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Byline: JERRY RICE Staff Writer

Record snowfall and a season that lasted until the Fourth of July ... skiers and snowboarders had plenty to rejoice about last winter. But that excitement was at times overshadowed by tragedies on the slopes.

About a dozen ski- and snowboard-related deaths were reported last winter at resorts from Mammoth Mountain to Lake Tahoe to Mount Shasta. Authorities called it one of the deadliest snow seasons in memory.

While some of the incidents were flukes involving a single skier or snowboarder, an unknown number of injuries were the result of reckless behavior on the slopes. Blame many of those on the X Games and Xbox.

``Skiing in the '80s was typically carving turns, going up, coming down, and even skiing fast,'' said Dr. Stephen Bannar, a physician with the U.S. Snowboard Team. ``A lot of the skiing and snowboarding now has to do with X Game-type activity -- big air, big tricks, halfpipe tricks. That involves landing hard.''

And sometimes getting seriously hurt.

``It's not just a simple fall to the snow anymore,'' said Bannar, who also is an orthopedic surgeon at Barton Memorial Hospital in South Lake Tahoe. ``Now it's a fall to a metal rail or a fall from a big-air jump. The injury rates are similar, but the severity (of the injuries) seems to be increasing.''

Still, skiing and snowboarding are relatively safe sports. An average of 38 people per year have died on the slopes across the country during the last decade, according to the National Ski Areas Association. That's fewer than the number of people who died from lightning (47) or contact with hornets, wasps and bees (66) in 2003, according to figures from the National Safety Council.

When it comes to injuries requiring hospitalization, the national rate is about 4 per 1,000 skier days, said Dr. Michael Karch, a physician for the U.S. ski and snowboard teams. One skier day is when a skier (or snowboarder) swipes his lift ticket once, regardless of the number of runs he takes down the hill.

Safety on the slopes has long been an issue for the industry.``I can't say that all of a sudden this is our flavor of the month. It's been something we've been doing for 30 years,'' said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association. ``We tried to get a skier responsibility bill through the Legislature in the spring of 1977, and it's an issue we just can't relent on.''

Longtime skier Dick Howell, who owns O.B.'s Pub & Restaurant in Truckee, a popular hangout for skiers and riders, says he sees plenty of risky behavior on the slopes.

``Not to be stereotypical, but a lot of times kids think they're indestructible,'' he said. ``They don't have the experience to learn from, so sometimes they do things that someone a little older would hesitate before doing.''

Bannar agrees. ``A lot of people, especially young boys, play Xbox and PlayStation at home and think they can do some of that on the slopes. But it's a little different.''

First of all, real people don't bounce back from hard injuries as quickly as video game characters do. About one-third of Bannar's patients are skiers and snowboarders who come off the mountain, and winter is his busy season.

``The most significant injuries we see are not from jumping, but from hitting stationary objects,'' he said. ``That sounds obvious, but hitting a tree or a lift tower or any other stationary object generally causes a pretty severe injury.''

That's exactly what happened in early May when a 24-year-old skier on intermediate terrain at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort started going into the splits, caught an edge and lost a ski. She plowed into a lift tower, and paramedics were unable to resuscitate her.

``In skiing and snowboarding, there's speed involved, plus other skiers or snowboarders who can be part of a collision, and also inanimate objects,'' said Lake Tahoe orthopedic surgeon Terrence Orr, who was speaking in general terms and not specifically about the Alpine Meadows accident.

``Skiing under control, being aware of conditions, being aware of traffic and being respectful of other people on the hill are all things that can cut down on the collision rate. Also going to the ski or snowboard terrain that's appropriate for your ability.''

That said, Orr, who also is the head physician with the U.S. Men's Alpine Ski Team, sees encouraging signs on the safety front.

``There are a lot of good things,'' he said. ``The equipment, overall, is better -- the bindings and everything. At the terrain parks, they're starting to put science into the equation to make sure jumps are properly prepared, to make sure there are good landing areas.

``And people seem to be more safety-conscious. I rarely saw people wear helmets 15 years ago. I see a lot more of them now.''

