Ski corp. targets reckless riding

Resort increasing number of watchful eyes on slopes

— STEAMBOAT SPRINGS The Steamboat Ski Area has enlisted an additional 62 conscripts in the struggle against reckless snow riding this winter.

For the first time, this season Steamboat's ski ambassadors are being trained to intercept skiers and riders who are going too fast or are out of control. If necessary, the ambassadors will have the authority to suspend the lift privileges of skiers and snowboarders.

The Steamboat Ski Area wants to heighten awareness of the need for safety on the slopes in light of a manslaughter case being tried in Eagle County this week.

Former Vail lift operator Nathan Hall is charged with recklessly causing the death of another man in a collision between skiers on the last day of the ski season at Vail in 1997. The Colorado Supreme Court cleared the way for the trial. Hall faces up to six years in prison if convicted.

The family of the victim sued Vail Resorts and won an undisclosed settlement.

"You're seeing the captains of this industry really taking this seriously," Steamboat Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke said.

In addition to Kohnke's 55 full-time and 25 part-time ski patrollers, the ski area will once again have 11 full-time courtesy patrollers working this winter under the supervision of Scott Sommerhoff. Their attention is devoted entirely to skier education, said Bob Kuusinen, Steamboat's senior vice president of mountain operations.

In addition to the courtesy patrollers, Sommerhoff is training the 62 skiing ambassadors to aid in the effort to make skiers and riders take responsibility for their own safety and that of others, Kuusinen said.

"They'll be properly trained to intercept reckless skiers," Kuusinen said. "They would perform like courtesy patrol. If they encounter people who have been stopped before, they'll have full authority to take that pass. We think it's going to really, really help."

Kohnke stressed that suspending a skier's lift privileges is a step that's taken only after a skier or rider demonstrates an unwillingness to behave more responsibly.

"What we're trying to do is to avoid getting to that point," Kohnke said. "I tell people, 'You love this, you live to be up here, don't lose this.'"

When ski patrollers or courtesy patrollers intercept a reckless skier, one of their options is to use a paper punch to mark the skier's multi-day pass or season pass. That step actually brands the pass holder as having been warned. A second warning can result in the pass number being added to a computer database of individuals who have been observed skiing recklessly.

When a pass is suspended, the duration of the suspension depends upon the circumstances, Kohnke said. But one thing remains consistent is that before the pass is returned, the holder must visit Kohnke, his assistant director Wes Richey or Sommerhoff for a skier education lecture.

But sometimes the ski patrol and skiers don't always agree on safety and who is being responsible.

Dustin Swager began skiing as a 2-year-old in Stillwater, Minn. He has skied more than 100 days each of the past four years in Steamboat. He said he takes skier safety and responsibility seriously, but there also are times when he disagrees with ski patrol on the subject.

"I think it's definitely a substantive subject," Swager said. "There are a wide spectrum of skiers out there who want to use the mountain. I think you can ski responsibly and ski fast. There's a time and a place to really go fast."

Swager says he knows members of the ski patrol and gets along well with them. On one occasion, he was stopped by a female patroller and advised that he was going too fast. He didn't agree.

"It was an early morning groomer kind of day," Swager recalled. "There was no one on the hill." Swager felt that because he had the hill all to himself and that he was within his comfort level, he was skiing responsibly. The patroller told him, "You're just plain going too fast."

Matt McKee is a snowboarder who says he is motivated to ride responsibly, but avoiding having his ticket punched by ski patrol isn't his primary motivation. McKee has been snowboarding since 1992 and has never been asked by ski patrol to slow down.

"I don't want to run into a little kid, just because of the trauma it would bring on him," McKee said.

McKee and Swager find it difficult to avoid slower skiers and riders because they tend to be unpredictable.

"It's difficult to keep track of people," McKee said. "Sometimes there are slow skiers that are not skiing in the fall line on some of the advanced runs, where they probably shouldn't be. It's hard to judge what they're going to do."

Swager raised the issue of beginning skiers who cut back and forth across the fall line, putting themselves in the path of faster skiers.

"Is the guy who's cutting 90-degree turns back and forth across the mountain skiing irresponsibly, or is the guy skiing 50 mph skiing irresponsibly?" Swager asked.

In cases where skiers or riders "don't get it," Kohnke said the lecture can last up to 30 minutes. In extreme cases, two or three times a winter, Kohnke will invite recalcitrant skiers or riders to spend an entire day with him before they get their pass back.

Kohnke's department offers a clinic on skier safety to every employer who arranges merchant passes for their employees. And the ski patrol also is reaching out to local children who ski. The ski area is conducting a ski safety poster contest for children 12 and younger at local schools. There is one free season pass being offered per school.

Kuusinen pointed out that parents are responsible for the safe skiing habits of their children.

"Whether it's skiing or driving, parents very much have an obligation" to make certain their children behave responsibly, he said.

Kohnke said the ski patrol also has enlisted the support of top racers at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club to speak out to other young people their age and urge them to ski responsibly.

Kuusinen said the effort to improve skier safety is critical to the industry because it impacts the public's perception of how safe or unsafe the sport is.

"We absolutely have to be out there making the slopes as safe as we can," Kuusinen said. "We really want to make a difference in how people feel about skiing and riding out there."

Deputy District Attorney Charles Feldmann said prosecutions of reckless skiers in Steamboat Springs are rare, but not unheard of. He prosecuted a snowboarder under Colorado's Skier Safety Act last year, and another deputy D.A. in the office prosecuted a skier.

"All we ever charge is the specific skier safety statute," Feldmann said. Feldmann said Colorado law provides that when a skier or snowboarder is arrested for reckless skiing, they may be charged with "reckless endangerment," a class 3 misdemeanor, if the circumstances warrant.

Reckless endangerment is defined in the state statutes as conduct that "creates substantial risk of bodily injury" to another person.

However, those charges rarely go to trial here, Feldmann said. Instead, they typically result in a plea bargain.

Feldmann said the district attorney's office weighs the factors involved in a collision before deciding to prosecute. Prosecutors and law enforcement officers look for evidence that a skier or snowboarder was aggressively reckless and that behavior caused a collision. Not every skier involved in an accidental collision will be subject to prosecution, Feldmann said. He said he will consider the location where a collision took place on a bunny slope or on a trail designated expert with a black diamond. Another decisive factor might be the presence of "Slow" or other caution signs in the vicinity of a skier collision.

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210

or e-mail

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