Safety on the slopes comes first
SUMMIT COUNTY – Claudia Carbone was skiing down the left side of a trail at Breckenridge Ski Resort in November when a snowboarder hit her from behind, breaking her pelvic bone in four places.
As Carbone lay moaning in the snow, the rider unclicked her skis, then said he’d go get ski patrol for help.
Carbone never got his name and never saw him again, which happens in slopeside collisions, although it’s against the law.
On Nov. 21 at Keystone Resort, a Summit County sheriff’s deputy issued a ticket to a snowboarder for riding out of control and colliding with another snowboarder on the Silverspoon trail.
The speeder was taken to the medical center with back pains and a possible concussion. The other snowboarder suffered a laceration on her arm, a bruised shin and leg injuries.
On Dec. 5 at Keystone Resort, a man was found wandering around River Run Village, disoriented and coughing up blood. He had been hit by a snowboarder on Spring Dipper, he told a sheriff’s deputy who later interviewed him at the medical center.
After the collision, the snowboarder had walked the man down to the village, sat him in a chair and left, according to the report.
These accidents represent the three times sheriff’s deputies were summoned to Summit County resorts since the 2004-2005 season opened.
Resorts report person-to-person collisions to the Sheriff’s Office, but do their own investigations otherwise. Some accidents are not reported to either ski patrol or other resort personnel.
While receiving a ticket for reckless endangerment is a possibility (if the offender sticks around), the chances are remote. Most often, people caught skiing or riding recklessly are likely to receive a warning and possibly, lose their pass.
For the victims, the Colorado Skier Safety Act pins responsibility for slope collisions like these squarely on the individual, saying skiers assume their own risk and cannot recover damages from ski resorts for injuries.
The law doesn’t make resorts legally responsible for collisions, but some people think resort operators could do more to prevent them.
“There are a lot of people going very, very fast on the slopes, and there’s no attempt to control that,” said one Breckenridge Ski Resort volunteer who asked not to be identified by name. “There’s no way that you’re going to prevent that entirely, but I think some speed control would be very beneficial.”
The resorts employ a slew of programs to educate skiers and riders about the Skier Safety Act and skiing in control.
Ski patrol posts slow signs on runs at every local area and employs adjunct ski patrol groups to police the slopes, sometimes pulling passes to punish the reckless.
The volunteer who asked to not be identified is, in fact, a speed controller at Breckenridge who said the resort has not done enough during the early season.
The job of speed control entails motioning to people to slow down in designated slow zones. Most of the time the speeders listen; sometimes they flip you off, the volunteer said, adding, “I’ve always felt more control should be exercised throughout the resort.”
Pat Campbell, director of skier services for Breckenridge, said speeder control has been done since opening day at Breckenridge, and that the job is a priority for her staff.
There may be a perception that there’s not enough speed control done on Summit County’s slopes, and in fact, resort officials said more could be done – to a point.
Ward Jackson, the creator and manager of Copper Mountain’s speed policing program called Slope Watch, said he wants more volunteers to boost effectiveness.
About 75 people are involved in Slope Watch, with eight to 15 people a day working on speed control and other guest service tasks.
“Could we be more effective? Sure,” Jackson said. “When you put 7,200 people on a couple of strips of snow in the early season, gosh, it’s a challenge.”
Jackson is off his skis right now because he was hit by a snowboarder on the first Saturday of Copper’s season. He was skiing on the left side of a run carrying a bunch of bamboo poles when the boarder slammed into him.
The boarder’s pass was pulled for a week but Jackson, with a detached muscle, pulled ligaments and a strained MCL, likely won’t ski again this season.
Space: ‘Can I get some?’
“Space not speed” is a popular slogan used by resorts to educate the public about safety. While the latter is managed by slope police, the former is an issue some say needs more intervention, especially in the early season when few runs are open.
Before her accident, Carbone worked in guest services at Breckenridge, sometimes doing speed control on the slopes. She now faces a two-month recovery process and is not likely to ski for months.
She said few people were policing speeders the day of her accident on the Friday before Thanksgiving.
“I think ski areas absolutely have to take responsibility to make the slopes safe,” Carbone said. “For the last five to six years, they’ve been courting youth; now that they have them on the hill, what are they going to do?”
Three runs were open the day of Carbone’s accident. She said ski companies are taking risks in not limiting the number of people on the hill during the early season.
