SNOWMASS VILLAGE - President's Day and an early Mardi Gras mark the beginning of more visitors on the slopes, and the increased number raises many safety issues. With the increased popularity of backcountry skiing, half pipes and terrain parks, being responsible is not just about safe skiing on groomed runs.
The National Ski Areas Association established "Your Responsibility Code" in 1966 as a code of principles for all skiers on the mountain. Today, the code reflects not only skier safety, but snowboarder and lift safety as well. Ultimately, safe skiing and snowboarding on the mountain is each person's responsibility.
Following the Responsibility Code helps all skiers and snowboarders have a safer mountain experience. No matter where you are skiing, snowboarding or some other form of on-mountain sliding, you are legally bound to the Colorado Ski Safety Act. Under Colorado law, a skier assumes the risk of any injury to person or property resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing.
With the growth of free-ride skiing, more and more skiers and snowboarders journey outside ski area boundaries in search of untracked powder. Venturing into the backcountry or sidecountry with its unspoiled slopes, seclusion and natural beauty are linked to inherent hazards. Backcountry areas are neither patrolled nor controlled, and with the instability of this season's snowpack, danger is extreme, especially after a new snowfall. Snow conditions are very different from those found within the boundaries of a ski area. Out there, avalanches accommodate no one.
Avalanches are a humbling reminder of nature's awesome power and can easily destroy anything unlucky enough to be in their path: people, trees, cars and even buildings. While techniques for predicting and avoiding avalanches are generally reliable, anyone who ventures into the snowy backcountry will never be completely safe from the threat of an avalanche. It's so important to be well-versed in avalanche safety and search-and-rescue techniques. It is always best to check with patrol before venturing out of bounds.
Over the past few years there has been a dramatic upsurge in the popularity of terrain parks with snowboarders and skiers alike, increasing the need for safety awareness. Ski areas are spending more money, time and effort to build bigger and better parks. Every time you use freestyle terrain, make a plan for each feature you want to use. Your speed, approach and take-off will directly affect your maneuver and landing. Look before you leap. Know that your landings are clear and once over the jump quickly move away from the landing area. Start small and work your way up. Inverted aerials are not recommended unless you have been trained and experienced executing these daredevil maneuvers.
Popularity of these parks and jumps raises another safety issue. Young "twin-tippers," snowboarders, park riders and jumpers are doing what the patrol calls straightlining, or going straight from point A to the park entrance and then from the park to the lift.
Bonzai Ridge and Funnel are two of the scarier and dangerous places on the mountain, especially on weekends and when kids are out of school for spring break and holidays. Funnel has a mix of kid's classes, adult classes of varying abilities and a variety of levels all traversing one run. Add in straightliners heading down the steep section carrying 50 mph or more, jumping off of transitions without spotters and beelining to the terrain park. This in unnerving for even the seasoned pro and absolutely terrifying to a slow intermediate guest on what now is one of the most crowded trails at Snowmass due to the addition of the gondola.
Bonzai Ridge is the access to some good blue and black diamond trails. Bonzai is narrow and can be slick due to snowmaking on the trail and has a similar issue with straightliners headed to the top of big terrain park.
These are just two examples of taking away some of the best skiing and teaching terrain for the sake of a small percentage of people's preferences.
In light of the recent collision and resulting death that occurred on Aspen Mountain, we need to be especially cautious and aware of consequences of out-of-control or reckless skiing and riding. Stop off to the sides of trails well away from the flow of traffic, do not stop below a road or transition, be very aware of your surroundings, and do not rely on the uphill skier to be watching out for you. Many skiers or riders are going way too fast for their ability and would not be able to avoid someone in front of them if something happens. So, you need to look over your shoulder now and then in crowded high-traffic areas and be predictable.
Skiing and snowboarding can be enjoyed in many ways. You might see people using alpine skis, snowboards, Telemark skis, cross-country skis and other specialized equipment, such as that used by disabled persons. Regardless of how or where you choose to enjoy the slopes, always show courtesy to others and be aware that there are elements of risk in skiing that common sense and personal awareness can help reduce. Read and abide by the Responsibility Code, share with other skiers and riders to enhance your skiing experience. It's your responsibility. Nothing ruins a great vacation as much as an accident that didn't have to happen. Wear a helmet. Shop small, and see you next run.
Don Jewkes is a 36-year certified PSIA-RM level 3 Teaching Professional and local resident. Support your local independent retailers and restaurants.