We can all enjoy this mountain together | AspenTimes.com

We can all enjoy this mountain together

Brent Gardner-Smith

The lifting of the snowboarding ban on Aspen Mountain has prompted heated street-corner discussions and letters to the editor as to whether the terrain on Ajax is safe for snowboarding.

While there are a range of opinions on the topic, one man’s opinion matters more than most – that of Aspen Mountain Manager Steve Sewell.

Sewell was ski patrol director and then mountain manager at the Snowmass Ski Area before transferring to Ajax two seasons ago. He has 22 years of experience as a patroller and helped managed the integration of skiers and snowboarders at Snowmass. Today, he oversees all facets of operations on Aspen Mountain, including the ski patrol.

“Most of my career has been spent dealing with skier safety,” Sewell said. “And I don’t see this mountain presenting any difficulties from a terrain standpoint that would prevent snowboarders from coming up and enjoying themselves, and they can do so without conflicting with skiers. We can all enjoy this mountain together. It’s about common sense and common courtesy.”

Sewell is quick to point out that the ban was never about safety and terrain concerns, but about appealing to a market niche. And beginning April 1, it will be largely about education.

“I think my biggest challenge is education for both skiers and riders,” he said. “Riders have not been up here much and they need to learn the mountain. And a lot of our skiers on this hill have not interacted much with boarders.”

There are two areas where many skiers are most concerned about that interaction – Spar Gulch and Kleenex Corner. In regard to Spar, it’s not that Sewell doesn’t recognize it as a choke point on the mountain, it’s that he recognizes that all ski areas have choke points that need to be managed.

Sewell also pointed out that as more skiers adopt carving skis as their equipment of choice, they are making wider turns similar to snowboarders.

“With changes in equipment, we are all using more terrain,” he said. “It’s a matter of being aware.”

In regard to Spar, the former patroller also said the same basic rule still applies – downhill skiers/riders have the right of way. And he didn’t foresee at this point having to set up any additional speed-control gates in either Spar or Copper – but he didn’t rule it out either.

The run-out to Kleenex Corner is also not keeping Sewell up at night, as he recognizes that most snowboarders will be able to leave the last speed-control gate in Spar or Copper behind them and still carry enough speed to make it to the top of Little Nell.

“I don’t think Kleenex Corner will be an issue,” he said.

Compared to other traverses and catwalks at Snowmass and Aspen Highlands, most advanced and expert snowboarders found Kleenex Corner easy to navigate on those days the mountain has been opened to riders in the past.

For example, riders at Snowmass trying to travel between the Sheer Bliss lift and the Alpine Springs lift first have to navigate an almost perfectly flat section of lower Green Cabin, and then carry enough speed to get them through the long flat section at the bottom of Coffee Pot as it joins Adams Avenue.

There are more intermediate skiers and boarders, more cross-traffic, and more kids lessons on Adams Avenue than on Kleenex Corner, and that particular area at Snowmass has never caused significant problems.

And for those who ride the expert terrain on Aspen Highlands, the catwalks coming out of Temerity and Steeplechase make Kleenex Corner seem like an absolute cakewalk. The Steeplechase catwalk, in particular, is fast, narrow, curvy, bumpy, rutted, and on powder days, crowded.

Based on his experience at Snowmass, Sewell said he saw no rise in the accident rate there after the introduction of snowboards. For every 1,000 skiers, there is an accident rate of around 1.5 at Snowmass, and that number did not go up because of riders.

And according to the National Ski Areas Association, snowboarders do not make the slopes more dangerous.

The national organization states on its Web site that “snowboarders don’t appear to be making the slopes less safe for their skiing peers.”

A study done by a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology found that “7.7 percent of all ski injuries are the result of skiers running into skiers, while only 2.6 percent of snowboard accidents are caused by snowboarders running into others.”

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