SNOWMASS - Jeff Teaford's dream of coming up with an effective way to teach young skiers and snowboarders the skier safety and responsibility code finally clicked this winter.
The longtime Aspen Skiing Co. employee, cartoonist and illustrator got inspired in 1998 while teaching skiing to try to find a way to ingrain safety tips with kids. It was clear from the start, he said, that he would have to capture kids' attention with a cartoon character. He went through three sets of individuals or pairs of characters, but his proposed safety campaigns were not quite good enough to get Skico's blessing, he acknowledged.
That changed with his latest proposal. A few years ago, Teaford started working with the concept of using an orange mastodon named Wallace to get the safety tips across to kids. Serendipity struck a short time later when a reservoir on the outskirts of Snowmass Village turned out to be a treasure trove of fossils from ice-age creatures, including mastodons.
"Instead of giving up on it, I stuck with it. It just seemed like a natural," he said.
Teaford kept refining the character and also renamed him Wally in honor of Wallace Westfeldt, a Roaring Fork Valley native and world-class freeride snowboarder who died at age 22 during a backcountry film shoot outside Aspen Highlands in April 2008. Teaford got the blessing of Westfeldt's parents, both longtime Skico ski pros, to honor Wallace through the safety-promoting cartoon character.
The character and the campaign to introduce him to youngsters starting their ski lessons at the Treehouse kids facility at Snowmass earned the support of Skico officials prior to this season. Teaford developed seven posters with key safety tips. Those colorful, eye-catching posters feature Wally in different skiing scenarios. The posters hang in a busy hallway outside the bathrooms at the Treehouse.
Teaford also developed coloring-book sheets that kids use when they're off the slopes as well as "Wally Says" stickers that get distributed to kids' classes. Wally also makes an appearance on the kids ski-trail map. But perhaps the best way of spreading the safety messages is on a kids safety trail through the trees on the lower portion of the ski area, above Fanny Hill. Three large cutouts of Wally adorn the landscape, urging kids to follow good practices such as checking uphill when entering an intersection of trails.
The posters and stickers always feature rich colors, and Wally uses positive reinforcement rather than scolding.
"He's recognizing when someone's doing the right thing," Teaford said.
All the instructors know Teaford, who now heads maintenance in Snowmass Base Village buildings, including the Treehouse, and they support his program. Many of them take their classes on the Wally safety trail.
Teaford said it has been rewarding for him to see Wally resonate with kids. The "Wally Says" stickers are a hit with kids in classes. By happenstance, Teaford overheard one little guy at the Treehouse talk about seeing Wally on the safety trail. He got his classmates inspired to check out Wally and his safety tips.
Teaford hopes to add to the safety program at Snowmass and expand it to the other ski areas. He said the experience reinforces that Skico is a place where an employee can make a difference.
"I am more honored than I can explain to see my little character become a reality," Teaford said.