The following is an email interview conducted with Heavenly Ski Patrol & Mountain Safety:
In an effort to promote mountain safety, I contacted Heavenly Mountain Resort to ask them a few questions about their experiences on the mountain. It’s ironic that I had been working on this with them prior to my collision on January 10th (see my article Collisions can happen to anyone, even experts! to get the backstory on the collision).
The following questions were answered collaboratively by Brian Gannon, Heavenly Ski Patrol Director, and Mike Friece, Heavenly Mountain Safety Manager:
I’d like to start off by discussing the Skier’s code a bit. What are the two most frequently broken rules that you observe on the mountain?
The two rules we see most often being broken are whenever starting downhill or merging into a trail, look uphill and yield to others, and you must not stop where you obstruct a trail or are not visible from above. Both of these relate back to staying in control at all times, which is the first rule of the responsibility code. Being in control of yourself means that you merge safely and have the situational awareness to stop in a safe place for you and others. Being in control means that you can avoid people ahead of or downhill of you, even if they make a sudden move.
Other than giving people warnings or pass suspensions for breaking these rules, what other consequences do you see occur as a result of these rules being broken, such as collisions with others, with trees, crashes, etc.?
In general, when skiers or snowboarders ignore the responsibility code, you will typically see an increase of person-to-person collisions or accidents caused by people trying to dodge others. These codes are primarily focused on safety measures to take to avoid those type of incidents. The safety code rules are similar to the rules of the road for driving a car, and when they are broken, things happen. Many injuries occur because people do not stay in control, which leads, in many cases, to collisions or other injuries that are the result of suddenly trying to avoid someone.
As you know, I was just the victim of a collision not too long ago. I call myself the victim because while I was uphill of the woman I ran into, I was only going at 20mph (confirmed by the app I use, Alpine Replay) and in full compliance with the Slow Zone, and all the way to the right side of the run. This skier made a huge J-turn eating my line in a fraction of a second and leaving me without any options other than running into her. The results were that we were both hurt and this has affected my ability to ride for the last couple of weeks and possibly into the future this season as I continue to heal. I believe this accident was completely preventable had she simply checked her shoulder when traversing the run. I’ve also witnessed or been part of many near misses over the years as a result of others’ failures to look uphill when making unpredictable turns and traverses. In my opinion, this is the #1 reason collisions and near-misses occur on the mountain.
I believe that some of the time, they may be going to the side to take a rest break or the may simply be moving over there to enjoy the terrain on that part of the run. What are your feelings about the importance of skiers & riders who are already going down a run looking uphill when moving from one side to the other side of a run they are already on? How important do you believe the practice of checking your shoulder and looking uphill, not just when merging with a trail but when already on a trail, is to mountain safety?
Everyone being constantly aware of their surroundings while on the mountain skiing or riding is a critical part in being safe. It is each person’s responsibility to ski/ride in a safe manner. In some cases this may mean checking over your shoulder before making a turn – I do this all of the time as do most patrollers and mountain safety. It too must be done with caution, as you can easily take your attention off of what is in front of you. We always promote having your ‘head on a swivel’ when you are out on the mountain.
Continuing with the theme of the last question, I have witnessed a lot of Mountain Safety employees stopping expert skiers and riders and giving them warnings, tickets, or suspensions primarily for what I believe to be a result of near misses on the mountain. As I’ve stated, I believe that near misses and collisions are most frequently the result of the downhill person not checking their shoulder when moving from the middle of the run to the edge of the run (where faster skiers/riders tend to be). What do you think of shifting the focus (when applicable to a situation) away from experts and toward the beginners & intermediates who failed to look uphill? I believe this would make the mountain safer for all as experts check their surroundings constantly, where the newbies tend to be unaware of their surroundings. It would be nice to see them get an education on safety and the skier’s code, rather than experts punished for other people’s lack of knowledge of the code. Thoughts?
We want all skiers and riders, no matter the ability level, to be aware of the code and put it into action. Awareness is the key here. A lot of beginners are not as familiar with the code, and that is the main purpose of the National Safety Awareness Month, to educate all guests of their responsibilities while on-mountain. We encourage guests to stay on trails that fit with their ability levels, and especially when there is limited terrain open, we encourage guests to treat all trails as slow zones and be conscious of their surroundings. All that being said, advanced and expert skiers/riders must be held to the same rules, and do not get a free pass because of their ability.
What other common issues occur on the mountain where skiers & riders can do more to be safe on the mountain? (I leave this question open-ended so we can cover any message regarding mountain safety that you would like reiterated.)
