Aspen Skiing Co. has launched a campaign to boost safety on the slopes without sucking the fun out of skiing.
Skico has 10 to 15 workers dedicated to slowing down skiers and snowboarders in specific zones at its four ski areas, according to Rich Burkley, vice president of mountain operations. They also will discourage blind jumping, emerging from trees without looking uphill, and violating closures.
Those workers’ efforts are in addition to the regular safety efforts undertaken by the ski patrol.
The increased focus on safety is taking place during the Christmas and New Year’s Day period and will continue on the busiest days throughout the season.
The pillars of the program are education, awareness and an on-mountain presence by the patrol and dedicated speed-control workers, Burkley said.
Local skiers and snowboarders, as well as visiting experts, are urged to take it easy in high traffic areas and places where they come in contact with skiers of lesser abilities, Burkley said. Skico wants to educate more experienced skiers and snowboarders to give beginners and low intermediates plenty of space and to slow down when encountering them.
Pulling season passes or lift tickets is a tool that will be used when there are repeat violations or signs of unwillingness to work with the resort.
“We keep track of the individuals we contact, and if we have a guest that we have multiple contacts (with), we’ll hold a few days of skiing and follow up with further education,” Burkley said.
Burkley performed speed control on Aspen Mountain with three members of the ski patrol Thursday afternoon. He said via an email that they made three contacts with customers on various safety issues. Two had “very good attitudes,” he said, so the emphasis was on education. He didn’t say what happened with the customer who didn’t have a good attitude, but he stressed that in those situations, Skico often will “block some days.”
There was no specific incident that spurred Skico’s safety campaign, according to Burkley. There was a fatal collision between skiers on Aspen Mountain last season, but it wasn’t at a time or place where high traffic was an issue.
Natalie Egleston, 48, of Ardmore, Pa., died after another skier collided with her on Feb. 3. No charges were filed against the other skier, who stopped to aid Egleston. That incident didn’t weigh into the decision to increase safety efforts this season, Burkley said.
There is increased, industry-wide attention to safety issues this season, according to Burkley.
“What you’re seeing is a sense in the industry that speed is an issue,” he said.
A contributing factor is the rising popularity of applications for smartphones that measure, among other things, the speed attained by skiers and snowboarders. Skico officials are seeing those applications used more often, though not nearly as much as at some Front Range resorts, Burkley said.
“We’re OK with setting a (speed) record; it’s just when and where,” Burkley said.
“We have enough terrain that we should be able to accommodate all of our guests,” he later added.
He noted that many skiers and snowboarders experience at least two cycles during their lifetime when they feel speed is an issue. Anyone who teaches a child to ski is acutely aware of the speed at which others are moving, Burkley said. And as skiers get older, many have a greater perception of risk on the slopes, he said.
Skico regularly conducts on-mountain surveys of its customers. The surveys include opportunities to talk about safety.
“We don’t feel our sense of safety is as high as we want,” Burkley said.
In addition to an increased on-mountain presence by workers dedicated to safety issues, Skico will use new signs to capture attention. They say “No Straightlining.”
The safety patrol and signs will move around the mountains throughout the day. For example, at midday Thursday, signs and the on-mountain presence were focused on Tortilla Flats on Aspen Mountain. Later in the day, the focus was at Grand Junction, where Spar Gulch and Copper Bowl come together, and upper Little Nell.
The signs will be moved to be effective.
“The sign becomes part of the landscape after awhile,” Burkley said.
Skico previously took other steps to check speeds at certain places, such as tighter entrances to chairlifts mazes. Improving safety will be an evolving, multi-season effort, Burkley said.
Additional parts of the safety campaign will be rolled out in January. The National Ski Areas Association, a ski-industry trade association, has regularly coordinated a National Safety Week in the past where participating members held events to build awareness. That has been expanded to National Safety Month this year in January.
Burkley said each of Skico’s four ski areas will host events for one week during Safety Month to try to build awareness about safe skiing and snowboarding. Skico will announce more about the campaign next month.
“Our goal isn’t to prevent people from being on the hill and having fun. The goal is to improve the sense of on-mountain safety of our guests,” Burkley said.
“Our goal isn’t to prevent people from being on the hill and having fun.”
Rich Burkley, Aspen Skiing Co.