"It clearly accelerates risk when you don't have adequate conditions," says Dan Gregorie of the Calfornia-based SnowSport Safety Foundation. Yet some Colorado ski areas have reportedly been crowded despite worrisome snowpack levels that will likely remain below normal even after mountain snows forecast for later this week.
In "Ski Resorts in Colorado and Beyond Are Hiding Risks, Safety Advocate Says," published this past May, we noted that Gregorie is a physician who's spent much of his career involved with quality and safety management in the health-care industry. He created the foundation in 2006, after his 24-year-old daughter died after an accident at a California resort, and for the past decade-plus, he's argued in favor of requiring that ski areas develop and make public safety plans and statistics. To date, none have done so because, in his opinion, any acknowledgement that accidents might be partly the fault of the resort, as opposed to the individual skier, could result in costly judgments against them in cases of injury or death.
At present, there are no political efforts under way in Colorado to change this system. That means, among other things, that ski resorts or industry groups such as Colorado Ski Country USA or the National Ski Areas Association will continue to be responsible for informing the public about deaths at resorts, even though they tend to release the smallest amount of information possible about each episode as a way of minimizing negative publicity.
"When there either is a deficit of snow or an excess of snow, it creates conditions that aren't usual," Gregorie says. "And when you create conditions that aren't usual, you change the awareness of the skiing population in terms of what they're used to. So I would expect that a lack of snow would increase the risk of injury."
For that reason, Gregorie thinks ski areas "ought to have safety plans that make adjustments for low and high snow conditions — and high snow conditions put you at risk of avalanches, which are not an infrequent occurrence in Colorado. But last year, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that avalanches are to be considered an inherent risk of skiing — which basically means the resorts can't be held responsible for injuries or deaths from avalanches. And that's a really crazy position to take, because it removes any inherent reason to try to prevent avalanches. Just because something is an inherent risk doesn't mean it can't be mitigated. But by absolving resorts from responsibility, the court has removed all incentive for them to do anything. If you don't have consequences, people tend not to be as conscientious."
Without any information definitively showing that a lack of snow increases risks or has no effect at all, folks are left to decide for themselves if they should strap on their skis despite the lack of snow or wait until conditions are better. But Gregorie, who is considering bringing the SnowSport Safety Foundation to Colorado to produce the same kind of online report card his organization has produced for resorts in California and Nevada (click to see the grades given out thus far), urges caution during times when the white stuff is scarce.
According to him, "It's just common sense."