Well before teenage ski racer Ashley Stamp was killed Dec. 19 in a collision with a snowmobile at Vail Mountain, managers at the Steamboat Ski Area had undertaken a plan to reduce the potential for a similar collision on Mount Werner.
"I've taken it very seriously," Steamboat vice president of mountain operations Doug Allen said this week. "There is a natural incompatibility between a 500-pound machine and a skier. Anything we can do to reduce that, we'll do."
Stamp, 13, who was a member of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, died while practicing for a race at Vail's Golden Peak Race Course. She collided with a snowmobile being driven uphill by Vail Resorts employee Mark Chard, 27, and died of internal injuries. Her funeral services were held Thursday in Steamboat Springs.
Vail Resorts officials declined to comment on the topic of snowmobile safety, saying they are focused on supporting Stamp's family at this time.
Denver attorney James Chalat has handled several civil cases involving collisions between skiers and snowmobiles. He said the accident that claimed Stamp's life fits into an ongoing political balancing act between the need to protect the personal safety of skiers and snowboarders, and the desire to safeguard the economic health of the Colorado ski industry. In most cases, the liability of ski areas is limited to $250,000.
The Colorado Skier Safety Act acknowledges that there are dangers inherent to skiing, Chalat said. The law, for example, places responsibility for collisions between people on the individuals and not on the resorts.
Chalat, however, said the courts previously have said collisions involving snowmobiles are not among the risks inherent in skiing. The Colorado Snowmobile Act also requires snowmobile operators to exercise care while operating their machines, Chalat said. That responsibility would extend to employees of ski areas who need to operate snowmobiles in the course of their duties, he added.
A judgment about responsibility for the accident that claimed Stamp's life would depend on the details of the incident, Chalat said.
"It's all very fact-driven," Chalat said. "It all depends on what happened. If she was where she was supposed to be, Ashley shouldn't have had to anticipate a snowmobile" in her path.
Allen said that within the last two years, Steamboat has trimmed its snowmobile fleet almost by half, from 57 machines to 28, with the intent of reducing the potential for one of the machines to collide with a skier or snowboarder. In a similar vein, Steamboat has begun leaving snowmobiles dispersed around the mountain. The idea behind that practice is that when a ski patrol member or lift mechanic needs a snowmobile to complete a task, they can ski to it at a location close to the task. After they are done, they return it to the spot from which it came. The change means that employees can accomplish their work while driving shorter distances on the snowmobiles.
But the foundation of Steamboat's snowmobile safety program, Allen said, is encouraging employees to evaluate circumstances for themselves and make intelligent decisions.
"The last four years, I've talked personally to everyone who gets trained to operate a snowmobile," Allen said. "We're trying to create a culture where a snowmobile operator is thinking and making good decisions."
New operators are encouraged to consult a supervisor about what route to take on the mountain. More experienced operators are trained to evaluate the conditions on a given day -- snow conditions, crowding on certain runs, and visibility -- before making their own decision about what route to take.
Snowmobile safety comes up frequently throughout the year Allen said.
"We constantly talk during safety meetings throughout the year," he said. "It's a constant conversation. We talk a lot about avoiding crowded areas and avoiding blind spots."
Chalat said he has handled two cases in which ski racers collided with snowmobiles, one involving a youth ski racer and another involving a professional racer who was a former Olympian. The terms of out-of-court settlements prohibit him from commenting on the specifics of those cases. However, Chalat tried one case involving a recreational snowboarder from Vermont who collided with a snowmobile driven by a ski area employee at Snowmass in March 1997. According to an article by Rick Carroll in the Aspen Daily News, Emilie Lee was awarded $123,000 by a jury after she suffered a serious ankle injury in the collision.
Chalat said Lee, who was 15 at the time, was snowboarding down a hill that intersected with a cat track when the accident happened. She looked to see that the road-like trail she was approaching was free of skiers traveling down hill. However, the snowmobile was traveling uphill, and she failed to see it approach until it was too late to avoid a collision. Lee said the snowmobile operator failed to look uphill or slow down as he approached the trail intersection. Her case was helped, Chalat said, by a witness on the chairlift above the trial, who confirmed the snowmobile driver did not slow for the intersection.
Judge Daniel B. Sparr held that a collision with a moving snowmobile was not an inherent risk of skiing, Chalat said.
At Steamboat, about 50 employees drive snowmobiles. They include all ski patrollers, about eight lift maintenance employees, slope and facilities maintenance employees and members of the race crew, ski area spokesman Mike Lane said.
They receive two to three hours of snowmobile training and go on a test ride with an experienced employee before they are allowed to operate a machine on their own, Allen said.
Steamboat depends on snowmobiles to help manage competitive events on its slopes, Allen said, and there can be a flurry of snowmobile activity in the area of a racecourse while athletes are using it. The machines are used to ferry slalom gates and course workers up and down the course, for example. However, the operators are made very aware of the need to stay out of the areas closed for the race.
In addition, Allen said, when the Winter Sports Club is conducting speed training on a closed run, an "all points bulletin" goes out to ski area employees directing snowmobiles to stay away from that area.
The Colorado Skier Safety Act was modified this year to reflect changes in the ski resort industry, taking into account, for example, the growth of snowboarding and terrain parks.
Chalat said changes to the language of the act also reduced the responsibility ski areas must take for injuries to ski racers and strengthened the influence of liability waivers signed by parents on behalf of juvenile ski racers.
The implications of those changes remain to be tested in litigation.
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