Focus on space versus speed. There are plenty of places on the mountains where it is okay to go a little faster (Mott and Killebrew Canyons; The Face), but when you find yourself on the busier runs, then modify your speed and expect the unexpected.
Vail Resorts does the most tremendous job of ANY mountain I’ve skied or ridden in my life to make sure all people have a safe and fun time on the mountain. What are you guys working on now for the future that will continue this effort?
Thank you. Safety for our guests is the number one priority within Vail Resorts, and we take great pride in that. This year, the NSAA extended the National Safety Awareness Week to become National Safety Awareness Month, and we think using that full month of January to raise awareness of the skier and snowboarder responsibility code, as well as the safety efforts of the resort, will make a difference in the long run. Ski patrol, mountain safety, and Health and Safety are always looking at ways to improve slope safety, and there will be additional awareness campaigns in the future.
I would sincerely like to thank Heavenly Mountain Resort, Heavenly Ski Patrol, Heavenly Mountain Safety, and Vail Resorts for doing this interview. It is sincerely appreciated.
I want to reiterate that not only Heavenly, but all of the Vail Resorts properties put an incredible amount of time into making sure that patrons have a safe experience on their mountains. Their signage is unparalleled. The addition of Mountain Safety has made an incredible impact not only for the goal their department is titled after, but for the support they give to Ski Patrol, allowing patrollers to focus more on their primary role of avalanche control, injuries on the mountain, and maintenance of ropes, signage and gates across the mountain. The sheer number of bodies that Vail Resorts puts on their mountains to look after skier/rider safety is commendable. A big “Thank you!” to Vail Resorts and Heavenly for all that you do to keep us safe!
Mountain safety is something that is so near and dear to my heart. As a former professional snowboarding instructor, and as someone with three decades of combined skiing and snowboarding experience, I have seen so many avoidable accidents on the mountain over the years. When possible, I do what I can to help out the situation. This could mean things such as:
- Asking someone to get up and walk when they are sitting on their snowboard and attempting to ride it down on their butt.
I’ve seen many runaway snowboards cause serious injuries on the mountain when someone inevitably falls off their board and it takes off like a missile. We’re talking broken backs, ankles, and lacerations from the impact at the bottom of a run to someone who was merely standing or sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time. Never ride your board down a run on your butt! Get up and walk if the terrain is too difficult for you.
- Suggesting to people congregating at the bottom of the run where people come to a stop that they may wish to move to a safer location so they aren’t accidentally run into by someone who is still learning how to stop.
If you do this sport long enough, you will see or fall victim to this at some point. It’s very much part of the stopping in a safe place rule, which often is forgotten by people who feel safe because they’re finished with their run, forgetting that others are constantly doing the same.
This is also applicable to when a person or people stop in a place that is unsafe, such as where trails merge and there’s a cat trail lip that people are jumping off of. Letting them know that they are blind to the people uphill help’s avoid potential accidents on the mountain.
- Working with people to share cat trails by using the “On your right/left!” announcement.
We all know that cat trails are typically no more than 8-12′ wide. This means that we should never stop suddenly on a cat trail without first checking uphill and if we need to stop mid trail, to move to the side once you know it’s safe to do so.
Also, it’s advisable to only make turns as needed on cat trails to maintain speed and control. To elaborate on this a bit more, I’m advising against making turns that use up the full width of the cat trail when others are around. Share the road. Remember, sometimes we snowboarders need to straight-line a cat trail simply to maintain enough momentum to get through it without having to take a foot out and skate. If you’re a skier reading this article, please be conscious of this and avoid making turns that use up the full width of the cat trail.
If someone shouts “On your right!” maintain your position on the cat trail or, if you can do so safely, move to the left to give that skier/rider room to get by safely.
- If you see someone have a bad fall, check on them. They may need help and either be too shy, ashamed, or injured to ask for help…and you will feel better and build positive karma by showing concern for another person, even if they tell you they’re fine.
- Putting the bar down when riding up the chair lift.
You’re not cooler for riding the chair with the bar up, you’re being foolish. I’ve been given incredible amounts of flack from people over the years for my practice of putting the bar down. It’s progressed to the point of wearing a seatbelt when in a car – I simply don’t feel as safe when I don’t do it!
There’s a reason why all mountain employees put the bar down when they ski or ride…it’s safer! There are many stories of people who have simply leaned forward to adjust their boot or pants and fallen to their deaths. Don’t be that person. Put the bar down.