Long Arm of the Law

Police are increasingly patrolling Colorado ski areas. But are they actually making us safer or just destroying the free-wheeling culture of the slopes?

December 2010

In any business—and skiing is big business in Colorado—the answer to most questions is money. And this situation is no different. Lean recession years have made resorts especially prickly about attracting and keeping paying customers—“paying” being the operative word. Resorts are eager to prevent pass fraud because even a handful of missed ticket sales cuts into revenues. So, cops stationed at lifts watch for “borrowed” passes. Police presence also combats ski and snowboard theft. “We’ve paid attention to trends—what times of day and days of the week thefts occurred—and put uniformed officers in place at those times,” Breck’s Morrison explains. The surveillance has reduced thefts by two-thirds: Only 57 pairs of skis and snowboards were stolen in 2009–2010, compared to 165 pairs in the 2007–2008 ski season.

But the biggest factor driving up the police presence is a shift in demographics: Many Colorado resorts now court families rather than swinging singles. Baby boomers who couch-surfed through ski towns 30 years ago now bring their families to the slopes. And across demographics, families spend big when they ski: In one week, the average family of four spends 10 grand on lift tickets, accommodations, ski school, babysitters, meals, and the like. “We’re a family area,” says Greg Ralph, Monarch’s director of marketing. “Those kind of people feel more secure in [a policed] environment.” Which means the ski bums, who occasionally foul the family-friendly vibe resorts are trying to promote, are not welcome any longer, especially when their rowdiness sneaks out of the bars and onto the runs. Four years ago on April 1—dubbed “Gaper Day” by some—a group of Breck employees got drunk, dressed in costumes, and taunted tourists. The resort brought cops onto the hill. And when Gaper Day antics migrated to Steamboat the next year, police patrols were initiated there as well. “The sport of skiing doesn’t really have room for that,” Steamboat’s Allen says. “We are a family resort, and we want to stay that way.”

Allen explains that Steamboat’s gondola-based searches are another attempt to maintain the PG-rated ambience. Police at the gondola are looking to curtail the flow of alcohol—cans of PBR and flasks of Maker’s stuffed into skiers’ puffy jackets—which he says can fuel “antifamily” behavior. (Interestingly, alcohol sales at the resort continue. Allen insists the problems are not generated from those alcohol sales.) “Word spreads like wildfire that the cops are on the mountain,” Breck’s Morrison says. “It has a very good preventive effect.” Plus, Morrison adds, ski hills are like stadiums. “Any time you get 20,000 people together, whether at a rock concert, a beach, wherever—there will be a few troublemakers in the crowd, and dealing with them enhances the experience for everyone else,” he says.

Apparently “everyone else” does not include 32-year-old Steamboat local Mark McNeal, an ACZ Laboratories Inc. technician who’s tallied five season passes in Ski Town USA. “Ski areas should expect a certain amount of misbehavior, especially when they’re selling alcohol,” McNeal says. “Unless there’s an issue, there’s no reason they should be searching people.” There’s also no evidence—none of the resorts or any other organizations could provide hard, researched numbers—suggesting that officers’ watchful eyes make us safer on the slopes. At Arapahoe Basin, which is famous for its closing-day carousing, police are conspicuously absent. Drinking is rampant. Costumes are provocative. Pond-skimming stunts raise concerns for skier safety. Yet, each year passes without incident. “We don’t feel the atmosphere and environment really require police on site,” says Leigh Hierholzer, A-Basin’s director of marketing and communication.

There, at least, skiers can still find fun without the fuzz. That means more than just the freedom to strain your groin by pulling a drunken daffy: It yields a temporary escape from the best-behavior expectations of daily life. This is skiing, after all, a sport born out of a need for speed and a craving to experience something just a bit out of bounds.