Staying safe on the slopes
Dan Gregorie has been on a mission since Sunday, February 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 that Gregorie fell to her death did not have fences or warning signs in place, and no signs or fences were placed there following 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 2006-2007 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.
When driving down a highway in the United States, even in an unfamiliar area, road signs help guide the way. There is trust that the road is safe to drive on and hazards will be marked. This is accomplished by uniformed graphic symbols and words on road signs.
If that road leads to a ski resort, it’s likely a visitor will be entering unfamiliar territory. Chances are the language of the resort is different from the previous resort visited. Chances are there will be signs but in no consistent manner. Skiers and snowboarders have to take the time to learn each language.
Starting just such a common language is now Gregorie’s mission. 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 on Monday at Squaw Valley, 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.
According to a recent article in The Coloradoan, most fatal accidents happen on well-groomed blue cruiser trails where the average speed of skiers is 25 to 40 miles per hour.
Marc Bornn, a former fighter pilot who took a vacation earlier this month to Squaw Valley USA from his home in Connecticut, says he believes skiing is safer today than when he started 40 years ago. The equipment is better and ski resorts more conscious of safety, he says.
“It’s easier to check your speed and you don’t get as tired,” Bornn says.
He also says resorts are safer in the United States than in Europe, but it comes at a price.
“Insurance has caused them to toughen up, but it also increases the price of ticket. Europe leaves it up to the individual skier.”
Ski resorts in and around the Tahoe Basin have taken different approaches for controlling speed. For the last 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 to 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 five miles an 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 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 awarded for best safety week program for National Safety Awareness Week. Northstar has a You Responsibility Code, seven steps created by the National Ski Areas Association, posted around the ski resort including “Always stay in control, and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects and People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them.”
But Dean admits most people do not know the code. She believes most accidents occur when people are out of control and put themselves and others in danger.
When people like Bornn hit the slopes some 40 years ago they were part of a small fraternity ” experienced skiers, Gregorie says. Now the slopes are like a highway with all types of vehicles and drivers.
“Skiers were rugged outdoors people,” Gregorie says. “But the clientele has changed dramatically. We’ve invited the general public, people are coming in that are a lot less experienced and aware of their capabilities.
“If you have a clientele that is so varied in age, skills and abilities I believe you have an obligation to protect their safety,” Gregorie says.
One of the problems Gregorie says he sees is the lack of statistics on ski deaths and injuries. His organization has bits and pieces of information but no comprehensive data base.
“If you can’t measure it you can’t improve it,” Gregorie says. “We have a hard time determining what’s going on on the slopes.”
Skiers who die or are injured are usually considered experienced, Gregorie says.
“I have no basis to say what that is,” Gregorie says. “I don’t know what that means in today’s environment.”
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.”
The attitude toward ski deaths is similar to aviation deaths in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, which were claimed to be “pilot error,” Gregorie says.
“[People said] you can’t reduce accidents in airplanes; there’s nothing you can do about it.”
But he says something was done. Everything is standardized and the number of deaths have dropped dramatically, Gregorie says.
“I think the same thing can happen in the ski industry,” he says, explaining that the same way hospitals go through accreditation ski resorts should do the same.
“My view,” Gregorie says, “is the ski industry should take this on their own.”
Skiing is viewed as a risky activity, so people accept injures. In 40 years Bornn says he has seen his fair share of injuries, but it doesn’t keep him off the slopes. He continues to ski all over the world.
“I’ve taken calculated risks my whole life,” Bornn says. “There’s a degree of danger in life and if you’re going to let that stop you you’re not living. Any skier can make it as dangerous or as safe as they want.”
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