While resorts generally don't require helmets, their use is encouraged. Also promoted is the NSAA's seven-point Responsibility Code. Among the items: People ahead of you have the right of way, stop in a safe place for you and others, and whenever starting downhill or merging, look uphill and yield.

In addition, practically every resort Web site also offers safety tips. At, several profiles of the resort's freeride athletes include their suggestions. ``Pay attention,'' advises Jeff McKitterick. ``Don't let terrain, other skiers, snow conditions or obstacles surprise you.'' And from Larry Segal, ``Be aware of who's around you when you're skiing. If you like rocks, wear a helmet. Basically, be smart and respectful of the mountain.''

Howell has another suggestion for snowboarders.

``It's critical for them to be with somebody,'' he said. ``Oftentimes snowboarders will go back country because that's where you get snow that isn't skied on, but sometimes they'll fall head first into tree wells and deaths will occur because they can't move. It's not like skiing where the skis are separate and you can kind of kick yourself loose.''

Pairing up may or may not have helped Javier David Casapia Salas, a learning center employee at Mt. Shasta Board & Ski Park who wanted to take advantage of 36 inches of fresh powder on his day off in early March. The expert snowboarder was spotted upside down in a tree well by two guests, and ski patrol members were immediately summoned. They were unable to revive Salas.

But even going in a group doesn't ensure that everyone comes home safely. At Mammoth Mountain in late January, three skiers -- ranging from a 16-year-old high school sophomore to a 61-year-old ski club member -- were killed in separate accidents on three consecutive days. All three were on the slopes with family members or friends.

In a high-profile accident in April, two Mammoth ski patrol members and a would-be rescuer were killed after they fell into a geothermal vent that they were working to fence off. Seven others were injured.

``It's a reminder that here in the high mountains of the Eastern Sierra, where in a year like last year when we get almost 700 inches of snow, it's a very safe way to come and enjoy the outdoors, but it's not Disneyland. It's not a perfectly controlled environment,'' said Mammoth Mountain CEO Rusty Gregory. ``That makes us dig that much deeper for ways that we can make the experience here -- both for our employees and our guests -- even safer.''

In an effort to rein in some of the reckless behavior this winter at Mammoth, 10 of the resort's 70 ski patrol members will be specifically charged with enforcing speed controls in crowded areas, such as where runs converge. As it happened, none of last winter's deaths at Mammoth occurred in those areas, but sliding down the slope at an unsafe speed or performing risky maneuvers can result in injuries.

Break the rules and it could mean jail time.

``That's the extreme,'' Gregory said. ``It's just like driving a car -- you can have a lot of fun skiing, but there are responsibilities that go along with that. Short of jail, they can lose their pass for the day or even the year.

``A big part of it is education,'' he added. ``The vast majority of people, when their unsafe skiing or snowboarding behavior is pointed out, will abide by the admonitions of the professionals on the hill.''

Being safe on the slopes sometimes involves things that aren't so obvious. Wearing a helmet is smart, but preparation before traveling to the mountains will cut down on even more injuries, according to Karch, who has lived in Mammoth Lakes for the past four years.

``If I had to pick one thing, it would be to not fool yourself into thinking you can ski yourself into shape the first day you're here,'' he said. ``A pre-season conditioning program, six to eight weeks before you ever hit the snow, is probably the most beneficial preventive thing you can do. People get tired, and fatigue is a major cause of ski and snowboard injuries.''

Karch has looked at injury rates from a number of different directions. He has found that:

Skiers and snowboarders 12 years old and younger are the most apt to get injured. ``That's probably a combination of poor skill and poor judgment,'' he said. Teenagers are the next most likely to be injured.

Injuries spike from about noon to 1:30 p.m. -- ``That's almost directly correlated to alcohol use,'' he said -- and later in the day, ``because of fatigue, light changes and how the snow changes with the temperatures.''

Vacationers tend to get hurt either early or late during their visits. ``When it happens the first day, it's probably related to mechanical issues -- the bindings weren't checked or balanced from the last year. Toward the end of the week, the rise is basically the cumulative effect of fatigue.''

