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Tragedies a Reminder of Dangers

January 09, 1998|PETE THOMAS

I heard the news Tuesday morning, not long after getting in my car to make my first skiing trip of the year: "Sonny Bono is dead after skiing into a tree at a Lake Tahoe area resort."

A couple of hours later, I was riding up Chair 3 at Mt. Baldy with operations director Nick Davey, 38, an expert skier who spends seven days a week at the small-time resort with a big-time view of the world below.

We got to talking about the tragic death of Bono, and that of Michael Kennedy days earlier.

As we watched a skier zip through the trees below, Davey pointed to branches and rocks protruding from the snow and said another big storm was needed to provide adequate cover for tree skiing, and that the skier, who could still be heard scraping his way over a mixture of snow, ice and debris was not only risking his neck, he probably wasn't having too good a time doing it.

Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts, nestled in the southern corner of the San Gabriel Mountains in the shadow of its 10,064-foot namesake, has some of the best tree skiing in Southern California--when there is enough snow.

Even then, Davey said, skiers need to use a little more caution when they venture off the beaten path.

"It only takes a second to catch an edge," he said, "and if you catch an edge while you're turning in the direction of the tree, it will pitch you right into the tree and there's no avoiding it. It's going to happen."

It wasn't going to happen to me. I remained on the groomed slopes for a few hours, then went home and began calling ski areas and organizations about the safety of a sport that has suddenly been put under a microscope.

A spokeswoman at Heavenly ski resort at South Lake Tahoe, site of the Bono incident, said nobody was available for interviews, "but we'll be glad to fax you some information."

The six-page fax came within minutes, offering details on the accident--the trail Bono was skiing on, the time the accident occurred, the condition of the snow, etc.--and several pages of data comparing the safety of skiing and snowboarding to other outdoor activities:

* During the 1996-97 season, there were 36 fatal accidents on the nation's slopes among 52.5 million skier/snowboarder visits, less than one fatality per one million visits.

* In 1995, there were 716 recreational boating deaths and 800 bicycle deaths, as well as 4,500 drownings in boating, swimming and other water activities.

The report, compiled by the National Ski Areas Assn., went on to say that 89 people die each year as a result of lightning strikes, that 42,000 Americans perish in automobile accidents and that 22,000 people are murdered every year.

But those numbers don't take away from the fact that when you strap two planks or one onto your feet and go sliding down a mountain, you are putting yourself at risk. And when that mountain contains an obstacle course of thick-trunked trees, which tend to isolate you from others, that risk becomes far greater.

Skiers will not stay out of the woods unless they are forced to do so, and ski patrols usually close off skiable wooded areas only if poor or dangerous conditions exist.

The trees hold great appeal, offering an enjoyable break in the routine of skiing the same groomed slopes over and over, often offering untracked powder, fewer people and great adventure.

Therein lies the danger.

Said Kevin Roberts, assistant director of the ski patrol at Bear Mountain in Big Bear: "With tree skiing, you often get good powder, but it's lonely powder, and lonely powder means more risks and more obstacles, lack of immediate first aid and greater inaccessibility by first-aid personnel."

Chris Ebner, mountain safety director at Northstar-at-Tahoe, a sprawling ski complex located between Tahoe City and Truckee, acknowledged that problems usually arise when skiers run into trouble after venturing into the trees alone, giving no notice to friends or the ski patrol.

But he said there also are those who believe they can find better skiing beyond the boundaries of the ski areas, and this creates an even more dangerous situation.

"These guys may go out of bounds and find their way back in, but the guy who follows their tracks out may not find his way back, and then we have a serious problem," he said. "This is how people get lost, and how they get killed."

A Colorado newspaper recently ran a story about a woman who had strayed from the boundary of a ski area late one afternoon and ended up at the bottom of a chairlift that had been closed all day.

She realized it would take too much energy to climb through the snow to safety, wherever that was, so she began calling for help. When she realized that nobody could hear her, she resorted to dancing and singing the night away in an attempt to stay warm and maintain her sanity.

After several hours, an employee heard the singing and rescuers came to her aid before full-blown hypothermia had set in.

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