Can ski areas be all things to all people?

Article by Allen Best

Skiing – February 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

ADAM ARON went bonkers after a vodka company published an ad that lightly alluded to skier injuries. “There is nothing amusing about skier injuries,” said Aron, the CEO for Vail Resorts, an empire that now controls nearly 10% of the U.S. skier market.

Timing is everything, though.

The magazine advertisement went to press just as Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono collided with soft-wood trees along ski trails. There was nothing remarkable about their accidents; tree collisions occur every winter. None before, however, involved such well-known names.

This sudden focus on death must be giving Aron and other titans of the ski industry the cold sweats. The deaths are, if you look at the numbers coldly, statistically insignificant. But these twin deaths may direct new attention to the risks of a sport that is riddled with injury. Little wonder that Aron went ballistic and filed a lawsuit against the advertising agency that created a plaster-encased vodka bottle labeled Absolut Vail.

If Vail, Breckenridge, and other resorts are to add skier numbers, as the lions of Wall Street demand, then the sport must find new markets and retain old ones. As is, the U.S. skier market has been flat for more than a decade. Ski Cooper and Monarch have seen no real growth. In contrast, Vail and some other large resorts have steadily grown.

The big have become bigger by investing substantial money into technology that strives to remove the bumps from the skiing experience. Detachable quad lifts have virtually ended lengthy lift lines. Ever more elaborate snow-making operations have guaranteed skiing at Thanksgiving in places where Christmas used to be problematic. The megaresorts have expanded terrain. And even the bumps are being removed, as resorts invest millions in snow-grooming machines to provide the smoothed corduroy known as the magic carpet ride. (Like the children of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone, all skiers want to be above-average. Daily grooming allows that illusion.)

So, on one hand, we have an industry that has prospered by removing uncertainty. But on the other hand, the ski industry is being tugged, maybe even dragged, by so-called “extreme skiing.” The Warren Miller and Greg Stump films of recent years exemplify this bent. Mohawk-haired Greg was the “extreme” symbol in the early ’90s. More than most, Crested Butte has cashed in on this wave with its North Face expansion. In a sense, the “extreme” skiers took the ski industry back to its adventuresome roots. Some of the adventure is cosmetic, but the pursuit is real enough.

Still, 80% of Americans steadfastly remain uninterested in skiing. Enter Aron, an acknowledged marketing whiz who, two corporate stops ago, created the Rhapsody in Blue campaign still seen on television. Arriving in the ski industry, Aron found advertising that preached to the choir. In addition to ads in Skiing, he said, resorts should band together to advertise in People, Time, and yes, Sports Illustrated. Last fall, he persuaded his fellow ski-area operators to pay for an insert into SI (the No. 1 magazine for teenaged boys).

None of the advertising, however, contained any disclaimers, like: “The Surgeon General has determined that skiing too fast can cause you to hit trees and end up in coffins.” And that’s the pickle for the ski industry. How do you achieve that balance that says skiing is fun, thrilling, and exciting, while noting that sliding around on snow has some risks? Can a ski area embrace the 21-year-old male willing to test the inevitability of death, while simultaneously seducing mothers and grandmothers who want a no-risk experience?

Can ski areas be all things to all people?

And then there’s that nagging aspect of injuries. In fatalities, skiing fares well when compared with other sports. In Colorado, climbing and hiking annually cause more deaths than skiing, as does bicycling. When skier deaths per 1,000 users are computed on a national scale and compared to other sports, skiing comes off even better.

Among skiers, there’s a good argument that the sport is as safe as any particular skier wants to make it. But experts and advanced intermediates often prowl the trees or ski on the edges of trails, because that’s where untracked snow lingers longest. Alas, ski areas haven’t taken to padding trees. Too expensive, they say, and if you pad one tree you’ve got to pad them all — or face the lawyers. The same goes for roping off treed areas.

One study found that nearly two-thirds of all skier deaths from 1976 to 1992 occurred as the result or collisions with trees. That same study concluded that nationally only 5% of all deaths on the slopes result from skiers hitting one another.

BUT THERE ARE a multitude of ways you can die on the slopes. At Keystone some years ago a guy was carrying a bulky camera held by a string slung around his neck. When he slammed into the slope, the camera body and lens poked into his abdomen, crushing some vital organ or another. Obviously, it wasn’t a powder day. But too much powder snow caused the demise of a local employee in Vail’s Back Bowls last winter. He fell in a gully and suffocated in the powder.

This winter a 10-year-old girl was tubing on the ski slopes at Vail after the lifts had closed, and died after smacking into the rocks of a bridge.

A few years ago two skiers near Mid-Vail collided — very lightly, a witness told me. One crumpled with a ruptured aorta. Just last year, a Vail seasonal employee was bombing down the lifts on closing day and mowed down somebody in the slow lane. So you can get killed, and in many ways. But stay away from trees and your odds improve tremendously. You can still get hurt skiing, though, for several reasons.

