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The Death Of Fast Skiing?

Fall Line
By Jay Cowan
posted: 08/30/2002

Reckless and fast skiing has become a hot-button issue at North American ski areas. While the back-to-back celebrity deaths of Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono last winter focused the national spotlight on the sport's safety, the rate of serious injury or death has remained less than one per million skier visits over the past 15 years. (Biking, with 10 times the death rate, wishes it were as blood free.)

Don't try telling that to ski resorts. Many of them are too busy stringing up day-glow "slow skiing" banners and fielding "speed police" in high-traffic areas, a tactic similar to flooding your local freeway with patrol cars at rush hour. John Norton, senior vice president at the Aspen Skiing Company, cites reckless skiing and boarding as the resort's No. 1 complaint. Vail pulled more tickets for it last season than ever before, clipping nearly 400 skiers in one busy weekend. At Sun Valley, Idaho, Mountain Manager Denzel Rowland says "we got brutal on fast skiing"; the area has doubled its uniformed speed patrol in the past three years.

With the average lift ticket costing $42 in 1997, being escorted off the mountain doesn't make for a nice day. "We drove all the way to Heavenly Valley from Vancouver to visit friends and to ski for a week," says Roger Simpson. "I got my ticket jerked the first morning, raging down this blue run, totally safe. They said I was hostile when they stopped me. Damn right I was hostile. It ruined my whole trip."

What compounds the problem is that most areas don't have guidelines for what constitutes recklessness because it's situational. "Reckless skiing is like pornography," asserts Aspen's Norton. "It may be hard to define, but you know it when you see it."

That vagary, however, was questioned last winter by the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the use of public lands for many ski areas, including Aspen. Norton himself accused a young local skier of almost hitting him. After a confrontation and chase, the teen's season pass was pulled indefinitely. He protested to the Forest Service, which urged resort management to set a policy on reckless skiing and a process by which offenders could appeal. The kid got his pass back in two weeks. Now the Aspen Skiing Company is formulating guidelines similar to many resorts: First offenders get a warning; a second offense earns a pulled ticket; and repeat offenders may have their pass suspended for longer periods. Aspen, however, decided not to define "reckless skiing," nor does it intend to. "We don't think it's possible," says Norton.

Many resorts defer to the Skier Responsibility Code, however vague it may be: "Always stay in control, and be able to stop or avoid other people and objects." By that criteria, Hermann Maier could run a human giant slalom down any crowded slope in the U.S. without getting his pass pulled. Fat chance.

Jim Stark, the Forest Service ranger who oversees ski-area operations in Colorado's White River National Forest, says resorts need to be less heavy handed with skiers and "give people a fair shot at explaining their side of the story." To that end, the Forest Service is using its considerable influence to recommend that ski areas adopt uniform fast-skiing policies that will not leave local forest rangers as a skier's court of last resort.

Resorts insist the judgments employees make regarding recklessness are based on training, on-snow experience and a firm sense of what's appropriate for the time, place and conditions. Mary Bozack, ski patrol director at Stowe, Vt., loosely defines that as "going with the pace around you." But does that mean if no one else is skiing fast, you can't either?

"Skiing fast is becoming endangered because it's politically incorrect," says Tim Kohl, president of ski and snowboard manufacturer Research Dynamics. Kohl blames shaped skis for slowing down the average speed on the slopes because they're better for carving than running straight, creating an environment where the swift now look even swifter. He also cites personal liability as a strong deterrent to rocketing. "Ski areas are more speed conscious than they used to be," he says. "They're trying to be family oriented-even though the kids are the real bombers."

Everyone agrees that skiing fast requires skill and judgment. But even when experienced skiers have plenty of both, many resorts will reign them in. Freeskiing icon Doug Coombs, who has had his share of encounters with ski patrolmen around the world, thinks "warping down a mountain at high speed is perfectly normal" for a strong skier. "I hate to see that go away."

Crested Butte personnel suggest that, the Extreme Championships and X-Games it hosts notwithstanding, skiers who want to speed there should hit the backcountry. Big Mountain, Mont., on the other hand, takes a libertarian view. "Our ski area is like our roads. No speed limit," says CEO Michael Collins. "You just have to be going at what the state calls a 'reasonable and prudent' speed."

For those who feel stifled by the growing presense of speed patrols and control gates, the message is clear: Deal with it. As Kohl points out, "There are people who want to sell skiing as a safe, romantic venture." And they're not about to let that image be shaken by a few throwbacks who still like to rip.

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