Danger never far away; safety pivotal on slopes

February 6, 2008 

The CEO of a green technology company disappears into a tree well and dies. Two expert skiers take a wrong turn in blizzard conditions and, luckily for them, survive in the Tahoe wilderness for two days before they're found.

Both episodes took place during the past week at Sierra ski resorts, where fun and recreation are supposed to be the rule. The events are cautionary tales, of course, and point to one large truth.

If you're not careful, trouble lurks on the mountain.

"Dress properly. Don't ski or snowboard on trails beyond your ability. Don't ski alone, but if you do, at least know where your partner is," said Strawberry's Doug Parker, Dodge's Ski Patrol director and an employee for 22 years.

A decade later, we still remember singer and Rep. Sonny Bono, killed in 1998 when he hit a tree during a ski run at Heavenly. Michael Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Robert Kennedy, died the same year after he raced into a tree while playing snow football in Aspen, Colo.

They are the high-profile victims, but it can be a deadly game for everyone. The National Ski Areas Association reports that 37 die each year from ski/snowboard-related injuries or mishaps.

The message: Even in seemingly benign weather while engaged in carefree pursuits, there is danger in the winter snow. That said, it can be averted by heeding some old-fashioned safety tips.

Here are some potential red-flag areas at every resort and how to avoid problems there.

TREE WELLS — Skiing or riding in the trees is exhilarating and fun — especially in friendly powder — but risky for the inexperienced. Tree wells, soft spots near the trunk that appear after heavy snowfalls, can cause suffocation.

"They draw you in. If you run into the tree, the snow can cave in on you, plus snow can fall from the branches of a smaller tree nearby. It's very dangerous. Snowboarders can go upside down and not recover," Parker said. "You just have to know your limits and use standard care while you ski. Keep your distance from trees."

LIFTS — It might sound overly dramatic, but the standard chair remains a daunting obstacle for beginners. Positioning yourself to be seated, and later unseated, on a chair in motion is a discipline to be learned. Injuries happen at all resorts.

"It's actually more difficult for snowboarders because they have a harder time shuffling their feet," Parker said. "Getting instruction via a lesson or a friend will help. It's also good to start on easier trails and slower chairs. The operators loading you also will help. They'll talk you through the process."

BOUNDARIES — Extreme weather caused the crisis for the two men last weekend, but staying on the property — and obeying border signs — is a good idea at all times. Adventurers sometimes stray off-course into ungroomed territory and invite bad news.

"We had a senior skier go out-of-bounds two weeks ago, and he's had a season pass for nine years. He was just caught up in the moment and all the scenery. We had to pick him up at a pack station that night. He was lucky," Parker said. "Have some expectations on where you're going and please stay where you belong. Assess things."

TERRAIN PARKS — All those jumps and rails become handy props for experienced skiers and snowboarders. Accent the word "experienced."

"There are different levels of terrain parks. You can work your way up gradually," Parker said. "Each person needs to look at the features before they try them."

STEEP AREAS — Controlling speed, always a must, is multiplied in importance as you approach sharp dropoffs.

"Just slow down at places like dropoffs or at the bottom of every run or close to the lodge," Parker said. "Basic safety will almost guarantee a good day. Skiing is a tremendous joy but you have to know your limits."

UPDATE — This week brought sunshine to Dodge Ridge and Bear Valley for the first time in at least a week. If the good weather stays, it promises a wonderful ski/snowboard weekend.

"We're not going to have any problem operating into April. These are the best conditions we've had in the last four or five years," spokesman Dan Kelsay said after Dodge received 28 inches of new snow at the base and 34 inches at the top last weekend.

Bear, located off Highway 4 east of Murphys, reported 65 fresh inches during the past week, increasing its base to nearly nine feet at its highest peaks.

"Somebody must have done something right," Bear spokeswoman Andrea Young said. "We're hoping for a slight change in the weather pattern so people can get up here and enjoy this."

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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