Words + Photos by Seth Lightcap
Tahoe lifts on ‘ice hold’ were a grim reminder, but in case you still forgot, this week was National Ski Area Safety Awareness Week. I guess Snoop Dogg was in on it, he hosted a wicked safety meeting at Mont Bleu on Wednesday, and of course, the National Ski Area Association hosted one of their annual winter conferences at Alta/Snowbird this week as well.
OK, so I had never heard of “Ski Area Safety” week either, but about a milli-second before blowing it off, my mind snagged on the concept. What is “Ski Area Safety”? By definition it sounded like a contradiction, especially in a week where the real news I was looking for was freeride comp info.
Jackie Paaso on her way to winning the 2010 FWT TramFace comp.
What struck me was that there is no other leisure industry in the world that is based on a sporting pursuit as inherently dangerous as shredding down snowy mountains at high speeds. Even in the best conditions on the most benign slope, once a skier gains any speed there is the potential for grave injury if the wrong stars align. We’ve all seen it. I’ll know i’ll never forget when I saw a father compound fracture his own daughter’s femur attempting to scoop her up at the bottom of the chairlift with a little momentum.
But of course, the unavoidable element of danger is part of what makes shredding so rad. You can tempt your fate every lap of every day, and generally, mostly sometimes get away with it more times than not. Hanging out on the edge of the world without falling off is an addictive place to sit. Not to mention the view is tremendous. No doubt that craving to hang out on the edge is one of the primary catalyst for snowsports progression both personally and as a collective. As our skills increase our perception of how close to the edge we need to go for satisfaction changes. That’s how it’s possible to rationalize building a poppy take-off atop the Fingers under KT-22. Your mind gobbles the danger drug based on your skill set.
Battling the dangers of skiing is obviously a sisyphean task so I gotta give some credit to the National Ski Area Association for the effort. Their safety campaigns are mainly signs and slogans plastered around the mountain but I take no offense to an occasional ‘Stay In Control’ sign on a lift tower. Even if I plan on ignoring it for a couple turns in the runout I sure as hell hope any rider within 20 feet of me on the Mountain Run keeps it in mind. Many of NSAA’s other campaigns hit home too, especially for younger rippers, things like tree well and deep snow safety.
Bottom line is that safety on skis is in the eye of the beholder. We each draw our own line in the sand for what is acceptable risk. Our ski culture rewards the daring however, so our vision of that line is often blurred by glory. Not that riding into this blinding light is always a bad thing, but the reality of such situations needs to be respected. Progression may demand you disobey rule #1 every once in awhile, but for the sake of your Mom and the friends that love you, out-of-control ripping ain’t the best look. Not only will you lose GNAR points when you double eject and tomahawk, but history would suggest that danger odds can be additive. When you continually ask for trouble, homeboy can and will crash your party.
Harping on safety seems a bit wack going into an ultra-mega weekend for Unofficial athletes competing in the world’s baddest freeride comps though, so for Ralph, Ryland, JT, Timy, Jackie and anyone else looking to step on the podium, I’d suggest we flip the script to “Respect Danger“ week. Because you gotta push it to fulfill your dreams but you still want to ride tomorrow. Keep your game tight and your boots in line with your skills everybody! Good luck!
I’ll let you marinate on that thought for a minute and finish up with a quick report on another bit of safety research that was announced this week. A California based non-profit called the SnowSports Safety Foundation just released it’s first report on safety standards at California ski resorts.
The California Mountain Resort Safety Report details safety precautions that SnowSports Safety researchers observed at 25 ski areas in California during the 2009-2010 winter. The study tried to eliminate subjective safety factors like visitor numbers and snow conditions by looking at finite infrastructure elements in two categories: Impact Protection (tower pads, fencing) and Trail Design and Maintenance (hazard marking and trail intersection precautions). Every resort was rated from 1-10 on categories related to those two topics plus a couple others like terrain parks, chairlift safety bars and on-hill vehicles.
Squaw was rated middle of the pack as they did not score well in a couple categories. For impact protection they scored a lowly one for both lift towers and snowmaking guns and for trail design they scored a two for ‘divergent ability intersections’ (where advanced terrain dumps into beginner terrain). They got high marks for ‘trail congestion areas’ as the researchers noted the traffic patrol personnel and also for ‘inadvertent entry into exempt terrain’, aka nice signs and gates guarding Silverado.
This non-profit’s safety report holds no weight as far as mandating resort improvements so who knows what will become of it, but I have a feeling that a couple bucks of KSL’s $50 million might go towards new tower pads. Or maybe they’ll just put up a few more ‘Stay in Control’ signs and call it good. Either way, it seems this may be the true definition of “Ski Area Safety”. When the pads and signs are up, responsibility returns to the rider – just how we like it. If I want to get rad, let me get rad.