Tony Vagneur: On-mountain collisions come down to personal responsibility
We were fifth-grade stars, no doubt, terrorizing Aspen Mountain on weekends, maybe four or five of us together. We had skied Spar Gulch, were approaching Grand Junction, and the smallest member of our group was letting his skis run, hoping to get enough speed to make Kleenex Corner.
A skier came out of Copper at a high rate of speed, skied (slid) across the confluence of the trails and took our friend out. Knocked him in the air, flipped him over and he landed in a heap, but after a bit, ascertained that he was OK. Whether the other skier stopped, I don’t remember.
That was the first high-speed collision on skis I ever witnessed, and sorely wish it was the last. Collisions between skiers/boarders can have not only fatal results but can cause life-altering injuries, including mental, that don’t heal. Very serious.
If you have an ear on the ground, or listen to folks on the chairlift, there is talk about how the newer equipment is allowing people to ski faster; they easily get beyond their skill level, and is responsible for some of the tragic collisions we’ve had lately, a couple of very serious ones just this past winter. Perhaps that is a contributing factor in some cases. Once I saw a man at the top of Highland Bowl who was on his fourth day ever on skis. I’d given him a mountain tour the day before. You couldn’t say he was a good skier, he had potential, but like all who make the trip, he was a good hiker.
Crowded conditions don’t seem to be an element of concern, at least not on Aspen Mountain, but inconsistent behavior by some makes me squint my eyes real hard when I see it. For instance, the person who goes from one side of the trail to the other without looking up, oblivious to oncoming skiers. The downhill skier has the right-of-way, that’s clear, but that sort of behavior is tempting fate, in my view. I don’t know about you, but I like to protect myself.
A couple of years ago, headed toward Kleenex Corner on the flat, there was a snowboarder ahead of me, on the left side of the road, going much slower. I hollered to let him know I was there and as I passed him, he suddenly turned into his blind side, clipping me in the ski boots and knocking me off the road. As I lay there in a heap, deep in snow and about 6 feet off the trail, I saw his eyes peer over the side and he said, “It’s OK. I’m not hurt.” Perspective, I reckon.
If you look up ski/boarder collisions online, as I did, the comments can be very telling. The same collision can have wildly different interpretations. This guy is at fault — no, that guy caused the wreck. I witnessed an almost head-on collision this winter and still, it would be impossible for me to say who was at fault in a conclusive way. The only thing that truly could be claimed is that they both were at fault for not seeing the other skier until it was too late, or as they both said at the time, they felt blindsided.
That is not to say that some collisions are one person’s fault rather than the other, and that is clearly the case too often. We all know people who have either been killed, physically maimed or otherwise tragically injured through being hit by another skier or rider who was clearly at fault. Sometimes both are taken out of the game. Our thoughts go out to those who have been hit — we need to keep this conversation going and to give them our sincere sympathies.
For those who collide with others and fail to stop to assess the damage, we need to make it clear in all venues available that such behavior is not to be tolerated. If you fail to stop, you should be looking over your guilty shoulder for a very long time because someone will be looking for you.
It has to boil down to personal responsibility. The ski patrol is not a police force, and even at that, would be ineffective as such, because they can’t be everywhere at once. One idea to slow down fast, marginally controlled skiers/boarders is to quit grooming Spar and Copper. That was quite effective back in the 1970s.
Not only do we need to look where we’re going, we need to look where others in our vicinity are headed in relation to ourselves. It makes a big difference.
The Skier Responsibility Code can be found at nsaa.org.
Tony Vagneur, retired Aspen Mountain ski patroller, investigated on-mountain collisions for years. He writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.