Beating the drum for safety

A snow-covered slope serves as a great alternate reality in which one's biggest worry is making sweet turns and one's quest is to find untouched powder. But, like many of life's delicious diversions, responsibility remains an ever-present factor.
Although chair lifts and ski scamps have domesticated mountain landscapes somewhat, the hills demand respect. Tragedy is often the result of a failure to respect the mountains, people's limitations and basic signage.

The presence of boundaries often creates a desire to walk along the edge of risk.

"For me, taking risks on the hill is like smoking too much. It's 100 per cent your responsibility if you get hurt," said Stacy Kohut, Paralympic skier and four-wheel mountain biker.

Kohut is an authoritative voice on the subject of safety. The world-class athlete was paralyzed from the waist down and confined to wheelchair as the result of a spinal-cord injury he suffered while trying to perform a stunt on a playground swing 11 years ago.

"There's not many people like myself who have done ourselves in and come back for more," Kohut said. "We've done such a good job at pretending these sports aren't dangerous. Anytime you mimic what the pros are doing, you are putting yourself at risk."

Our culture's glamourization of extreme sports keeps Whistler-Blackcomb's safety team working to spread the gospel of safety.

Ski hills - including Whistler-Blackcomb - have found themselves in court fighting claims of negligence. As a result, Brian Leighton of the Whistler-Blackcomb safety department is spearheading a full-scale safety assault.

"It's the education that will make a difference. We've been putting more emphasis on school groups to make sure that kids come prepared and that parents know the risks," Leighton said.

It is easy to throw judgment aside in the frenzy of a powder day in which boyfriends leave girlfriends to search for their own patch of powder, Leighton said.

"In the good old days before the high-speed chair lifts, it wasn't s uch a flurry with new snow. With the thundering herd, things get tracked up and in turn, people look at extreme lines that they are not capable of pulling off," he said.

The skier or snowboarder who has the latest Warren Miller movie in mind causes the most worries for the Whistler-Blackcomb safety crew.

Out-of-control speedsters often forget simple rules of physics - for example, that for every action there is a reaction.

"People get a little crazed and don't think about what can happen if they screw up. It's only a small group of skiers that can do those crazy lines without injury," Leighton said.

Instead of throwing away your ski season with one or two bad decisions, Tony Sittlinger, Blackcomb forecaster, recommends that skiers and snowboarders honestly assess their abilities and make decisions based on that calculation.

"Accept that if something goes wrong that you need to accept the consequences," Sittlinger said.

As equipment improves, skiers and snowboarders have been able to pus h the boundaries of safety. Out-of-bounds and "slow zone" signs should command respect, he said.

"I can't beat the old signage drum enough," Sittlinger said. "It's also important to make sure you have good equipment, although safety has a lot more to do with the decision you make."

Mountain enthusiasts are also encouraged to ease into challenges rather than taking risks in giant steps.

"It's important to use common sense," Leighton said. "We've had a lot of early snow. People tend to be overanxious to get into the trees before the snowpack is ready."

The signs on the mountain are easy to follow regardless of your skill level. "Ski-area boundary" signs indicate the edge of Whistler-Blackcomb's patrolled area. Skiing or riding outside the area is done at your own risk and requires proper avalanche safety gear. Permanently closed areas are just that: permanently closed and speckled with hazards.

When the proper respect is given to the mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb can be a North American Shangri la.

"Enjoy these sports," Kohut said. "The stuff the pros do is the result of body awareness and modern-day hocus pocus."