Court: Avalanches In Ski Areas OK

Feb 19, 2014

There’s a lot of concern over avalanche danger in Colorado’s backcountry right now. That includes the Aspen area. But skiers and boarders also have to keep this in mind: avalanches can occur inside ski areas… and if they do, the resort isn’t necessarily at fault. That’s a new ruling by the Colorado Appeals Court. 

  Aspen Skiing Company spokesman Jeff Hanle says the ruling was right even... though the background story is a tough one. 

  “It’s a tragedy. Anytime someone loses their life. We understand the family’s feelings and thoughts, and we feel for them. But based on current law we believe the court’s ruling was the correct ruling.”

   The appeals court decision comes in the case of a Denver man who died while skiing inbounds at Winter Park Resort. That was in 2012. He was caught in an avalanche within the ski area, and his wife sued the resort over his death.  

  When it comes to safety on the slopes in Colorado, judges look to the Colorado Ski Safety Act…. it outlines when skiers and boarders might be at fault, and the situations where resorts might be liable. The act also considers what risks naturally come with the sport. 

   The state appeals court has decided the law recognizes that snow slides are an inherent danger to skiing and boarding… even though the Act doesn’t specifically say “avalanches are ok within ski areas.”

   The Aspen Skiing Company spends a lot of time and money trying to prevent avalanches inbounds… with the understanding that snow slides could still happen. For someone new to skiing at Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, Buttermilk, or Highlands…the chances of being caught in an avalanche are low. Again, Jeff Hanle.

“It’s a rare occurrence, and very unlikely.”

   Despite the court ruling, Hanle says, Ski Co plans to continue the same pace of avalanche control at Aspen’s four mountains. Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade association, agrees with the ruling. And leadership there believes resorts’ current  efforts to protect skiers and boarders are a good idea. The group had this comment: “Colorado ski areas have extensive snow safety programs and use explosives and other measures to mitigate avalanche risk within ski area boundaries.”

   Not everyone is happy with the court’s decision.  Jim Chalat is a personal injury attorney in Denver He’s taken on skiing and boarding accidents, including representing people suing Aspen Skiing Company.

   “I think that ski areas have even more immunity, or protection from lawsuits, than they did even before the ruling, even though they have had significant immunity under the ski safety statutes for many years. When people ski inbounds, they don’t expect to get killed by an avalanche. That’s why they ski inbounds. And so what’s the new paradigm? That before you go and you ski the Cirque in Snowmass, you stop and dig a snow pit?”

   Hyperbole aside, that’s one way to assess avalanche danger in the backcountry. And Aspen Skiing Company says it’s not necessary to do that when skiing inbounds. Spokesman Jeff Hanle says Ski Patrol checks for avalanche danger every day, and there’s a high level of certainty that a slide is not likely.

   Colorado’s Supreme Court could end up with the final say on whether avalanches are acceptable inside ski areas. The Denver Post reports plaintiffs in the recent appeals case plan to take it to the state’s highest court.