Safety Is Up To All Of Us.

[Editor Note: Dave Irons contributed this article on skiing safety which first appeared in the Lewiston Sun Journal. Dave is a veteran ski journalist and ski patroller.  SeniorsSkiing.com is collecting stories from readers about incidents and accidents that they have experienced. We intend to review these for patterns and themes and use that data to influence the safety policies of resorts and other stakeholders. ]

Each ski season the issue of safety comes up. Some years it’s a fatality at one of our ski areas. It might be a famous person, like Sonny Bono who died while tree skiing at Heavenly Valley on the California/Nevada line.  One year it was a couple of teenagers who left the trail at Sunday River and had to be rescued at night.  Whatever the trigger we all need to be reminded at times of the need for safety while skiing.  I remember years ago when I walked into Tom Reynolds classroom at UMF.  On the board was the saying, “If it is to be, it’s up to me”.

That pretty much describes safety on the ski slopes.  How often have we heard someone say about a particular situation, “There oughta be a law!”?   You might be surprised to know that there are some laws when it comes to skier safety.  Mostly we are not restricted in our skiing, but there are certain activities that are limited, most not by law but by ski area policy. One example is skiing too fast in an area posted, “SLOW SKIING”.  Skiing fast in an area set aside for beginners or approaching lifts can bring about a warning from the ski patrol. It will usually be nothing but a warning. Some ski patrols will mark the lift ticket either with a marker or by punching a hole in the ticket.  Stopped by a second patroller who spots the mark will result in loss of ticket.

But that’s not law.  When are skiers likely to be subject to law?  Unlike on the highway, there are no radar guns on the ski slopes, but if there is a collision and injury, the law can be involved.  The Colorado Skier Safety Law states clearly, “The person higher on the hill has the responsibility to avoid people below and if something happens that skier or boarder is at fault”.  Notice that there is no mention of the ski area being responsible.  As a ski patrolman, I used to sum it up this way, “If you are good enough to overtake another skier, you should be good enough to avoid them.”

We often hear, “He cut me off” from skiers who hit someone while passing them.  I would make the point that the skier downhill from us cannot be expected to look up the hill before making a turn, especially if that downhill skier is a lower level skier.  The better skier has to be aware that he is sharing the slopes with skiers of all ability levels. And we should all know the Colorado law.  It may not be the law in Maine, but we can be sure it will cited by an attorney representing a skier who has been hit from above.    

This should be all we need to know about avoiding collisions on the hill. Add the common sense parts of the Skiers’ Code Of Responsibility such as slowing down and looking up hill when entering a trail intersection, looking uphill before entering a trail and always stopping on the edge of the trail.

The next area is skiing closed trails and out of bounds. I can tell from years of experience that no ski patroller wants to close a trail.  If it’s closed it’s because the ski patrol judged it to be unsafe.  Also, no ski patroller wants to have to explain to management why they closed a trail if it was skiable.  I would also point out that if any of those skiers who patrolled for me felt uncomfortable on a run, you probably don’t want to ski it, and the average skier certainly doesn’t belong on it. Trails are closed for our safety. Stick to the runs that are open. And to those that are within your ability. 

Out of bounds is another issue.  This is not to be confused with skiing in glades within the area, but this skiing also calls for special precautions.  Sonny Bono lost his life within bounds, but he was skiing alone in the trees. We don’t know if he died instantly or if he might have lived had rescuers reached him quickly. His body was found the next morning. Never ski in the trees alone. It should be a group of three or more, one to stay with the injured skier while another goes for help.  Cellphones help, but if you don’t know where you are on the mountain it can still be a long time before rescue. 

Leaving the ski area boundaries is taking an extreme risk, not only to the skier, but to those who will be involved in the rescue.  If you survive a problem even if it’s no more than getting lost and having to be led out, this can involve the law. In these cases it’s not uncommon for a number of services to be involved such as warden services and police. For this you could receive a bill, and it could be quite large. Just figure the hourly pay for dozens of searchers for a full night, along with the equipment. Do you know what it costs an hour to keep a helicopter in the air? The next time you consider skiing out of bounds remember this sign at the top of Killington, “The mountains will be just as cold and lonely tonight as they were 200 years ago”. 

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