Last week was about ski patrol. We learned that at Sunday River, the ski patrol is part of a large team devoted to safety. This week, I return to that topic as it seems we all need a reminder.

Dave Irons, Ski Columnist

No skier wants that toboggan ride. We can avoid that need by following a few simple rules, mostly just common sense.

My column prompted a few responses, and one in particular merits a mention. It came from a friend who actually patrolled at Sunday River when I was patrol director. He is now an instructor a couple of nights a week at Shawnee Peak and his email described a couple of incidents, both involving collisions. In each instance, a skier hit an instructor who was demonstrating for his class.

My friend grew up skiing at Sunday River and mentioned how he had been taught to respect the ski patrol, especially patrol director Bob Walker, who preceded me in that position in the 60s. He felt that the discipline of those years was missing today. And I have to agree.

Part of the reason is how skiers or boarders come into the sport. Years ago, many were introduced to the sport by their parents, skiers who knew the rules and made sure their children knew them as well. Those who come in through ski school are given the “Skiers’ Responsibility Code” a number of times during lessons, as instructors cite examples on the hill. Some are easy and virtually automatic. Always looking up the hill when entering a trail is pointed out each time an instructor takes his or her class onto a new run. Another, always stopping at the edge of a trail and not obstructing traffic, is taught by example as instructors always pull to the side when talking to their class.

I see this constantly violated as snowboarders stop, sitting in a row across the trail. This is understandable, as these kids didn’t come from skiing families, as snowboards didn’t exist for their parents. Unlike driving, there is no requirement that beginning skiers pass a test on the rules before taking up the sport. They simply show up, usually with a friend who attempts to teach them without any mention of the rules.

I heard a speaker at a seminar some years ago who summed it up with snowboarders. “They don’t know their suppostas!” He noted that snowboarders weren’t invited, they simply showed up, not having any idea how they were supposed to act. Today, almost every ski school offers snowboard lessons. One of our grandsons wanted to snowboard, so we arranged lessons and he got his snowboard. But every time we have taken him to the mountain where he started the day on his snowboard, he soon wanted to switch to his skis. He couldn’t keep up getting across the flats to the lift. He wanted his ski poles.

I have another, more personal example of a collision. Eight years ago, I was at Mt. Cranmore looking to try the new lift on East side of the mountain. As I made the left run to ski to the base of the lift, I was struck by a snowboarder and we both wound up in the woods. I knew when I reached for a tree to steady myself that my left shoulder was hurt.

I was disturbed that the patrolman someone had called to the scene failed to correct her statement, “He cut me off,” blaming me for the collision. As the uphill skier or rider, it was her responsibility to avoid anyone below. Coming straight down the edge of the trail into an area where there were sure to be skiers turning to go to the lift, it was her responsibility to be slowing down entering a slow skiing area. The uphill skier is responsible for all below.

In Colorado, this is the law. The skier safety act makes it clear. In the event of a collision, the uphill or overtaking skier is liable. In any resulting lawsuits, that act is cited.

In my case, I refused that toboggan ride. I knew there would be nothing the patrol could do in the clinic so there was no report of the incident. I had to have the torn rotator cuff surgically repaired (my only injury in 75 years of skiing), but I made a full recovery. The young lady was fortunate that I had insurance.

Although it isn’t the law here or in New Hampshire, if it had been necessary, you can be sure my lawyer would have been able to cite the Colorado law. As a patrolman, I always pointed out that, “If you are good enough to overtake another skier, you had better be good enough to avoid them.”

Remember, skiers have neither rearview mirrors nor turn signals. If one turns into your path, it is up to you to be skiing at a speed at which you can change your path to avoid any skier below, no matter what they do. The responsibility code calls this skiing under control and the meaning is obvious.

Skiing closed trails is another issue. If a trail is fit to ski, it will be open. Management doesn’t want to close trails and no ski patroller will close any trail that is fit to ski. Trails are closed for a reason and that reason could be hazards.

Years ago, a skier at Loon fell on an intermediate cross trail and slid under a rope onto a closed run. The reason it was closed became immediately evident to those skiing with him. The steep pitch was so icy they could only reach their injured friend by working their way down through the trees. It was even difficult for the ski patrol to reach the injured skier, who died from his injuries.

There is a double lesson here. Not only stay off close off closed trails, but if the terrain and conditions between you and the injured skier are beyond your ability, wait for the ski patrol after sending or calling for help.

Know how to report an accident. The key here is to always know where you are on the mountain. You can always go the bottom of a lift and they will call it in. Today, most areas have a phone to report the need for ski patrol and many areas have it on the trail map. This is another reason to always pick up the map. Even at a familiar area. It’s a good idea to put it in your phone. At Sunday River, the number is 207-824-5959.

Out of bounds is another issue. While Sunday River allows skiing boundary to boundary, it’s important to know what you might find when leaving the groomed runs. Understand that there is no grooming off piste. Unless your skills are up to handling any and all conditions, stick to the groomed runs. Also be aware that these areas are not patrolled and not swept at the end of the day. Never ski these areas alone. Three or more is preferred. If someone is in trouble, there should be someone to stay with them while someone goes for help.

Remember Sonny Bono? Skiing at Heavenly Valley, which straddles the Nevada-California border in South Lake Tahoe, he decided to make his last run of the day through the trees. When he didn’t show up at the bottom, a search was started. His body was found the next morning. We will never know whether he was injured and hoping help would come or did he die instantly when he hit a tree. Nobody knew where he was until the next morning.

If you feel the urge to ski out of bounds, remember this sign at the top of Killington: The mountains will be just as cold and lonely tonight as they were 200 years ago.

See you on the slopes.

Dave Irons is a freelance writer and columnist who hails from Westbrook. He has been contributing to the Sun Journal for many years and is among the most respected ski writers in the Northeast. He also is a member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. Write to him at [email protected]   


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