Imagine: You pause while skiing your line, proudly watching your 10-year-old son’s smooth turns just above you on an expert Squaw Valley slope and the unthinkable happens.
First, a young skier zooms by your son, brushing so perilously close to your child that his jacket moves in the skier’s draft. Seconds later, another youth bombs down the hill, this time on a collision course destined for disaster.
Such was the reality for Joseph Chong this past New Year’s Eve at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows. The San Francisco-based father of two was on Squaw Valley’s Siberia Bowl, watching from below when his son Nolan was hit. Helpless and horrified, he rushed to his child, who was “writhing in pain.”
While Nolan is expected to make a full recovery after the terrifying impact, he will be in a custom back brace for six weeks and may permanently lose future height growth due to two now-crushed vertebrae. The fifth grader will miss two seasons of basketball, be unable to lift his backpack or participate in physical education at school, and is on a regimen of bone broth and calcium pills interspersed with specialist doctor visits and consultations.
It is the nightmare scenario, and the inherent risk we all take when we sign that waiver at our favorite resort.
When tragedy and accidents strike, loved ones are known to catalyze change to help make skiing and riding safer. Care must be taken though, say many, to preserve freedom on the mountain.
“I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in a month,” Chong told Moonshine Ink. He and his wife have had multiple meetings with Squaw Alpine officials, including COO Ron Cohen, over the last few weeks since the collision. They are working to update safety practices and policies with the resort, especially regarding the ski team, of which both of the fast, young skiers are members.
The new commitments, Chong says, will include: appointing a specific employee as safety program manager for each ski team to track incidents and follow up directly with parents; allocating on-duty ski patrol members to collision management and the communication around it; rolling out new safety programs and training for their coaches and teams; and lastly, providing clearer categories in their corrective guidelines.
The resort currently classifies an at-fault collision incident as due to either “high,” “medium,” or “low” risk behavior. Corrective action ranges from the possible loss of a day pass to full season passes being pulled (“or longer,” the policy states for high-risk behavior). Yet as Chong pointed out, there are no specific parameters within this definition for what constitutes an incident to move to the next category. “Does high mean you’re drunk and belligerent, skiing out of bounds?” Chong wonders. “What is medium? What is low?”
Chong says these pledges from Squaw are “concrete,” and he and his family take solace that tangible change to safety policy at the resort will be one end result of their horrific experience.
At Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, safety considerations are always on the brain, Cohen says, but an accident provides an opportunity to reevaluate safety measures as well as corrective responses to reckless or unsafe skiing. “Can you completely eliminate the chance of collision on an expert run? I don’t think so. Can we educate to inform people so that they’re thinking about it more? Absolutely,” he said.
Chong and his family are working internally with the resort, but in another key example of a changemaker, Dan Gregorie used a strategy of external pressure.
On Feb. 6, 2006, 24-year-old Jessica Gregorie, who was living in San Francisco at the time, died in a snowboarding accident at Alpine Meadows. After sliding down an unmarked and unfenced area, she “careened out of control across that boundary into the Granite Chief Wilderness area, and over a cliff just beyond onto the rocks 80 feet below,” explains the website of a foundation subsequently created by her father. The writing also points out that it was “a cliff over which other resort patrons had preceded and followed her in the months and years before and after her accident.”
Feeling that his daughter’s death was preventable, Gregorie began researching resort safety policies and data. He said he found that there is little to no statewide or resort-specific accident, injury, or casualty data.
(The National Ski Areas Association provides national catastrophic and fatal ski accident data annually, however. Forty-two U.S. deaths were reported in ski-related accidents over the 2018/19 season, slightly higher than the 10-year industry average of 38 deaths per season.)
So Gregorie took matters into his own hands, transforming his family’s grief into action, and established two nonprofits: the California Ski and Snowboard Safety Organization and the Snowsport Safety Foundation. The first sponsors ski safety transparency legislation in California and the second collects and publishes incident and safety data from resorts. Since 2013, they have used that data to compile reports on specific safety components.
“I’m a proactive person and I’ve always believed that you learn the most from the worst experiences in your life,” Gregorie told Moonshine. “When you have suffered the kind of experience that we have, the way to deal with that and, quite frankly, the way to feel better about it is to turn that around to something that will prevent that from happening to some other young woman or family.”
In 2017, Snowsport Safety Foundation released a comprehensive report card, titled Safety is Not By Accident, providing an overall grade to each resort’s safety practices that is focused on infrastructure rather than guest education. The analysis is broken down into categories such as impact protection, trail design and maintenance, and protection around lift-related structures, isolated trees on beginner terrain, and other buildings.
Most Tahoe/Truckee resorts have a grade somewhere in the “C” range on the foundation’s report card, meaning that they address up to 65% of the organization’s recommended safety infrastructure solutions. Notable outliers (all smaller resorts) include Boreal Mountain Resort and Donner Ski Ranch, which received a “D+” and “D” respectively, and Soda Springs and Tahoe Donner, which each excelled for the region with a “B-.” (Few resorts in the state earned “Bs” and none received “As.”)
“The significance of those report cards is that they give you some sense of how well-managed safety is at each of these resorts,” Gregorie said. “If they know that their customers now have information to grade them on how well they are managing safety, safety is going to become a competitive consideration for the ski resort, just like snowfall and rain and all the other things people look at before they go to a resort.”
