There is inherent risk in snowboarding and free skiing at terrain parks such as the one at Howelsen Hill. And parents need to pay close attention.
That's the message emerging from a pair of incidents this winter that resulted in serious head injuries to boys enjoying the terrain park at Steamboat Springs' neighborhood ski hill.
Jeff Nel-son, supervisor of the ski area for the city, said parents should be educated about the possibility of injury before allowing children to play in the terrain park at Howelsen.
"It's just like you would do before handing over the car keys to a 16-year-old," Nelson said. "It's an awareness for other parents. Go (to the terrain park) with them and just see what it's all about."
In addition to jumps built from snow, terrain parks typically include manmade structures -- boxes and rails. Skiers and snowboarders hop on to ride the rails, then hop off.
Doctors said last week that Hondo Anderson, a seventh-grader at Steamboat Springs Middle School, has healed from brain contusions and a badly lacerated spleen he suffered Dec. 30 in a fall off a jump at the terrain park. And 9-year-old Tait Dixson, a third-grader at Strawberry Park Elementary School, went back to class last week. He's healing from head injuries he suffered in a fall while free riding at the park Jan. 20. Dixson was wearing a helmet, but landed on his face.
"Tait is improving gradually," his father, Greg Dixson, said. "We think he's going to make a full recovery."
Tait accompanied his mother this week to watch his older sister ski race. He was looking forward to snowshoeing with his mother. "He's out of play for a while," his father said.
Both youngsters were hurt badly enough that they were transferred to Denver hospitals for treatment.
Hondo's mother, Laura Anderson, said that since her son was hurt, she thinks parents need to be more aware about what can happen in terrain parks.
"I think it is a parent thing," Laura Anderson said. "I'm not a skier myself. I guess I thought I was just being a worrywart. Hondo got hurt on a jump he had gone off many times."
Nelson said no one witnessed Hondo's fall but that he fell on snow. Tait fell onto a rail, Nelson said.
Nelson said he and City Parks, Recreation and Open Space director Chris Wilson were concerned about the incidents. On the same weekend Tait was hurt, a third boy fell in the terrain park. He was evaluated at Yampa Valley Medical Center and was released without needing treatment.
"We thought, 'We'd better look at this,'" Nelson said. "We were very nervous about it."
The Howelsen Hill Ski Area is operated as a city park by the city of Steamboat Springs. It is subject to the provisions of the Colorado Skier Safety Act, just like any privately held ski area.
The terrain park is open to the public and used daily as a training facility by the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. The boys were not participating in a club activity when they were hurt. Tait is a member of the club.
Howelsen is staffed by ski patrollers, and city staff members check tickets at the terrain park. However, Howelsen does not employ a terrain park "guard" to watch people there.
There are no age limits in effect for unsupervised youths.
The city has adapted to the guidelines for terrain park management provided by the National Ski Areas Association, Nelson said. It maintains the park regularly and keeps logbooks.
After the injuries, Nelson said he and Wilson reviewed their practices.
"We're in good shape as far as doing it as we should," Nelson said. "We didn't do anything wrong, and we didn't change anything (after the mishaps) because we've been doing what we're supposed to do."
The city's insurance carrier also inspects the terrain park regularly and has given it high marks, Nelson said.
Howelsen cordons off its terrain park with a system of ropes, Nelson said. The terrain is organized so that it progresses from beginner features on the left to intermediate and expert terrain.
"We set it up to move from beginner to expert," Nelson said. "That's the design in all terrain parks."
There is signage cautioning skiers and riders to proceed carefully. The messages on the signs comply with a National Ski Areas Association initiative being spread among terrain parks across the country. The signs encourage skiers and riders to scout jumps and landings before jumping, to start with the basics and to respect other people.
The Colorado Skier Safety Act was amended in 2004 to make it clear that regardless of age, skiers and riders enjoying "freestyle terrain" assume all risk for personal injury.
Laura Anderson wants other parents to be aware of what can happen in a terrain park. Her son is an athlete who plays on competitive baseball, basketball and soccer teams. She thinks he'll be able to return to those sports soon.
"At first, Hondo was paralyzed on his left side," she said. "His foot dragged, and when he smiled, it drooped on that side. Now, he's back to being himself. His personality is back."