Safety on the slopes

Ski area urges holiday skiers and riders to 'go with the flow'

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With the potential of as many as 15,000 skiers and snowboarders on the slopes of Steamboat Ski Area in the days after Christmas, the ski area's added emphasis on safety could be put to the test.

The slopes will be crowded the week of Dec. 26, and the odds of two skiers or snowboarders colliding inevitably will increase.

Steamboat unveiled its SlopeWise program this fall, urging skiers and riders to avoid reckless behavior. Along with the educational message comes the threat of stiffer penalties for reckless skiers.

Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke said he hopes SlopeWise makes the slopes safer.

But when collisions occur, ski patrollers and their Patrol Investigation Team could be called to the scene to investigate.

Investigating incidents

Veteran ski patrollers at Steamboat receive advanced training in an area of specialty that could include lift evacuation, avalanche control or accident investigation. The PI Team records the details of a collision in much the same way that a traffic cop investigates a vehicular accident.

Steamboat Springs attorney Scott McGill expressed alarm earlier this ski season after hearing a report that Steamboat Ski Patrol no longer would investigate skier collisions.

"I have nothing but praise for the way they've investigated accidents, but I'm also very concerned," McGill said.

But ski area officials said the report McGill heard was unfounded and that they had no intention of suspending collision investigations.

"With SlopeWise in place this winter, we feel an obligation to meet people's expectations and have a very high level of investigation," Kohnke said.

The first ski patroller res-ponding to the scene of a collision makes first aid his or her priority, and when an injury is involved, he or she has the option of using a radio to call the PI Team.

The new SlopeWise program places an emphasis on the uphill skier or boarder taking responsibility for avoiding collisions with those below them on the slopes. That emphasis is consistent with Colorado law. Steamboat officials will suspend for 30 days the lift ticket privileges of an uphill skier responsible for a collision.

Uphill skiers beware

Denver attorney James Chalat, who specializes in skiing accidents, said Colorado law presumes the uphill skier is at fault in an accident.

"One of the key issues in any skier/skier case is who was the uphill or overtaking skier," Chalat said.

The most common collision is a kind of sideswipe in which two skiers or a combination of skiers and snowboarders come together hip to hip while both are making wide, arcing, giant-slalom-style turns, Kohnke said.

Determining responsibility in those cases takes more investigation.

"The PI Team will come and take witness statements," he said. "In some cases, they'll hand the witness a piece of paper and say, 'Here, draw it for me.' We keep all of those drawings on file."

Ski Patrol has a longstanding practice of documenting evidence of collision scenes with photographs. This year, patrol has begun using digital cameras, Kohnke said. Investigators determine the path of approach for both parties in the collision and photograph it from different angles.

They also take measurements from the site of the collision to fixed points, such as trail signs, to permit people to revisit the scene in summer and determine the location through triangulation.

McGill said the Ski Patrol investigation into a 2003 collision on the slopes of Mount Werner helped him win an award for a Tennessee woman whose leg was badly broken when a teenager collided with her.

"Frankly, we might not have had a case" without the investigation results, he said.

Ski Patrol calls on the Routt County Sheriff's Office in extreme cases, when, for instance, a ski patroller deems accident injuries to be potentially life threatening, Kohnke said.

"Ski patrollers are trained to make that call whenever they have doubt about whether they need a deputy," Kohnke said. The same holds true when they have any question about whether a collision victim needs an ambulance. When in doubt, they make the call.

Chalat points out that Colorado law requires the two parties in a collision to stop and exchange information. In addition to "rendering aid" as needed, people in skier/skier collisions are obligated to provide their names, local addresses, permanent addresses and identification, Chalat said. He advised victims or people in their party not to rely on ski patrollers to obtain that information.

"Do not rely on Ski Patrol or ski area operators to obtain this information, because, as a principle of law, they are under no duty to obtain the information," Chalat wrote in a summary of collision cases.

McGill suggested that people who are involved in a skier collision also seek contact information for witnesses.

Residents vs. tourists

Some resident skiers and riders have objected to ski area promises to suspend passes of reckless skiers. The rules, some have complained, are harsher for residents than for vacationing skiers. Ski area spokesman Mike Lane insisted reckless skiers would be dealt with even-handedly regardless of what kind of tickets are hanging from their necks. He pointed out that destination skiers often have thousands of dollars invested in their four- or five-day vacations.

"That's a pretty big investment, too," Lane said.

Steamboat Ski Area officials would prefer to not have to investigate any collisions this holiday ski period, he said

Allen suggests "going with the flow" and patiently reducing speed in congested and signed areas.

-- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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