Officials: SlopeWise program effective

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— Skiers and snowboarders seem to be getting the message.

Despite increased vigilance on the part of the Steamboat Ski Area ski patrol, the number of skiers and riders stopped for reckless skiing this winter has decreased by about one-third from previous seasons.

Is it because skiers are so deep in Steamboat's powder glades that it's hard to find them? Or is it because they've heeded ski area's appeals to ski responsibly?

"It's telling me they are cooling it out there, and they are doing a better job," Steamboat Vice President of Mountain Operations Doug Allen said.

Of course, not everyone has heard the message. As ski area officials took stock last week of their new safety program dubbed SlopeWise, a 52-year-old Littleton man was arrested Jan. 29 on suspicion of assaulting a teenage girl in an apparent case of "slope rage." Police said the man saw the teen run over the skis of the man's child, knocking the 8-year-old to the snow. The man then began punching the teenage girl in the head and neck, police said. The teen was not injured.

On Jan. 27, another teenager was taken to the ski area's security office after colliding with a younger child. That incident is under investigation, Allen said.

Despite the two incidents, ski area officials say the 400-plus "skier education contacts" they made through the end of January are not on pace to match the 1,200 they made during some recent ski seasons.

"It's been a pretty good winter up here," Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke said. "People have done what we've asked of them. We've had fewer people in trouble for fewer things."

The ski area started its SlopeWise safety program this year. The 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. And SlopeWise carries with it stricter penalties for skiers and riders deemed to be skiing in a reckless manner.

Of the 407 skier contacts in Kohnke's database, 61 have resulted in suspensions ranging from 1 to 30 days, he said. There hasn't been a case in which a season pass was revoked for the remainder of the season.

A little less than half -- 193 -- of the skiers and riders contacted by ski patrol or mountain ambassadors were single-day or multi-day ticket holders. The remaining 214 held season passes. Of the contacts that resulted in two-week suspensions, 29 were for single-day or multi-day ticket holders, and 32 were for season-pass holders.

"We have suspended four passes for 30 days, all season-pass holders," Kohnke said. "Three for being involved in collisions that were determined to be due to a skier being in violation of the Skier Safety Code."

The fourth 30-day suspension resulted when a skier was observed ducking under a rope to ski a closed area. That led to a "slow-speed chase," Kohnke said, and "offensive behavior" on the part of the violator.

Kohnke said ski patrol and courtesy patrol members aren't focused solely on stopping skiers and riders simply because they are going fast. Instead, the deciding factor has more to do with where a skier is in proximity to a "slow" sign or a "no jumping" sign and how close they are to other skiers. Skiers still can ride fast on an uncrowded trail on Mount Werner as long as they aren't in conflict with those other factors and are under control.

The combination of speed and close proximity to other skiers could result in a stop, Kohnke said.

Skiers who display obvious signs of good judgment are less likely to get in trouble, he added.

For example, a skier traveling at a high speed who throws in some extra turns above a "slow" sign is demonstrating he or she has observed the sign and is responding positively, Kohnke said.

"We feel our communication strategy has been tremendously effective, and with spring around the corner, we want to get that message out again," Kohnke said.

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