’s Yellow Jackets safety squad often talk to skiers and snowboarders riding recklessly, he adds.
Safety is not a constant –it changes with terrain and snow conditions, Jensen says.
For example, ski patrollers deal with less injuries on powder days when heavy snow forces skiers and snowboarders to ride slower. There are more injuries when no snow has fallen for a week and more slopes are groomed, he says.
“I believe that snow conditions play into the overall situation, along with the type of terrain people are on,” he says. “There’s one perception in Blue Sky Basin, another perception on Poppyfields and another perception on Swingsville.”
Poppyfields is an intermediate run through China Bowl and a heavily-travelled route for skiers and snowboarders headed to the Orient Express Lift and Blue Sky Basin. Swingsville is a popular beginners’ run above Mid-Vail.
But crowding -especially on a large mountain like Vail – is not as big a problem as some would think; resorts have expanded as visitors have increased, says Heather Fowler, a spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country USA, the states ski advocacy group.
For example, Vail opened Blue Sky Basin three years ago, Telluride opened Prospect Bowl last season and Breckenridge opened Peak 7 this season, she said.
“There are more skiers visits, but there’s also a lot more terrain,” Fowler said. “And safety is has become a big initiate and focus of the ski industry.
“We definitely think,” she adds, “that the resorts have been successful. The message is definitely out there.”
Proof the campaigns are working is in the skiers who now walk away from crashes that, in previous years, may have sent them to the hospital, Morgan says.
“When bodies collide there’s always a big chance of a serious injury and I think the speed control they’ve done has reduced collisions,” he says. “It’s this part of the prevention which is what we like to see and be involved in; we’d rather prevent injuries than take people to the hospital.”
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at email@example.com.
Most skiers feel safe on slopes
The ski safety campaign trumpeted by ski resorts over the last few years may be getting through to some people on the slopes, but it’s still lost on the reckless, Vail Mountain skiers and snowboarders say.
Most skiers say they generally feel safe on the slopes, but there are still some folks on the mountain who don’t pay enough attention to what’s going on around them and ride too fast at the wrong time.
“I never feel like anybody’s going to hit me,” says Dominick Walsh, a skier from Eagle-Vail. “When there are a lot of people, I usually slow down. It still seems pretty safe to me.”
The slogan of the safety campaign, which has been ramped up over the last five years, is “Space, Not Speed,” means how close you are to other skiers is often more important than how fast you’re skiing.
Ryan Dorr, a skier from Denver, says the perils on the slopes are about the same as they were before “safety” became the industry buzz word.
“I really haven’t seen a difference,” Dorr says. “But I don’t know how much more the resorts can do other than making people aware.”
Skiers and snowboarders, however, can do more to make the mountains less treacherous, says Sarah Bogner, a skier from Aspen.
Some folks on the hill could do a better job of sharing the slopes, she says.
“So many people think they’re the most important person,” Bogner says. “They just push through.”
Rudi Fisher, an architect from Eagle-Vail, says cheaper lessons would make skiing safer.
“A lot of people don’t know how to ski, but the cost of lessons is so prohibitive, people self-teach and they learn bad habits,” Fisher says. “A lot of young men ski too fast without knowing how to turn.
“A lot of people need to take lessons,” he says.
Fisher half-jokingly suggests forcing skiers and snowboarders to pass a test before picking up too much speed on the slopes.
“To improve safety, they should require a person have a certification of ski proficiency before they’re allowed to go over 10 mph,” Fisher says.
There appear to be two distinct views on how to ride through crowds funneling down the front side of Vail Mountain at the end of the day.
“You definitely have to be more careful,” Dorr says. “Slow down and keep your eyes open.”
Others, like Andy Blakeslee, say they like to spend as little time around the crowd as possible.
“When I see a crowd I tend to go pretty fast to get away from all the people,” Blakeslee says. “Most days – particularly in slow zones – there are skiers of all abilities and some people aren’t watching what they’re doing. There are too many people on the runs.”
A key to being safe is understand your own skill, skier Kyle Garry says.
“If you know your ski level and ski within your level, and on ski trails appropriate for you, it’s safe,” he says. “Skiing gets dangerous when people ski beyond their level and get in over their head.”
But Garry says he’s more worried about getting hit by another skier than being injured in a crash by himself.
“I would say I’m more worried about getting run into,” he says. “I’m pretty cautious.”
There is one clear sign that skiers and snowboarders are more concerned about their own safety, Garry says.
“I definitely see a lot more people wearing helmets, which is great,” he says.
Blakeslee says there’s the most safety in solitude.
“I try to just stay away from people mostly,” he says.
– Matt Zalaznick
Among Vail’s volunteers, we tracked down Bob “Buckwheat” Buckley, Tony White and Brooke Franke Gagnon. They all said it was tough, that they loved it and suggested that if you try it you’ll love it too.