Thursday, January 31, 2013

Banning Uphill Skiing

Not long ago, while consulting the ski conditions on the Stowe Mountain Resort website, I stumbled across this fiat:

PLEASE NOTE-- ALL UPHILL TRAFFIC is prohibited on resort trails during operating hours. This is for the safety of our guests. Thank you.

And with those few, brief lines, a tremendous source of recreation for Vermonters was banned. This was more than surprising, especially considering that Stowe Mountain Resort operates its ski operations on public land, mostly Mt. Mansfield State Forest. The company leases its land from the state, and presumable there’s a clause somewhere in the contract that allows policies like this in the name of safety. 

I asked a friend of mine, who is also a ski patroller, about this new policy. He confirmed the decision, saying, “There was a collision and it’s getting pretty crowded.” I was among many people who contacted our local paper, the Stowe Reporter, about this. They've covered this before, last year, and their recent article expands that coverage: “Mountain Company limits uphill ‘alpine touring’ traffic for safety reasons.” The article revealed that uphill skiers have been stopped and told to turn around. The Mountain Company (which operates Stowe Mountain Resort) called uphill skiing “an accident waiting to happen.”

Uphill skiing--or skinning, so-called because alpine touring skiers and telemarkers can attach climbing skins to their skis and travel uphill--has increased in popularity recently as skiers seek to add to their mountain experience. It’s a great cardiovascular workout, and it allows skiers to see the details of the mountain, instead of blasting by them on the way down. Now it’s prohibited, at least on groomed slopes. 

The safety argument is twofold. First, there’s the contention that uphill skiing increases the likelihood of collisions between downhillers and skinners. It seems that the risk of collisions between these two groups would be no more likely than the risk of collisions between downhill skiers and people who have stopped on the side of the groomed ski slope, which is where uphill skiers ski. While uphill skiing--and snowshoeing, for that matter--has increased in popularity, there’s hardly a line of traffic plodding up the slopes,  obstructing downhill skiers. If the resort wants to increase safety, they can more actively patrol, and target skiers and riders who go too fast down the hill. 

Uphill skiers can usually be found on more gentle slopes, greens or blues, and the skiers there are usually traveling at lower speeds, and lower speeds mean more control. Uphill skiers are also looking up the hill at the traffic coming toward them, the same way a pedestrian walks against the traffic on the road, in order to see problems as they develop, and act accordingly. So from a safety point of view, this first argument fails. If the resort wants to promote safety, it can focus on that most dangerous of demographics: young men. Recklessly fast skiing and riding by young men has been responsible for all the serious injuries among skiers I know.

The second part of the safety argument posits that while groomers are operating in the pre-dawn hours, uphill skiers are at risk for a gruesome death. To my knowledge, this hasn’t happened. But with many uphill skiers hitting the mountain well before dawn, it’s not an unreasonable outcome, even though the groomers have so much forward lighting they can be seen from the village, seven miles away. Restrictions on uphill skiing while grooming operations are ongoing might be a reasonable request. 

But I can’t help thinking that the real reason behind the ban is about something else altogether: money. 

There are two pieces to the money argument. The first ties into the resort’s stated desire to ensure the “safety of our guests.” This is half-true. While the resort doesn’t want its guests to incur injury while skiing, the act of deliberately strapping slippery boards to your feet and pointing them downhill is unsafe. Wicked unsafe. If the resort truly wants to keep its guests safe, they’d lock them in the Great Room at Spruce Base and show them Warren Miller movies all day. And it’s not the uphill skiers who are creating a safety problem in the formula. They are moving uphill, slowly. The downhill skiers, to whom the resort sold a lift ticket to, are the ones engaging in risky behavior. It only seems logical that to guarantee the safety of its guests, the resort should ban downhill skiing, not uphill skiing. 

That leads to what’s probably at the heart of the money matter. Uphill skiers don’t all buy lift tickets--why would they? Yet they are using the slopes that the resort grooms and maintains without paying. That’s lost revenue. That means a lift ticket is more like a user fee in the eyes of the resort: skiers aren’t really paying for rides up on the chairlift all day; they’re paying for use of the maintained terrain. If that’s the case, it’s time for ski areas to call access to skiing what it really is: a fee-based user pass. What kind of legal issues this name and use change would engender escapes me, but it would surely be nightmarish for the resort, so don’t look for this designation shift anytime soon.

But the real purpose of the lift ticket is to indemnify the resort against your personal injury, and that’s something they can’t do with uphill skiers who haven’t purchased a lift ticket--I mean, fee-based user pass. Here’s the language from the back of a Stowe Mountain Resort (SMR) pass:

Holder expressly assumes the risks of any and all injury, including death, which may occur to him/her while participating in sports activities at Stowe Mountain Resort.

This frames the situation in the context of liability. And liability equals money. Stowe Mountain Resort is owned by insurance giant AIG, so minimizing insurance exposure can’t be far from their hearts. (AIG sold Stowe Mountain Resort to its subsidiary Chartis in 2009; Chartis has since been rebranded back into the AIG name.) An increase in uphill skiers alerted SMR and AIG to a potential problem with liability, which they decided to squelch immediately. 

While this is deduction on my part, it’s hard to argue with the logic. When Stowe Mountain Resort says it’s looking out for the safety of its guests, they’re telling the truth. But they mean their paying guests, not the ones visiting without a lift ticket. And to be fair to the resort, a growing interest in uphill skiing could conceivably cut into its profits and potentially put it at legal risk from skiers who are injured or killed while using their maintained slopes without paying. But isn’t there a solution short of an outright ban? Here are a couple of ideas.

First, require anyone using the maintained slopes to have ski pass. This is only fair. The resort maintains the slopes, and if skiers use them for recreation, they should pay for the privilege. This is easier said than done, however, and it’s unlikely that the resort will fence the base area in order to prevent poachers. Again, ticket checks could be the domain of the ski patrol: ever time they encounter an uphill skier, they can check for a ski pass. 

Second, limit uphill skiing to daylight hours after grooming operations have ended. This would address the potentially gruesome outcome of an uphill skier meeting a groomer in the dark. Along with this, uphill skiers should be required to stick to the edge of the slopes. This too can be enforced by ski patrollers in the course of their regularly scheduled duties.

Third, limit uphill skiing to designated slopes. There are many slopes that are appropriate for skinning--they’re the slopes that uphill skiers are seen on all the time. They include Toll Road, Gondolier, and Sterling. Prohibiting uphill skiing from busy slopes like North Slope, Lord, Perry Merrill, Lift Line, and others, will cut down on the opportunity for collisions, small though it is. The counterargument to this is that by limiting the activity to certain slopes numbers will be concentrated unnaturally there. But that’s where the skiers are traveling uphill already, and it doesn’t seem that bad.

Finally, make downhill skiers aware that they may encounter uphill traffic. Educate downhill skiers with signage; include it in the language of the liability disclaimer on the back of the ski pass. But don’t ban it outright. That simply brands Stowe Mountain Resort as bottom-line giant, something anathema to the spirit of Stowe (the village) and Mt. Mansfield, the God-given resource that SMR operates for its own profit.

No comments: