One man’s mission to make skiing safer | TahoeDailyTribune.com

One man’s mission to make skiing safer

Emma Garrard / Sierra Sun

Dan Gregorie has been on a mission since Feb. 5, 2006. That’s when his daughter, Jessica, died at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort – a death he believes was preventable.

Gregorie’s 24-year-old daughter was trudging along the northern ski boundary at Alpine Meadows’ Beaver Bowl when she dropped her snowboard over the icy precipice.

Her board slid down the mountain toward Granite Chief Wilderness. When the Bay Area woman tried to retrieve it, she slipped and plunged 200 feet down a series of steep embankments.

The area where Jessica Gregorie fell to her death did not have fences or warning signs in place, and no signs or fences were placed there after the accident.

And while Dan Gregorie says he doesn’t think all deaths on the slopes can be prevented, he does believe the number of fatalities and injuries can be reduced with the help of ski resorts.

“Absolutely, with no question,” Gregorie says. “My daughter’s death was avoidable.”

During the 2006-07 season, ski resorts nationwide saw 22 fatalities out of the 55.1 million skier/snowboarder days reported. Yet the industry, Gregorie says, lacks established ski and snowboard safety standards that could reduce terrible accidents.

The physician from Maine founded the California Ski and Snowboard Safety Organization, based in San Francisco, last fall.

The aim of the fledgling organization is to have ski areas use similar safety language at all resorts in the United States.

“The focus of resorts is on educating the skier. But the focus also needs to be on what are you doing in terms of signage,” Gregorie says. “You would think the use of graphic signs would be ubiquitous. There is also no standardization to slope ratings – each mountain determines that themselves.

“There’s no uniform best practice standards for safety,” Gregorie says. “It varies from resort to resort.”

After hearing about Truckee resident James Taylor’s death at Squaw Valley on Feb. 25, Gregorie says he was saddened. He noted that high-speed collisions with fixed objects are the most common cause of death at ski resorts.

Other improvements Gregorie says he thinks ski resorts should make are marking hazards consistently, terrain grading, managing traffic and placing padding on trees and fencing where there are sharp turns.

“Just like we have guard rails on roads,” Gregorie says. “You’re putting your lives in the hands of the resort.”

With better equipment and well-groomed runs, today’s skiers and snowboarders have more control, which should make outings on the slopes safer. But more control often means faster speeds, as fast as driving down a city street.

Ski resorts in and around the Lake Tahoe Basin have taken different approaches for controlling speed. For the past two years, Northstar-at-Tahoe’s mountain safety manager, Nicole Dean, has used a radar gun on the slopes to make skiers and snowboarders aware of how fast they are riding.

“You can show someone an actual number of how fast they are going, and most people think they are going 30 or so miles an hour,” Dean says.

“And when we clock them and inform them they are going 55-60 miles per hour, it really registers in their head of driving on a highway, and, ‘If I fall going 60 miles per hour, I can really hurt myself.’ “

Unlike highways, Dean does not hand out speeding tickets; instead, she hands out hot-chocolate coupons. If skiers and snowboarders guess within 5 miles per hour of their actual speed, they receive a free hot chocolate.

“It’s kind of a game,” Dean says. “We didn’t want it as enforcement.”

Speed limits at Northstar-at-Tahoe were considered, but Dean says a safe speed for some skiers is not safe for others.

Dean has worked as safety manager for nine years and says she has seen improvements in safety at the resort. In 2007, Northstar-at-Tahoe was recognized for best safety-week program for National Safety Awareness Week.

One possible factor in ski-related injuries is alcohol, but it has not been studied, Gregorie says.

“It hasn’t even been looked at (as a factor), and it is served at the top and bottom of resorts,” Gregorie says. “We have no idea how it plays a significant role in accidents. As far as I can see, there is no testing to see if alcohol or drug levels (causes accidents).

“Think about what it would be like if we served people beer and liquor at highway stops.”