“But of course, they risk losing the almighty Thanksgiving dollar,” she said. “It appears they would rather have someone injured or killed than lose the holiday trade.”
A second guest services employee, who also asked not to be identified by name that worked at Breckenridge over a weekend in November, said the slopes were “really out of control” due to the fact there were too many people on too few (three) runs.
“It was really chaotic,” the employee said. “On Cashier that day two terrain parks were open, there were many boarders coming down to go through the terrain park; people were just flying.”
The employee suggested the resort limit the number of people allowed on the hill during the early season.
Roger McCarthy, chief operating officer at Breckenridge and Keystone Resort, said that while people may think that’s a good idea, they mean limit everybody but them.
He also questioned how a family arriving after a three-hour trip should be told the slopes are closed.
McCarthy also said it’s his experience that more skiers per acre does not lead to more bodily mayhem.
“Collisions are not a factor of density,” McCarthy said. “I don’t think we see (collisions) any more when it’s crowded than when it’s not crowded.”
Breckenridge spokeswoman Emily Jacob said the company keeps annual statistics on collisions and accidents, but since Vail Resorts is a publicly held company, the statistics are not made public.
“We are paying attention here; we don’t see a correlation,” Jacob said.
Does enforcement work?
As head of ski patrol at Whistler in 1983, McCarthy found himself at the center of North America’s first criminal case involving a skier collision, when one of the mountain employees was badly injured by a reckless skier.
After years heading up safety efforts at resorts, he still gets “pissed off” when he witnesses a reckless skier on the slopes.
Even his wife, who racks up more than 100 days a year, is on his case about reckless skiers and riders.
“She thinks I have total power to fix this,” McCarthy said. “But the bottom line is, we can enforce it, but we can’t prevent it.”
When the reckless skier was prosecuted in Vancouver and did jail time, McCarthy said he expected it to change the way people acted.
That was more than 20 years ago.
“I think you could always add to what we’re doing,” McCarthy said. “But I don’t think you could police it to the standpoint that it’s still skiing and riding as we know it.”
As McCarthy notes, there’s a reason why car insurance for men under the age of 25 is so costly – it’s statistically the age and gender that acts with more aggression.
These days, the group is largely descending the slopes on snowboards.
According to the National Ski Areas Association, snowboarding dominates new sport entrants at 60 percent.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that that men in their teens and 20s are more aggressive and like to go faster,” said Arapahoe Basin’s mountain operations manager Alan Henceroth.
The four reported collisions so far this season in Summit County were caused by men on snowboards.
Besides policing aggressive attitudes, McCarthy said there are a few new safety factors to consider with the addition of snowboarders on the slopes.
“It’s very different in terms of where you use the hill,” he said. “(Snowboarders) make big, carving turns, and I think it’s changing the way we need to design trails.”
Removing tree islands on trails, at North Peak for example, could open up the slope and remove obstacles, McCarthy said.
Another suggestion he made is skier/snowboarder segregation.
He said the resorts are making strides in separating the two groups by adding terrain parks and pipes, which tend to attract snowboarders and keep them off the rest of the mountains.
The buck stops here
The general public may point a finger at resort operators to take more action, but when discussing ultimate responsibility for slope safety, resort operators point it right back.
The Skier Safety Act was repeatedly cited by ski area officials interviewed for this story:
“We as a resort operator do our best to make our slopes reasonably safe,” said Vail Resorts’ risk manager Craig George. “But there’s a high responsibility placed on the guests.”
“The steps to responsibility as it relates to the Skier Safety Act puts many duties on the skiers themselves,” said Sam Parker, risk manager for Intrawest and the former head of ski patrol at Copper Mountain. “Most of the duties, when it comes to skiing under control, are the duties of the skier.”
One option for skiers who feel vulnerable under crowded conditions or nervous next to reckless skiers and boarders is the choice to stay home.
The resorts believe the individual should accept the risk of a collision on the slopes, but they’re also taking strides to educate the general public about appropriate behavior.
McCarthy pledged continued vigilance on the resort’s part to address safety, but deflected the finger-pointing that’s occurring in the wake of Carbone’s and other accidents that happened this season.
“To think that we could prevent every one of those things … if we can do that,” he said, “I’ll go to the Middle East and take on world peace.”
Kim Marquis can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 249, or a firstname.lastname@example.org.