Last weekend, we drove to the mountains in snow on Friday and held off our departure for home Monday because of icy roads. On the ride home we had to reverse our direction and take another route when an accident up ahead completely stopped traffic. We learned later that traffic was held up for three hours.
Later in the winter, such driving isn’t as tense as it is before we get snow. There are a lot of places where sliding off the road would lead to a plunge over a steep embankment. With snowbanks to slow down the car, it’s not as scary.
There is a parallel with skiing. With a foot or two of snow in the woods, a slide off the trail is often no big deal. The soft snow slows us down before we hit something. That’s not the case this year. Leave the man-made snow, and it’s going to be a rough ride over frozen ground. It’s a reminder that we have to do our part in keeping skiing’s risks at acceptable levels.
We also have to keep this in perspective. Just as modern highways and better handling cars have made winter driving safer, today’s well-groomed runs and better skis and bindings have made skiing safer.
But, we still have to drive within the limits of the roads we travel. It’s the same on the mountain. In a year such as this, ski areas do their best to cover the runs, but there are limits. Last Sunday, we skied a novice-to-intermediate run, which is normally a boulevard. It had huge mounds of snow created by the snowmakers. Skiing over these mounds called for extra caution because novice skiers often fall on such mounds, and we have to be able to avoid them as we ski blind over the tops.
The mounds are left for a day or two so the new man-made snow can drain before grooming. If not, the groomers will turn the wet snow into huge chunks that freeze and make conditions almost unskiable.
This season’s lack of snow makes it more important than ever for us to heed the “Skiers’ Responsibility Code.”
1. Ski in control means skiing within your ability. That’s simple enough, but we have to extend it to ski according to conditions, knowing that conditions can change an intermediate trail to an expert run. We should always be able to stop or avoid other skiers or obstacles that appear unexpectedly.
2. We are responsible for skiers we overtake. If you’re good enough to overtake a skier, you should be good enough to miss them by a comfortable margin.
3. Always stop where you don’t obstruct other skiers on the trail.
4. “Always look up the hill for approaching skiers before entering a trail.” Pushing out on a trail without looking is like entering the highway from a side street without looking.
5. This one has been made almost obsolete by automatic ski brakes which come will all modern bindings, but it is a good idea to make sure devices to restrain runaway skis are in working order.
6. This one asks us to observe and obey all signs, closed trails, cautionary conditions, and slow skiing areas. It’s especially important this season. You might see some inviting snow beyond that closed trail sign, but there is a good chance frozen turf or rocks lie right beneath it. Ski patrollers don’t close trails for the fun of it. The more trails are open, the more crowds are spread out, and they can focus on prevention rather than rescue. I watched numerous skiers ignoring slow signs in a learning area this season, and a small child could easily have been run down. With limited cover, it’s sometimes impossible to avoid skiing through such areas, but we can keep our speed down.
7. The final piece of the code regards lifts and learning how to use them. Simply getting on and off safely isn’t enough. At one area, I watched skiers approaching a lift down a steep pitch. The pitch had been scraped off to a series of moguls with ice between. The mix of skiers of all abilities trying to stop before hitting the skiers gathered to enter the maze was scary. We need to get our speed well down before we arrive at the lift.
Most of these rules require only the application of a little common sense. The rules of the road apply to the ski trails as well. And while ski areas do everything possible to keep our sport safe, it’s up to us to take care of ourselves. Expect to see a little more emphasis on the responsibility code when National Safety Awareness week begins next weekend.
And pray for colder weather so we can get all those trails open.
Dave Irons is a freelance writer who lives in Westbrook.