Pads on every tree unlikely | AspenTimes.com

Pads on every tree unlikely

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

While the Aspen Skiing Co. plans to do more to get the message out about skiing safely, it is not likely to radically change the way it manages its ski areas or its programs.

Mike Kaplan, the vice president of mountain operations for the Skico, and Dave Bellack, the company’s in-house legal counsel, said last week during an interview that ski areas cannot eliminate all the risks in skiing.

“There are inherent risks in skiing,” said Bellack.

Indeed, the Colorado Skier Safety Act warns skiers that the “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” include “changing weather conditions, existing and changing snow conditions, bare spots, rocks, stumps, trees, collision with natural objects, manmade objects and other skiers, variations in the terrain, and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities.”

“As long as that remains intact, we can continue to offer skiing as we know it today,” said Kaplan.

The Skier Safety Act means that while ski areas do have a certain level of responsibility for reducing risks, such as putting pads on lift towers and marking danger areas, they do not have to take safety precautions to the extreme, such as putting pads on every single tree that lines a ski trail.

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However, even that could change someday, as litigation continues to redefine just what responsibilities belong to the ski areas.

The issue of on-mountain safety is on many people’s minds as a record 13 people have died on Colorado’s slopes this winter, nine of them after hitting a tree. And five of the deaths have occurred on mountains run by the Aspen Skiing Co.

In response, the Skico plans to stress newly developed safety messages to its guests, but is not taking such steps as requiring the use of helmets or, more drastically, lining all of its trails with World Cup-style fencing.

The concept of the Skico requiring its guests to wear helmets is being advocated by some after a 6-year-old girl from Florida died after hitting a tree at Aspen Highlands. A local doctor has suggested that she might have lived had she been wearing a helmet.

But Kaplan and Bellack don’t foresee the Skico making helmets mandatory, nor do they think the ski industry will take other measures such as making skiers pass a test to prove they are competent skiers, just as beginning drivers have to pass a test to get a license.

“I sure hope it doesn’t come to that,” said Kaplan. “I think that goes against what this sport is about. It’s about freedom in a mountain environment.”

More troubling to some was that the young girl who died at Highlands was in a ski school class.

But while ski pros are trained to teach the Skier’s Responsibility Code in their lessons, Bellack said that being in a ski school class doesn’t mean that someone is necessarily any less exposed to the risks of skiing.

“I don’t think the customer is warranted in having a greater expectation of safety because they are in ski school,” said Bellack. “While safety instruction is built into every lesson, you still have all the inherent risks of skiing.”