Skiing: This week is all about safety first

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Next week is the annual National Ski Safety week, and there are so many aspects to this one it’s hard to know where to start. 

The ski areas will have signs and those resorts with in-house TV channels will talk about skier safety. Most will focus on the “Skier Responsibility Code,” a common-sense list of things we can do to make ourselves safer when we ski. Included are admonitions to always look uphill before entering a trail, to always stop at the edge of a trail, to slow down in slow skiing areas and to check speed approaching blind spots.
     After patrolling for 20 years and skiing for many more than that, I could add a few to that list. One is to never stop in a blind spot, especially below a drop-off. As patrolmen, we knew kids would jump.Our answer in the 1970s at Sunday River was not to forbid jumping, but to let them know that if we caught them jumping blind without a spotter or in crowded areas, they would lose their ticket.  Of course, we couldn’t control everything they did, and the big rock on Rocking Chair was like a magnet. Going off the end amounted to a straight drop of 8-10 feet to a flat landing, a recipe for injury, and we could count on at least one a year getting a call to pick up some young skiers who couldn’t resist giving it a try. That boulder was bulldozed into a nearby gully in the ’80s or ’90s, and today the Rocking Chair is home to a huge terrain park where skiers get more air than we ever dreamed of in the ’70s. 
     Thanks to terrain parks, the jumpers rarely threaten other skiers and the landings have enough pitch to be as safe as any landing can be. In fact, today’s equipment combined with modern grooming has made skiing safer than ever. There is a qualifier to that. Perfectly groomed slopes have made for higher speeds. Just as cars travel faster on the turnpike, skiers tend to ski faster on boulevard-like runs with perfectly smoothed surfaces. Knowing what speeds we can handle and where it is OK to go fast is our responsibility.
     One safety action should come before the first run of the season, a release check of your bindings. Today’s sophisticated bindings have been a key factor in reducing injuries, but they do need to be checked each season for proper function.Keeping them clean is vital.Skiing doesn’t usually gunk them up too much, but carrying them on top of a car uncovered can. That salt and grime you have to keep washing off your windshield collects on the skis. It can damage your bindings and the steel edges of your skis. Either bag them, use binding covers, or do as I do, carry them in a ski box. A ski box is an item that will not only protect them from the elements but from theft. I have one that dates back at least 20 years and still works fine.If your skis do get a coating of grime, simply flush them with water and make sure they are clean.
     Having skis tuned is also a safety matter.Properly tuned and waxed skis are smooth and predictable, while a ski with burred edges and an unwaxed base can be grabby and difficult to control.This is even more important later in the day when ski conditions change from perfectly smooth to skied out and inconsistent.
     Another area of concern is skiing in the trees.Last year, we didn’t hear much about skiers getting lost or caught in avalanches out west. This year we have already had numerous incidents and the reason is simple.Last year’s low snow year found most of the skiers sticking to the groomed runs with man-made snow. This year all the glades are open and the temptation to ski out of bounds in search of untracked powder is much more attractive. Here in the East we don’t often have to worry about avalanches with the exception of Mt. Washington, but there can be plenty of trouble in the trees and going outside the area boundaries can be deadly. 
     The first advice is to never ski in the trees alone.Always ski with a partner and three or more is better. If a skier suffers an injury on a marked trail, he will usually be discovered by another skier and the patrol notified. This may not happen in the trees. If you’re hurt in the trees, one skier can go for help while another stays. (This is one reason for carrying a trail map even at a familiar area.It may not have the patrol number, but most have the main number and they can contact the patrol if you’re skiing with a cell phone.)  Because ski areas have ski patrols, our sport is among the safest of outdoor sports, but they can’t help unless they know where you are. This is especially important if skiers leave the area boundaries. 
     Every year skiers go out of bounds and have to be rescued. Fortunately, most are found, but some are not, and we all need to remember that sign at the top of Killington:
“The mountains will be just as cold and lonely tonight as they were 200 years ago.”
Be safe and we’ll see you on the slopes.
Dave Irons is a freelance writer who lives in Westbrook.

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