Safety on the Slopes: The Skier/Boarder Responsibility Code
Author thumbnail By James Chen, DCSki Columnist

There’s no question, its getting crowded out there! As more and more people discover the thrill and fun of sliding down a frozen mountain on skis, snowboards, telemark skis, ski boards, and even inner tubes, ski areas are seeing dramatic rises in the number of sliders visiting their slopes. In addition, warm weather over the past few seasons has limited the amount of terrain ski areas can open up (at least in the Mid-Atlantic where this skier lives!). The result is large numbers of people competing for limited slope space. This can lead to longer lift lines, flared tempers and, in the worst case, collisions. This last result is one that can quickly end the day for a slider and lead to a trip down the slope in a toboggan courtesy of the area ski patrol, followed soon thereafter by a trip to the hospital.

So what’s a dedicated slider to do? Bump off the competition? Run folks over before you get run over? Wait until more areas open or expand? While tempting, these short term solutions very rarely get the desired results. In fact, running your fellow sliders off the trail will likely get you escorted off a ski area’s premises between two of the local gendarmes. Waiting for new ski areas to open or existing ones to expand will not help much either. With the notable exception of Vail’s new Blue Sky Basin, not too much expansion is going on out there.

There is, however, a simpler and more effective method for getting along with your fellow sliders - learning the rules of the slopes. Sliding in a crowded area is a lot like driving a car. Like the driver who drives on the right side of the road (left side if you happen to be in the U.K.), skiers and boarders must also know the basic “rules of the road” or a day of sliding can quickly turn into a visit to the local hospital. Luckily, unlike traffic laws, there aren’t nearly as many rules for sliders and they are all based on simple principles of courtesy and safety.

The “rules of the road” for skiing and boarding are contained in a “responsibility code.” While different areas may vary the wording of the basic responsibility code to some degree, the basic principles are pretty much the same.

1. Always stay in control and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects.

This first one is probably the most important piece of the code. Every slider needs to stay in control as they travel down a trail. Areas are full of things like trees, rocks, snowmaking equipment, and other people. Some are easy to avoid, others take more work. Either way, you cannot avoid hitting something if you’re traveling Mach 2 down a trail with no hope of being able to swerve or stop. Trust me, hitting a tree at any speed is going to hurt!

Staying in control does not, however, mean you have to travel at the pace of a snail with a 50-pound shell. Sliding would not be much fun if you had to go that slow! The key is making sure that when you are going at a decent pace, you can swerve around other people and objects. Swerving, by the way, does not mean using your fellow area guests as slalom gates!

2. People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them!

This one seems pretty simple, right? People are not equipped with eyes in the back of their heads, so the person in back has to avoid the person in front. Yet somehow, a lot of folks seem to forget this little fact of human anatomy. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve come up to an accident scene caused by a collision only to hear the words “she didn’t get out of my way” or “he turned right in front of me” when talking to the skier who caused the collision. Guess what? She did not get out of the way and he did not avoid turning in front of you because neither of them can see behind them when they are moving forward! Avoid the slider in front and you will both avoid a trip to the hospital.

3. You must not stop where you obstruct a trail or are not visible from above.

Rule number 2 does not absolve the downhill slider of all responsibility. Although the uphill slider is responsible for not running into you, you have to make sure that you are not blocking a trail and that you can be seen. One of the worst places to lie down is in the middle of the trail. While all sliders should be paying attention to rule number 2, not all will. Lying or standing in the middle of the trail is just asking to get hit. You wouldn’t stop your car in the middle of the road - don’t do it on the slopes. Move to the side and your chances of being involved in a collision are much lower.

Another place not to hang out too long is in the middle of a trough in a mogul field. Uphill sliders can not see you. In addition, if a slider is in the middle of a great line heading down a trail that includes your resting spot, you will not know what hit you when that slider comes bounding through. And rest assured, a face full of fiberglass, plastic and metal in front of 100 to 200 plus pounds of flesh, blood, and bone will end your day very quickly.

4. Whenever starting downhill or merging into a trail, look uphill and yield to others.

Another exception to the “downhill slider has the right of way” rule is when you are starting off. While uphill sliders have to be on the lookout for downhill sliders, most are not psychics. They cannot tell when a downhill slider will start up after having stopped off to the side, nor can they predict when a slider will come through a merge area they are about to enter. While the uphill slider certainly has to yield to the downhill slider, downhill sliders can help out as well by looking uphill when starting out or merging into another trail.

5. Always use devices to help prevent runaway equipment.

Remember the old Sylvester and Tweety cartoon where Sylvester is skiing after Tweety, then hits a tree and all you see are two sets of skis going downhill by themselves? Pretty funny. In fact, there’s probably few things funnier on a ski slope than watching an ownerless ski or board going down by itself. Unfortunately, there is also nothing more dangerous than out of control equipment flying down a trail like an unguided missile, ready to knock over or impale somebody in the wrong place at the wrong time. Make sure the brakes on your skis work and be sure to use the runaway straps on your snow and ski boards. Not only are you helping to prevent an injury, you’ll be sure to get your equipment back if it gets away from you.

6. Observe all posted signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas.

In a crowded area, it may be tempting to duck under that closed trail tape or ski past that “trail closed” sign to get to virgin territory. Problem is, trails are usually closed for very good reasons. Most times, at least in resorts east of the Mississippi, it’s due to lack of coverage. Other times, especially in the Rocky Mountain resorts, it may be due to too much snow. Either way, ducking that closed sign can result in disaster. If there’s not enough snow, you may find yourself hiking out with the Grand Canyon carved on the bottom of your skis or board from all the rocks and debris on a thin trail. If there’s too much snow, you may get caught in an avalanche and become a permanent part of the scenery. In either cases, you’ll also find that there won’t be any help readily available. Ski patrollers tend to avoid closed areas - why? Because they’re closed!

It’s also a good idea to pay attention to warning signs. Ignoring that “cliff” sign could get you more air than you ever intended! Important warning signs also include those orange and black bamboo poles set out to mark the edge of a trail or hidden hazards. Ignoring those could send you into snowmaking equipment or other obstacles that could be hazardous to your health.

7. Prior to using any lift, you must have the knowledge and ability to load, ride, and unload safely.

Although this one seems pretty obvious, it still bears repeating, especially with crowded slopes and lift lines. Making sure you know how to use a lift ensures that not only will you get to the top safely, you won’t also unnecessarily hold up the long line of other sliders as the lift attendants pick you up off the ground!

* * *

As ski areas get more and more crowded, following the rules of the responsibility code become more and more important. Knowing and following these rules not only helps to ensure you don’t get hurt, it also helps to make sure you can still have fun, even on a crowded slope. Admittedly, these rules are not going to make the crowds disappear, but following them, along with a little courtesy towards your fellow slider, should ensure that everyone heading to the slopes can have a great time.

About James Chen

James "Jim" Chen" is a member of the National Ski Patrol and Assistant Patrol Director at Liberty Mountain ski area in Carroll Valley, Pennsylvania. Jim has been a member of the Liberty Patrol since the 1995-1996 season. Off the slopes, Jim is an attorney in Washington, D.C. where he counsels clients on transportation, innovation, safety and environmental areas.

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