The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
Any skier or rider has witnessed it: a crew of ski patrollers making their way down the slope, orange sled and injured fellow downhiller in tow. It’s a clear reminder that the wahoo-inducing bliss of a powder day and freedom of carving down a run under bluebird skis aren’t without risk. This sport we love: It’s inherently dangerous.
There are, however, some ways to stay safe—or at least safer—on the mountain. The most important: Know and follow the Skier Responsibility Code, which the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) updated ahead of last year’s season. Now with 10 rules instead of seven, the code specifically advises against skiing or riding under the influence of alcohol and drugs, informs how to handle collisions and other on-mountain incidents, and further emphasizes obeying posted warnings and closures. “A person who’s going onto the mountain should take five minutes and look at the code,” says Addy McCord, director of ski patrol at Beaver Creek Resort. “If you don’t understand what it means, you might not be ready. Take that extra time to get the answers straight in your head, ask the right questions, and just know what your risks are.”
That's only $1 per issue!
There’s no better time to do that than January, what NSAA has dubbed National Safety Month. Read on for insights behind and suggestions beyond the Skier Responsibility Code, all collected from Colorado’s on-mountain safety experts. Then get out there and (safely) send it.
1. Prep your body.
McCord advises checking in with your body ahead of hitting the hill to ensure you’re “fit for duty,” so to speak. Have you been training your leg and core muscles to ensure they’re strong enough to carry you safely down the slopes? Are you hydrated? Are you rested? Is a recent injury or last night’s extracurricular activities likely to impact your ski or snowboarding ability? Take all those factors into consideration when deciding how aggressively to tackle the hill.
2. Check your gear.
Make sure your skis or snowboard are in good condition—ideally, tuned recently—and you have the proper brakes and/or leash to prevent runaway equipment. Confirm your boots and helmet fit properly, and dress in the appropriate apparel for the conditions. Consider wearing a pair of goggles designed specifically for the light conditions you plan to encounter (or get photochromic lenses like the Automatic+ collection from Boulder-based Zeal Optics, which gradually adjust with mountain conditions). And don’t forget sunscreen.
3. Avoid crowds.
Weekends and holidays tend to be the busiest days on the hill, so ski on weekdays if your schedule allows, recommends Jeremy McEwen, ski patrol manager at Winter Park Resort. If a Monday-through-Friday trip to the slopes isn’t in the cards, at least aim to ski earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon when the runs tend to be less crowded.
4. Familiarize yourself with the mountain.
Before hopping on your first chair of the day, take a look at the resort map. Make a rough plan for which runs or areas of the mountain you’d like to tackle while factoring in—and staying within—everyone’s ability level. You might even go so far as to establish your route up, down, and around the mountain, McCord says. At the very least, clarify some meet-up times and locations for lunch and après. Be sure everyone in your group has the phone number for ski patrol and downloads the resort’s app to ensure you each know who to call and how to explain your precise location if the worst happens.
5. Be aware of other skiers.
Keep your head on a swivel, advises Katie Ertl, senior vice president of mountain operations at Aspen Snowmass. As the code says, look uphill when crossing into a run and remember that skiers and riders downhill from your location have the right of way. Never stop somewhere, just below a rollover for example, where uphill traffic can’t see (and avoid) you.
6. Recognize the risk of skiing unmaintained terrain.
Always respect trail closures—they’re closed for a reason, after all—but going off the corduroy, even when it’s in-bounds, involves a greater risk of hitting fallen trees, boulders, or other dangers that may not be marked. That’s particularly true if there isn’t a solid snow base in place. “Just take it easy on those early-season powder days, especially if you go off the groomer,” Winter Park’s McEwen says. “Know that those hazards can be just barely underneath what snow fell the prior night.”
Also keep in mind that terrain outside the ski area boundary isn’t mitigated. Be prepared with the proper avalanche safety training, the necessary safety equipment, and a buddy if you go out of bounds. “It’s a big move to leave the ski area boundary,” Beaver Creek’s McCord says, “and you better make darn sure you know what you’re doing before you do it.”
7. Enlist a friend for powder days.
“On those big snow days, ski with a buddy,” McEwen advises. “Be within sight of your friend, especially if you’re skiing in the trees.” That’s because tree wells—the soft, unconsolidated snow that collects under pine boughs—present a significant risk for suffocation or asphyxiation if you fall in and don’t get help quickly.
8. Listen to your body.
Consistently check in with your body to assess how tired and cold you feel—and don’t be afraid to take breaks in the lodge. Drink water throughout the day to prevent brain fog and eat snacks (here are some of our favorites) to maintain blood sugar levels. And while a midday margarita might be calling your name, remember that alcohol affects your body differently at altitude, so don’t ski or ride under the influence. “It’s not just about keeping yourself safe,” McEwen says. “It’s also the people around you. The time to party is not when you’re on the slopes.”
9. Always ski in control.
Make sure you can stop when needed, even quickly, and that you’re able to avoid other skiers. “People who cannot stop put other people at risk,” McEwen says. “Take a lesson before you turn yourself loose on the mountain.”
Don’t fold under peer pressure, whether it’s from friends or self-imposed. “If you feel like something is above you or too challenging, be OK with going around and meeting your crew at the bottom,” Ertl says. “Make sure that you’re going to stick around for another good day.”