``Skiing and snowboarding are wonderful sports,'' Karch said. ``I've been skiing for 35 years, and it's one of the greatest things in life. But people need to know what their limits are, they need to know those limits in terms of ability and fatigue and endurance -- and they need to know when to call it a day.''


The National Ski Areas Association posts its Responsibility Code and lists safety suggestions at The Web site also has details about National Safety Awareness Week, which is Jan. 13-19. Parents can find useful information at Snowboarders might want to go to

Here are four more suggestions:

Before you go, get yourself into condition. ``Being fit and being in good condition for the sport will decrease the risk of overuse injuries and strains, as well as prevent fatigue at the end of the day when a lot of injuries occur,'' said Dr. Terrence Orr, a physician with the U.S. Ski Team.

Buy a helmet and use it. ``A helmet is recommended safety gear because head injuries can be devastating,'' said Dr. Stephen Bannar, a physician with the U.S. Snowboard Team.

Be aware of the conditions. ``Early in the season, there could be issues with lack of snow coverage on trails, or it might not be the right time to go into the trees for skiing because of the lack of a good base,'' Orr said. ``We see a lot of injuries in April because of the changing conditions. It could be icy in the morning, and when it starts to thaw there are slushy conditions in the afternoon.''

Keep your equipment in top condition. ``People have a relationship with their car mechanic; they should also get to know their ski mechanic as well,'' said Dr. Michael Karch, a physician for the U.S. ski and snowboard teams. ``It should be the same mechanic every time so they can tell you, `It's time to get a new set of bindings, it's time for a new wax job or a new edge job.'''


Here's a look at what's new at California's ski resorts for the 2006-07 season.

Northern California

ALPINE MEADOWS: The resort is partnering with Colorado-based Renewable Choice Energy to purchase 100 percent wind power, along with its sister parks, Boreal Mountain Resort and Soda Springs. On the hill, two new terrain parks with a variety of jumps and jibs have been added -- one midmountain and another higher up. They're geared toward intermediate and advanced users, who might also be interested in the new discount iRide program, which allows members (who can sign up for free) to purchase discount lift tickets. Go to the resort's Web site for details. (800) 441-4423;

BADGER PASS: The terrain park has been redesigned. (209) 372-8430;

BEAR VALLEY: The mountain makeover continues with the launch of more than $5 million worth of projects, including the debut of a high-speed quad dubbed the Polar Express. A new computerized check-in area will speed the process at the snow schools, and guests can now have their season pass linked to their credit card, which will make it easier to pay for refreshments in between runs down the hill. (209) 753-2301;

BOREAL MOUNTAIN: The resort that was among the first to allow snowboarding puts the sport under the lights with a night superpipe, thanks to the installation of four additional lights on the east side of its competition-level pipe venue. Also, there's a new progression park for beginners. Signs near the features show riders how to tackle each one. (530) 426-3666;

HEAVENLY: The resort went green in August with the launch of an initiative by the parent company, Vail Resorts, to offset 100 percent of its power use by purchasing wind energy credits. A side benefit for visitors: ``Anybody who purchases wind power for their home, we'll give them a free lift ticket,'' said resort spokesman Russ Pecoraro. Information: (775) 586-7000;

HOMEWOOD: There are a number of changes to the children's ski and snowboard programs, starting with a new reservation system that will allow parents to book half- or full-day tickets for their kids with a phone call. Also, a second surface lift has been installed. Indoors, the center has been remodeled and several nonski or snowboard activities have been added, including a climbing wall. A new rental facility will open in the south base area. More than 40 new terrain park features will be introduced. (530) 525-2992;

KIRKWOOD: The opening of Day Lodges at Timber Creek will offer guests easier access to ski school and rentals area, reducing the amount of time it takes to get onto the snow. The Women's Learn-to-Ride Center joins other snowboard programs for novices that were introduced last season. The new edition includes specially designed gear and training programs to accelerate the beginner learning curve. (209) 258-6000;

