“$1,000 to duck a rope — dude, since when is that illegal?” Or so ill-informed people are yammering about on internet chat forums. Since 1972 Colorado has had a law called the Ski Safety Act. The Act codifies things such as skiing under control and not skiing in marked closed areas, as well as sometimes being the law used to close ski area boundaries (which are mostly open, more on that below). The current fine is $300.00 (I know, I’ve paid it.). The proposed law in Colorado simply changes the Skier Safety Act fine from $300 to $1,000. That’s it — nada mas.
|My Colorado Summons and Complaint for violation of Skier Safety Act in Highland Bowl. This cost $300 in 1982, proposed new law would change that to $1,000. In this case I knew I’d screwed up, and I also understood the law, so it got paid with no complaint.|
The amount of confusion this engenders is amazing. It’s as if Colorado resort boundaries were suddenly being slammed shut like lockdown at a federal prison. Let’s get things straight: Ski resort boundary policy in Colorado is to generally allow passage on to public land across ski area boundaries, with occasional boundary closures that block access to public land where accidents (usually of the avalanche kind) are too common, or wildlife (ostensibly) needs protection.
I’ve never met a public land closure I liked, but can live with the few that exist in Colorado (gotta give the ‘crats a bone now and then). Such closures are usually done by agreement between the ski resort, the Forest Service, and other public officials. Again, they are rare.
Confusion arises because according to the Ski Safety Act, Colorado ski resorts can close areas WITHIN their permit boundary, and to block travel outside their permit boundary they can mark a “buffer” of closed land by moving their marked boundary back from their actual permit boundary, thus creating a strip of closed land that’s illegal to cross. Since the 1980s wide use of this buffer method has been discouraged by the Forest Service. More, Colorado ski resorts have been encouraged to install “gates” in their boundary fences that funnel backcountry traffic. This prevents the creation of “sucker tracks” unwary tourists might follow, and also leads people past warning signs. Again: While there are places where access to public land has been closed by ski resorts, such are rare and it’s safe to say that Colorado ski resorts have mostly open boundaries.
So, if Colorado ski area boundaries are generally open, what are the issues here? Several things:
-As always, high profile accidents that cost taxpayer money sometimes result when folks cross CLOSED resort boundaries that are illegal to cross (as opposed to open boundaries that are marked, and legal to cross). While such accidents are rare compared to hunting, hiking and climbing accidents, government folks such as law enforcement and legislators frequently pick on the skiers involved in these accidents — a funny thing since Colorado is such a big ski industry state, but perhaps it’s that western backwoods influence saying “huntin an fishin are the lifeblood, skiin is foo foo, we got better things to do than rescue them bozos.”
In the case of boundary crossing, I say increasing the skier’s safety act fine is indeed unnecessary — but I still think it’s a good idea for another reason. Read on.
-There is no doubt in my mind that our ski resort slopes have become more dangerous. I’m frequently on runs where the majority of skiers are on the edge of control, skiing way over their limit in terms of stopping quickly or avoiding a collision. My gut feeling is that severe skier collisions are happening more frequently, and the person at fault in such collisions is often leaving the scene of the accident to avoid taking responsibility (and likely punishment).
The irony here is that the Ski Safety Act absolved the ski resorts of much liability and put responsibility for accidents on the skiers themselves. A good thing on the whole (it’s what gave us open boundaries), but really quite different than other industries. Downside: There is less incentive for resorts to regulate skier traffic. They do so for public relations and to save work dealing with accidents, little else.
Some skiers who hit others get away with it, some are caught. While it could be argued that increasing the fine will make skiers more likely to run from an accident, I believe it’s the message sent by the increased fine that’s important. When people know it could cost them $1,000 if they run down 6-year-old kid, perhaps they’ll be slightly more careful. When ski resorts know we take this issue seriously, perhaps they’ll feel it is important PR to be seen keeping things under control. Money talks. I believe it’s worth a try.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.