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by Joe Stevens

Hello Everyone –

Let’s just start off this week’s column by saying, if you can’t find snow on your favorite trail in the southeast right now, you aren’t trying very hard.

My goodness aren’t the conditions awesome right now?  I sure hope that you were one of the fortunate ones that were able to experience the exceptional powder conditions over the last ten days.

As you may know, I am also the Executive Director of the West Virginia Ski Areas Association and the other day, we put out a news release, announcing that every ski resort, cross-country area, and tubing park was open in the state. I am here to say, this is the first time I have ever written such an information piece.  Times (weather) is good right now, that’s for sure.

Now for the meat of this week’s column and that being January is National Safety Month for the ski industry. The month is dedicated to promoting skier and rider responsibility and mountain safety. Resorts across the country participate every year to educate skiers and snowboarders about being safe and using common sense on the slopes.

The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) started the awareness campaign many years ago and Dave Byrd, Director of Risk & Regulatory Affairs for NSAA says there was a reason January was chosen, “We internally picked January for a good reason, it allows ski areas to get open, between Thanksgiving and New Year and it allows new employees to get acclimated to the resort and guests. It’s usually a month where resorts see numbers climb and the slopes get busy.”

When the program first began, the safety awareness campaign only lasted a week, but the association decided that providing a full month of education would capture more visitors’ attention to the need for safety on the slopes.

The majority of the visitors to this site probably know and understand the value of safety on the slopes.  “Skiing and snowboarding require a lot of safety reminders,” says Byrd. “The industry tries to put an emphasis on chair lift safety, collision awareness, terrain park safety, and even safety for employees.  We try to include everything.”

NSAA reports a record visitation of an estimated 65.4 million skiers and riders to U.S. ski areas during the 2022-23 season.

One area of safety that has grown tremendously in the last decade is the use of helmets, while skiing and snowboarding.  When I started skiing in 1985, to be honest, the only helmets I saw on the slopes were when I watched downhill racing on television.

Just how much has helmet use grown? Byrd says substantially. “It is definitely one of the key successes of safety awareness.  When NSAA started collecting helmet data from guests in 2002, 25 percent usage was reported. Now we are close to just shy of ninety percent of all skiers and snowboarders wearing helmets.  For anyone under the age of 18, it’s 98 percent.”

Another area that has garnered a lot of attention from the industry is chair lift safety and Byrd says it is currently on the association’s radar, “I would say particularly within the realm of ski school and ski and snowboard lessons, we have a continued challenge, making sure instructors are instructing on chair lift safety particularly for the young ones and beginners.”

If you are curious, yes, I wear a helmet when on the slopes, not only for safety reasons of course, but on cold days it keeps my head and ears warm, another plus.

In the southeast, one of the ski industry officials that is leading the safety charge is Preston Cline, Director of Snowshoe’s Risk and Business Operations.

While Cline knows there are material things people can do for safety, such as helmets, he also believes people need to fully understand there is some risk involved. “Like most outdoor recreational activities, there are some risks involved when participating in skiing, riding, and tubing.  However, such risks can be easily mitigated by being properly informed and following best practices.”

Taking that thought a bit further, Cline makes a few suggestions for skiers and snowboarders to take heed of, “Familiarize yourself with ski area policies and safety information which can be found on ski area’s websites and/or trail maps, obey signage, and by all means, ski and ride within your ability.”

Needless to say, to have fun is for the most part knowing how to enjoy yourself and being safe at the same time.  I have always been a proponent of someone learning to ski or snowboard from a ski instructor and not a friend.  Byrd says that type of thinking will pay off in the end, “Your friend isn’t being paid to be patient while a skier or snowboarder is first learning.  They already know how to ski or snowboard, and they want to get on a more difficult trail as soon as possible and sometimes that means taking that beginner somewhere they don’t belong.  Every beginner needs to learn from a professional and by doing so will be able to enjoy the sport safely.”

Through everyone’s travels around a ski resort, probably posted in several locations is “Your Responsibility Code.”  For over five decades, the industry has had the code out there in hopes that skiers and snowboarders will follow, thereby having a safe experience on the slopes.  Byrd says while it isn’t law, it is pretty darn helpful, “The code is really well written and recognized throughout the industry.  But there are always new skier and snowboarders coming into the sport and they are the ones that need to understand it and follow the guidelines.”

Again, while you are out there on the slopes in January or better yet, before you strap them on for another day of fun, please take a moment to stop and think about stepping up and being that safe one on the slopes that day.

That’s it for this week. Just remember whether it be cold or whether it be warm, we’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather will be. Your favorite slope is now open, so go make some turns and let gravity be your friend.

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