MAMMOTH MOUNTAIN: Among $12 million worth of new projects is the Top of the Sierra Interpretive Center, which will educate visitors about the area's geology, hydrology and volcanic history. The center, which will be housed in the existing Panorama station, where gondola passengers disembark, also will include a restaurant. It is expected to open in February. A facility for the mountain's third full-service ski and snowboard school will open at Eagle Lodge, which is already a popular learning and beginner area. The structure will include a new rental shop, a dining area for kids and a place to come in and warm up. Outside, there will be a new 350-foot-long platter lift and two moving carpet lifts. It also means that a full slate of group and private lessons will be available at Eagle Lodge for the first time. (800) 626-6684, (760) 934-0745;

MOUNTROSE SKI TAHOE: More than 400 parking spaces will be added to ease congestion in the lot near two lodge facilities. For first-timers, a three-day learning package will be offered for $99. The deal includes access to the beginner lifts, rental equipment and beginning/novice instruction for three consecutive days. (800) 754-7673;

MOUNT SHASTA: There's a new 100-foot-long moving carpet in the beginner area, and the size of the snowcat fleet has been increased. (530) 926-8610;

NORTHSTAR-AT-TAHOE: The second phase of the year-old Village at Northstar is expected to open in February. The addition will nearly double the number of available condos -- to 93 -- and increase by 40,000 square feet the amount of retail and dining space. Look for a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar, pizza and Italian-style restaurant, a pet boutique, arcade and a pair of high-end fashion retailers. (800) 466-6784;

SIERRA-AT-TAHOE: Burton's Progression Park will open with boxes, jumps and rails rising inches from the ground for snowboarders who want to work their way up to the bigger features. The park is on the Broadway run near the tubing hill. Elsewhere, riders can try out new 20-foot flat and 30-foot A-frame boxes, jibs and ``barrel bonks,'' which are skateboard-inspired trash cans. Scenic chairlift rides to the top of the mountain will be available for those who want to enjoy the view of Lake Tahoe, Desolation Wilderness and the Carson Pass but don't want to ski or snowboard back down the hill. (530) 659-7453;

SIERRA SUMMIT: There's a new moving carpet to help beginners up the slope near the bunny hill. (559) 233-2500;

SODA SPRINGS: The resort has joined its sister parks -- Alpine Meadows and Boreal Mountain Resort -- and is operating on 100 percent renewable energy. (530) 426-3901;

SQUAW VALLEY USA: Snowmaking capabilities have been expanded to include the Papoose beginner area at the bottom of the hill and the Gold Coast intermediate area at the top. Midmountain, the year-old Demo Center is expanding and will feature a line that caters specifically to women. For snowboard-crazy teens, a camp will be offered during holidays and other peak periods that builds on their expertise and will help them master the terrain park and big-mountain riding. (800) 403-0206, (530) 583-6955;

SUGAR BOWL: Borrowing an idea from airlines and movie theaters, the resort is launching a loyalty program so regular guests can earn points toward free ski gear, discounts around the mountain and other benefits. Season pass holders are automatically enrolled in the Core Mountain Club, and the card allows users to avoid the ticket lines and go directly to the lifts. (530) 426-6785;

TAHOE DONNER: Just added for the season are extra sessions in the Snowflakes ski school for ages 3-6. The session start times will be 9 and 10 a.m. and 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. (530) 587-9444;

Southern California

BEAR MOUNTAIN: There are more than 100 jibs after the addition of 20 new freestyle terrain features. For beginners, the new Learning Park has specially designed features that are the ideal size for those getting started. (909) 866-5766;

MOUNT BALDY: Snowmaking coverage has increased from 20 to 30 percent of the slope. (909) 982-0800;

MOUNTAIN HIGH: The remodeling of Big Pines lodge was part of a $2 million upgrade to the West Resort. The on-snow portion of the base area was enlarged, and the existing sundeck is now three times as large as it was. Among the other changes: a new fire pit, new stage site for concerts and shows, and a new surface lift to move beginners up to the Winter Sports School. (888) 754-7878;

SNOW SUMMIT: Here's what $6 million will buy: lots of new snow-making equipment, including 26 Super Wizzard snow guns. That means better -- and quicker -- coverage when conditions are ripe. (909) 866-5766;

-- Jerry Rice


Nobody knows the mountains like a regular, so we've asked locals at Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Mountain for some inside information about the best places to ski and snowboard:

Lake Tahoe

LAUREN HICKEY: Skier, candlemaker, who teaches the craft to others at Waxen Moon, the Village at Squaw Valley.

