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Safety on the slopes not just resort issue

NICOLE FORMOSA
summit daily news

KEYSTONE ” A look at recent statistics paints an unnerving picture of the dangers of snow sports: Inside the ski area boundaries, an average of 38 people died on American slopes each year over the past decade, and 42 people per year were involved in a crippling accident. This season, five skiers have died on Colorado slopes, three of which occurred in Summit County.

Avalanche data is even more intimidating: Colorado ranks the highest in the nation for avalanche deaths between 1950 and 2005, Summit County leads the state’s counties in avalanche fatalities and one-quarter of all avalanche fatalities occur two miles from a ski area, according to Colorado Avalanche Information Center assistant director Nick Logan.

The flip side is that since 1990, Colorado’s population has increased 38 percent, but the number of avalanche fatalities has not followed that trend, Logan said.

“We like to think that is the CAIC program doing its job, because we do a lot of forecasting and a lot of avalanche education,” Logan said.

Education was a key term during Thursday’s Our Future Summit meeting at the Keystone Center, which featured a five-person panel and centered around skier safety on the slopes and in the backcountry.

The forum opened with a video produced by Vail Resorts’ ski patroller Julie Rust highlighting components of the Colorado Ski Safety Act, such as snow riders must always be in control and the uphill skier holds the responsibility for avoiding snow riders below.

The lessons were laced with documents of ski patrollers reliving fatal collisions they had responded to or the outcomes of situations when skiers or riders ducked ski area boundary ropes and became lost, sometimes succumbing to the elements.

Keystone Resort has made a concerted effort to devote time and money to education, said panelist Chuck Tolton, director of mountain operations at Keystone.

Three years ago, nine people died during one season at Keystone, but every year since then, that number has stayed at zero, Tolton said.

“A lot of that is luck. A lot of that is a very focused effort on the part of our employees, on the part of our ski patrol, our yellow jackets, mountain management to elevate awareness and provide this education,” Tolton told the audience of about 35.

The mountain has become less tolerant of irresponsible behavior and more aggressive in calling the sheriff’s office to report problems. Plus, this year’s budget included a $100,000 increase for the Slope Watch program, Tolton said.

But, as panelist and risk management consultant Jim Moss pointed out, the responsibility of educating the masses of skiers and riders who visit Summit County each year can’t fall only into resorts’ laps.

“If you’re going to get tired of putting your money into search and rescue and seeing your friends up all night going out and looking for the ‘idiots’ of the world, you’re going to have to do a little more and you can’t just rely on the resorts to do it, it’s going to have to be community based,” Moss said.

Our Future Summit executive director Sandy Briggs suggested using the county’s Crime Stoppers program to offer rewards to those who report people who leave the scene of a skier collision. One tactic could be to hang posters in local bars to get the word out, and hopefully deter people from leaving an accident scene, Briggs said.

While much of the night’s discussion revolved around safety concerns, the talk briefly strayed to backcountry access issues when local Jennifer Kermode questioned the adequacy of backcountry access points from local ski areas.

“There are a lot of people who feel the access points to get into the backcountry from ski areas are unacceptable and that’s why (snowriders are) ducking the ropes in the wrong places,” Kermode said.

Logan recalled a 1987 avalanche that killed four people in Breckenridge’s

Peak 7 bowl, which was outside the ski area boundary at the time, but easily accessed with a short traverse from the top of nearby bowls.

Following the incident, many discussions and public comment sessions were held with the Forest Service, which ultimately decided to relocate access points.

“We said, ‘Great. Let’s make it so they can access that land, but let’s just make it a little harder for the person who really doesn’t want to hike up there to get it,'” Logan said.

Logan said he didn’t know whether the Forest Service had any plans to change its current boundary management plan.

Nicole Formosa can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 13625, or at nformosa@summitdaily.com.

– Three skier deaths, both skier vs. tree;

– Four skier vs. tree collisions resulting in injuries;

– Thirteen skier or snowboarder vs. skier or snowboarder resulting in three people being criminally charged with crime such as reckless endangerment, underage consumption of alcohol and violation of the Colorado Ski Safety Act;

– Two missing skiers (both were found alive).

” Source: Summit County Sheriff John Minor


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