If you’ve skied one of the four Aspen Skiing Company’s mountains, you’ve probably seen the common safety warnings. Signs range from “slow” to “no straightlining.” Now, Ski Co is part of a month-long effort by the National Ski Areas Association to drill that message home.
When you get off the Elk Camp Gondola at Snowmass, there’s a tent with tantalizing free cider, stickers and Clif bars… that is if you can first pass a quiz about safety. Tackling that issue on the slopes is a multifaceted affair. Level one is, well, skiing more slowly.
Craig Chalmers: “I think people have always skied fast. It’s part of the fun of the sport.”
Craig Chalmers is Ski Patrol Director at Snowmass. He says there has not been an increase in collisions in recent years. But the times, they are a changin.
Chalmers: “Over the years I think with the increased use in helmets, and also the newer equipment, skiing has become easier, I think and hence people seem to go a bit faster than they were say 15 or twenty years ago.”
Prompting more skiers and boarders to actually ask Ski Co for more patrollers on the hill. Speed isn’t the only safety issue at a ski area. Chalmers points out others like avoiding run-ins with heavy snow grooming machines. Near the free cider tent is a snowcat, door open, waiting for a driver.
Jon Beal: “We are looking at a Prinoth Bison snow cat. Bout 350 horsepower, we run a fleet I believe of six this size, and then two much larger, in the evening to groom out all of our terrain.”
Jon Beal is snowmaking supervisor at Snowmass. And he says these are the most common question he’s gotten this week about well engineered machine:
Beal: “Can I drive that? What’s it take to get in the seat of one of those?”
But driving one takes skill and attention.
Beal: “It can be a lot of fun, it can be pretty nerve wracking at times too, depending on where you're working and what you're working around. Watching out your blind sides and your tiller and your blade. Even though they look nice and comfortable up there they leave a shift at the end of the day pretty worn out, just from all the attention that they’ve been paying all night long to trees and lift towers.”
And here’s where we get to the safety part. When you climb up into the snow cat and sit in the cab, there are noticeable blind spots. That’s even with a really wide windshield.
Beal: “If you’re out on the hill skiing and snowboarding and you see a snow cat operating, it’s best practice to stay away from them. It’s okay to keep your distance and observe a little bit but don’t ski right up next to’em.”
At the safety tent at Snowmass, there’s another scary scenario to consider. Avalanches! Visitors can learn how to use beacons, devices used to find someone caught in a slide. And they are introduced to a low-tech, and highly effective, avalanche dog. These pups are especially popular with kids in ski school. The ski patrol has constructed a small igloo for people to hide in. It demonstrates just how good the dogs are at finding people trapped in deep snow. In this case, the patrollers wanted to bury a reporter so, a patroller helped me into the igloo.
Reporter in the field: “So deep am I in here, how would you describe this?”
Jeff High: “I’d say maybe two feet above your head, of snow.”
Jeff High, is a patrol supervisor on the mountain. After stacking snow over the igloo doorway, they release Reina, a six and a half year old chocolate lab. She quickly smells a human in the igloo and starts digging through the snow.
Reporter in the field: “Hi Reina!”
Jeff High says this is hopefully not something a visitor will ever have to experience for real. It is all part of the day’s events at the ski safety tent at Snowmass. After this week the tent travels to Aspen Mountain and then Buttermilk.