Van Beek: When on the mountain, know your stuff
Much has been in the news about issues on the ski mountains. The range of concerns is extensive, and while some of it is an accumulation of conditions leading up to today, others are unique to this season, and most of these issues don’t appear to have any immediate solutions. Some involve safety, and, regardless of the cause, the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office will be there.
Winter mountain sports are inherently dangerous. We all know of people who have perished while skiing or snowboarding. It’s one of the most heartbreaking aspects of mountain life. Some of us will not make it beyond the current season, either due to stupidity, unpredictable events or just Mother Nature doing her thing. We live in a rural environment, and with it comes a degree of danger, and we just love to tempt fate.
We always hope that if we are in danger, there will be help nearby, but as we all know, that isn’t always realistic or possible. There are many more people than there are first responders. So, we must be responsible for our own self-protection. Knowing the “rules of the road” is an excellent start, and ski mountains and snow sports have plenty of them.
Anyone who has died on the mountain woke up that morning expecting to return later that day. Whatever happened between their morning coffee and mid-afternoon was genuinely a shock to them.
Even the most experienced skiers can absentmindedly forget a safety element that they have normally done for years, yet it happens to nearly everyone at one time or another.
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There are some basic considerations that we often take for granted, but it helps us to be conscious of our environment and abilities before heading out. Even expert skiers have days when they are just “off” and probably should not be pushing their limits at the time … better saved for a later day.
Start off simple, be aware of changing weather, snow and icy conditions — they can change in an instant and go from blue sky to whiteout as a front shifts direction over a mountain peak, blinding you as you attempt to reach bottom.
There are variations in terrain, and while a blue run is expected to be at a certain level, it ranges from just above green to just below black, and that variation will occur on a single run; not all blues are the same.
We all want to push our limits, but we must be realistic of our skill level and physical limitations. If your knee is bothering you in the morning, it might not be the day to do your double diamond run. Decide if today is an adventure day or a relaxing one. Both will touch your soul.
Of course, be aware of the posted terrain designations: Round green (easier), square blue (more difficult), black diamond (more difficult), black double diamond (most difficult) and the newest one, orange oval (freestyle terrain).
Lifts can move quickly. Be sure you have sufficient physical dexterity, ability and knowledge to safely load, ride and unload the lift.
Regardless of where you begin on the mountain, you will end up on blue and green runs below. These are often designated as “slow zones.” For you, this may simply be an alignment to your preferred chairlift, but for many, especially young families, these may be their primary runs for the day.
You also have those recovering from injuries or wanting to continue enjoying their winter lifestyle at a slower pace than years earlier. In any case, those skiing these runs are not racers, and if hit by someone zooming down from above, the impact can be deadly.
Know the code. Stay in control. You must be able to stop or ski well enough to avoid people and objects. People ahead have the right of way; it’s your responsibility to avoid them. Do not stop where you obstruct a trail or are not visible from above. Before starting downhill or merging onto a trail, look uphill and yield to others.
If you must stop, make sure it is a safe spot. When starting downhill or merging, look uphill and yield. Use devices to help prevent runaway equipment, which could put you and others in peril.
While some signs are constant, others may be erected for a specific purpose that day, so be observant of all warnings and closed trails (avalanche conditions can come up suddenly). If you are involved in or witness a collision/accident, remain at the scene and show ID to the ski patrol.
Remember, you may have the right of way on a run, but someone above you, who does not see you or has an unexpected issue that makes it difficult for them to stop, could hit you. For your own safety, be prepared for evasive moves. Also, there is no shame in taking a lift down if you find yourself too exhausted to ski it.
It’s best to ski with a partner in case something goes wrong. Maintain visual contact. A ski partner is no help if they are waiting below in the lift line, while you are stuck with a twisted leg, midway up the mountain.
Snow sports are high risk and require concentration, awareness and an ability to analyze impending situations. If you are on medications, drugs or alcohol, these all limit your ability to react to danger. When moments count, your life can depend on your awareness and reaction. Do not board a lift if you are impaired — it could cost lives, including your own.
The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office has deputies patrolling the mountains daily. Thank you to the red jackets, the yellow jackets and all who look after one another as we live the lifestyle we have come to love. Have fun and be safe.
James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at email@example.com.