First, boots and bindings deliver ever-better performance. Fifty years ago skiers had soft leather boots and not-always-snug bindings. The first plastic boot arrived in 1957, and now they go high up the calf. Skiers have more control, but the weakest links are no longer the ankles, which tend to sprain. They’re the bones of the leg and the knees.

Consequently, skiing is an orthopedic surgeon’s meal ticket. Among the most common of injuries is damage to the anterior cruciate ligament. In ski towns, “ACL” is enough of an explanation. Everybody understands. What some people don’t understand is why the auto industry gets attacked for defects that result in injuries, but the ski industry gets legislative immunity.

Second, to make skiing a sport for the masses, most ski areas intensively farm the snow. They mow down the moguls, winch the snow back up the slopes with expensive new groomers, and bevel the slopes into corduroy smoothness.

(Sporadic skiers, like those from Mexico City or New York City, expect such grooming, and are put off by powder snow, which they don’t know how to ski. “An incredible amount of squalling goes on around here on powder days,” one ski instructor told me with disdain).

Such groomed slopes enable skiers to ski fast — maybe beyond their abilities. But some people argue that the groomed slopes actually prevent accidents, because it’s not as easy to “catch an edge” and lose control. If there are any statistics on such things, I’m unaware of them.

Third, the quad lifts could have something to do with collisions among skiers. People spend less time in lift lines, less time going uphill, and hence more people go down the slopes. Vail got its first quad lift in 1985, and about 1988 we began hearing a public clamor about reckless skiing. People were getting clobbered on the slopes. Briefly, the ski company poo-pooed the idea. Then Vail’s boss for mountain preparations was knocked into the hospital by a skier catching air without any clue about where he was landing.

AS HAVE OTHERS, Vail has done a great deal since then to slow skiers, and instill consciousness. There are pithy signs (“Ski with Care,”) and runs designated for “family skiing.” Fences have been installed to slow skiers before they reach congested areas. People are hired to stand at funnel locations, particularly in late afternoon, to yell at people (and yank season passes).

I can cite no statistical evidence that any of this works, but it seems to help. On-mountain personnel similarly say there’s no absolute answer. Maybe it’s my age, but I constantly keep an eye over my shoulder.

In this debate about accidents, the role of the ski patrol is often questioned. After two celebrities died, many asked, “Does the ski patrol give celebs slack?”

Vail’s probably a poor place to tell. (Our “celebs” tend to be Wall Street movers and shakers, not staples of Entertainment Tonight, and the Enquirer prefers Aspen.) But three Vail ski patrollers, two of them former, told me they never received pressure to bend rules for celebrities.

Although patrollers were occasionally dispatched to accompany select individuals, including President Gerald Ford, Vice-President Dan Quayle, and Jordan’s King Hussein, recently they weren’t even aware that a now-private-citizen Quayle was on the mountain until he stopped by headquarters to say hello. And all three patrollers were adamant that big shots got no preferential treatment. “We pulled passes when we thought passes needed to be pulled,” said one. “We pulled gold medallions,” he said, alluding to the expensive passes that give the bearer the privilege of skiing at any Colorado ski resort.

“But what if somebody like Kathy Ireland were caught breaking the rules?” I persisted.

“With so much clothing, you don’t recognize somebody skiing until you’re right in their face,” one said.

Curiously, most non-ski patrollers I talked to, including some on-mountain personnel, seemed to think it’s only human nature for ski patrollers to cut slack for someone like Michael Kennedy — provided a patroller knew what he looked like.

But one theory I heard maintained that ski patrollers don’t like playing cop. And another theorist contended that probably some ski patrollers, like some police, probably like to swagger, and would actually like to bust celebrities. More pertinent, however, was the observation that ski patrollers have too many “wrecks” on the mountain to worry about policing all but the most blatant recklessness.

It should be noted that I talked with nobody from Aspen ski patrol, past or present, about any of this.

But undoubtedly, in the wake of Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono smacking trees, there will be a new attention to overall skier safety, and not just reckless skiing or tree skiing. It will get into these other issues, too. The U.S. Forest Service, which controls the land on which most resorts are located, has already asked for such a “dialogue” among resorts along the I-70 corridor.

There will be more helmets (they were coming anyway). Ski areas will be able to argue for even more expansions, citing lower skier density. Subtle moves to discourage tree skiing will be made. Most interesting, however, will be the response from the marketing arm of the ski industry. Can skiing be both adventuresome, and very, very safe?

Myself, I’d love to see that lawsuit against Absolut Vodka end up in court. It’d be a fascinating case.

Allen Best recently retired as editor of the Vail Valley Times and now has more time to ski near the trees.