Not a Theme Park
Michael Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Association, known also as Ski California, said that during the many meetings he facilitates with resort representatives (which include all resorts in Tahoe/Truckee), there has never been an instance in which the sharing of ideas to improve safety has not been a major topic of discussion.
But he says providing minor injury or overall incident data by resort or by region or state would be “a huge perception issue.” (Gregorie’s organizations have been in contact with Ski California as well as individual resorts over the years.) Reitzell maintains that, just like a gym wouldn’t report individual injuries from everyone playing basketball in it, a resort shouldn’t make accident data public.
“There’s so many variables that go into why a particular piece of data would look a certain way,” he explained. His concern is that data would provide an inaccurate picture of each resort, that a total or list of incidents would not provide any indication of how “safe” a ski area is, because it’s up to the individual rider or skier.
For Reitzel, no matter where you ski or ride, the resort’s responsibility is to provide their guests with the tools to be responsible skiers, rather than finding solutions to prevent every collision.
“We don’t want to make a situation that when you get to the top of the chair, you’re forced to do something very specific,” Reitzell told Moonshine Ink. “The freedom of the sport comes into play, where you go, how fast you’re going … it’s the guests making the decisions.”
Reitzell said there is a delicate balance that resorts must maintain between providing safety infrastructure and preserving what he calls “the integrity of the sport,” that freedom you have on the mountain to know when you can push your own limits and choose how you want to experience the mountain.
“We choose to educate (skiers/riders) on how to make good decisions, not tell them what to do,” he said.
Squaw Alpine’s Cohen says his team spends a great deal of time considering the resorts’ safety infrastructure, determining out-of-bounds areas and resort maps, and installing padding around hazards like lift polls or trees. They even go so far as to debate the orange color of a SLOW sign, wanting it to be visible but not arresting to oncoming skiers. Often what comes up is the “philosophical” debate of how heavy of a guiding hand the resort needs to play in a sport that has traditionally been about knowing one’s self and pushing limits.
Yet, he says, a ski area can never be fully “safe” in the same way an amusement park can take full legal liability for a roller coaster. As a vital counterbalance, he says he lives and runs his resort by the Germanic alpine ski culture concept of “du musst es selbst wissen,” translating loosely to “know for yourself.”
In the dynamic weather conditions of a Sierra Nevada resort, there will never be a catch-all solution to safety concerns for skiers and riders. Ultimately, resorts want their visitors to remember that it is the responsibility of the individual to know their limits.
Ski California’s resources for education include the Skier Responsibility Code, created by the National Ski Areas Association over 50 years ago and used by all member resorts of the organization. In 2017, Ski California released its own more extensive Mountain Safety Guide, delving into safety issues on lifts and in avalanche or deep snow conditions, and into understanding resort signage and slope difficulty classification.
“We are not in the business of telling people what they can and can’t do,” said Vincent Zacha-Herthel, marketing supervisor for Sugar Bowl resort. The Norden-based ski area is known for its ties to the beginning of lift-assisted skiing in California and its world-class chutes (not for the faint of heart), but like all Tahoe ski destinations is also frequented by families and beginners, which means safeness is a big factor.
According to Zacha-Herthel, Sugar Bowl’s best resource for safety is its web page, located at sugarbowl.com/safety, which provides emergency phone numbers for ski patrol and emergency rescue, as well as guides for child and beginner safety, lift safety, and resources for understanding the Skier Responsibility Code. Sugar Bowl also has a live-updating page dedicated solely to daily conditions, allowing visitors to check in on safety concerns as they ski. The resort provides ample signage, including their pilot program of signage providing warnings and safety tips specifically for children under 55 inches tall.
Northstar California Resort, owned by Vail Resorts, released a mashup between artificial intelligence technology and ski resort preventative safety in the 2018/19 season. “Emma” is a bot available via text to answer direct and up-to-date questions about safety or other concerns. She responds directly to questions about conditions, lift line wait times, lessons, wayfinding, parking, weather, and more.
Even with extensive safety measures in place, Cohen says, skiing and riding are dangerous. “That’s the nature of inherent risk. Things happen,” he said. “And if you have multiple people skiing and they’re all obeying the code, you still may have an accident. You might be an expert skier and you might fall on a green run. You might be the most head-on-a-swivel observant skier on the hill and you still might get in a collision with the other most observant person on the hill.”
That inherent risk includes avalanche safety and awareness, as two skiers notably discovered the morning of Jan. 17 at Alpine Meadows “in the area between Scott Chute and Promised Land near Scott Chair,” reads the official statement from the resort. Cole Comstock, 34, of Blairsden, was killed in the incident while another man suffered “severe lower body injuries,” according to the statement. Skiing with life-saving avalanche technology like a transceiver and airbags, as well as always skiing with a buddy and keeping abreast of avalanche warnings, can prevent this kind of tragedy.
But some say we can and must lessen the exposure to danger. “My agenda is not to hurt the ski industry,” Gregorie said. “I think skiing is a wonderful, exhilarating outdoor recreational sport. All I’m interested in seeing it be managed as safely as possible. There’s always going to be injuries and deaths, but it can be done far better than it is being done.”
Main Image Caption: TREACHEROUS TERRAIN: While the danger of downhill sports provides some of the excitement, resorts work to balance that freedom with safety policy and infrastructure. Photo by Sarah Miller/Moonshine Ink