SAFETY ON THE SLOPES
- Dick Mason
- The Observer
The death of a skier at Mount Hood Meadows last week is triggering an avalanche of concern in the Northwest skiing and snowboarding world.
Questions are flying like snowflakes in a high mountain storm.
"People are constantly asking me about it,'' says Dick Knowles, director of the Ski Anthony Lakes Nordic Center.
The accident occurred Jan. 5 when a snowboarder collided with skier Geoffry Braden, 45, of Portland, at the top of North Canyon run. Braden died from head trauma. The snowboarder left the scene and has not come forward.
The tragedy is drawing a flurry of attention to the need for constant safety vigilance on the slopes.
Mike Gooderham of La Grande, a member of the Anthony Lakes Ski Patrol, is convinced that one can never focus too much on safety.
"Potential collisions are always around whether you are skiing, sledding or snowboarding,'' Gooderham says.
He notes that these potential collisions are not only with people but also trees, rocks and other inanimate objects.
Knowles says that even when cross country skiing the potential exists for a serious mishap.
"There is speed and blind corners (in Nordic skiing),'' Knowles says.
Whether on an alpine slope or a Nordic trail, skier and snowboarder safety can be boiled down to two simple elements.
Gooderham defines ski and snowboarding safety in terms of the seven-point Safety Code endorsed by the National Ski Areas Association. The seven basic rules are posted at many ski areas and are on the back of lift tickets at places like Ski Anthony Lakes.
Gooderham says one of the most common violations of the seven-point safety code involves skiers and snowboarders who obstruct alpine trails. Often he will see people who stop to make an adjustment in the middle of a busy route
"Not a day goes by when I'm patrolling a high traffic area when I or another patroller doesn't have to tell someone to move out of the way,'' Gooderham says.
Ski instructors are among those most at risk on the slopes because they are standing and thus accidental targets for out-of-control skiers.
"(Skiers accidentally colliding with instructors) happens to a lot of professionals,'' Knowles says. "Anyone teaching a class can get tagged.''
He knows of instructors who have sustained broken bones after being hit by skiers.
To protect themselves and their students, instructors need to make sure their classes are taught in safe zones away from exposed areas and ridges where out-of-control skiers or snowboarders can hit, Knowles says.
People taking ski instructor certification classes receive extensive instruction on how to select safe locations for classes, Knowles says.
The mix of skiers and snowboarders found on the slopes of many ski areas today is not increasing the risk of accidents, Gooderham says. He explains that snowboarders are well aware of the ski safety code and do a good job of adhering to it. Years ago when the sport was new, the presence of snowboarders added to the risk on ski slopes because some were not familiar with the safety code, Gooderham says.
Skiers and snowboarders now have a healthy understanding and respect of each other's sport. Gooderham notes that one member of the Anthony Lakes Ski Patrol, Butch Sagaser of Mount Vernon, rides a snowboard while checking the slopes.
Jayne Baremore, manager of the Epidemic Board Shop in La Grande, believes that the keys to being safe on the slopes are the same for snowboarders and skiers. One needs to pay attention, remain in control and stay within your ability level, she says.
Gooderham believes that everyone who skies and snowboards could reduce their chances of injury by wearing release bindings. The bindings release your boots when the pressure reaches a predetermined level. This prevents injury when there is a heavy fall since your skis or snowboard do not stay attached to your legs. Fractures and torn ligaments can otherwise result.
"When your boot is moving one way and your body another, something has to give,'' Gooderham says.
All alpine skiers he sees wear release bindings. But the ski patroller observes a small percentage of snowboarders and Nordic skiers who do not. He would like to see all of them switch to release bindings.
Helmets can also reduce one's risk of injury. Gooderham notes, though, that helmets do not protect one from the neck and back injuries people often sustain in collisions.
In his 45th year as a member of the Anthony Lakes Ski Patrol, Gooderham believes his sport is very safe. He says a study several years ago indicated that less than 1/2 of 1 percent of skiers who had never received instruction are injured each year. The number is lower for skiers who have received instruction.