Check it out: Red Dog Ridge, Squaw Valley.

Why it's cool: ``One of my favorite things about Red Dog is how varied the terrain is off the lift. You can take a groomer run, a tree run, or you can go down the center and do something more chute-like.''

DR. STEPHEN BANNAR: Skier and snowboarder, doctor for the U.S. Snowboard Team.

Check it out: East Bowl Woods, Nevada Woods and Skiways Glades at Heavenly.

Why it's cool: ``All three are nice. Avalanche Bowl is wide open, and you can have great, deep powder. It has a nice, steep pitch. I've been skiing mostly at Heavenly because I can be available by cell phone and beeper. There are a lot of good areas that actually aren't advertised that are great little powder stashes.''

JEFFREY BARRY: Skier, adult ski-school manager at Heavenly Resort.

Check it out: Milky Way Bowl at Heavenly.

Why it's cool: ``It has the combination of tree skiing off to one side and the open-bowl effect. As you stand on top of it, it looks like you're dropping right into the Carson Valley. It gets some of the best snow when the snows come in. You get inside there, and you've got a snow field that can be untracked for hours on end -- as long as you keep moving through it and you know the right spots.''

LORI DOTTERWEICH: snowboarder, co-owner of Tails by the Lake, a dog and cat specialty shop at The Village at Squaw Valley.

Check it out: Squaw Creek and Red Dog at Squaw Valley.

Why it's cool: ``They're nice, wide-open intermediate runs. They're not too steep, and they're not too bumpy. I like to go there when it snows, as long as it's not too cold, and the day after it snows is usually great. Squaw's a great mountain for snowboarding.''

DR. TERRENCE ORR: skier, head physician for the U.S. Men's Alpine Ski Team.

Check it out: Skiways Glades at Heavenly.

Why it's cool: ``It's a great run on a powder day. Trees are well-spaced, and it kind of gets you off the beaten path a little bit. It's got a lot of territory, a lot of terrain back there in different areas that you can get to. It's a pretty nice spot. It used to be more of a local thing, but they put a sign up for it last year.''

MIKE WOLL: Skier, employee at Dave's Skis & Boards, Truckee.

Check it out: Crow's Nest and Strawberry Fields at Sugar Bowl.

Why it's cool: ``It's a little bit off the beaten path and takes about five minutes to hike to it from the chair, but it's absolutely gorgeous terrain. It's a local favorite, but it's not very crowded, which is always a plus. Be sure to pack the sunscreen, because it's always sunny at Sugar Bowl.''

Mammoth Mountain

TONY BARRETT: Skier, owner of Gallerie Barjur, in the Village at Mammoth, which caters to enthusiasts of original art and estate jewelry.

Check it out: Road Runner.

Why it's cool: ``It is effortless, with a beautiful view, and it goes right to the lodge, so I can share good times with friends.''

JAC BARRETT: Snowboarder, college student, employee in the family business, Gallerie Barjur.

Check it out: Dragon's Tail.

Why it's cool: ``It's a double black diamond, and it's beyond challenging.''

CHRIS EDWARDS: Skier, owner of the Pita Pit in the Village at Mammoth.

Check it out: Avalanche Chutes on Lincoln Mountain.

Why it's cool: ``On powder days, Chair 22 usually opens before the rest of the mountain, giving skiers access to the steep and deep Avy Chutes. When first tracks off the top are not an option, first tracks on one of the Avy Chutes usually is. I generally work during skiing hours, so it's nice that I can get to the top of Lincoln Mountain in about 20 minutes from the Pita Pit.''

RUSTY GREGORY: Mammoth Mountain CEO.

Check it out: Dave's Run.

Why it's cool: ``I like it there because it's steep, but there are no rock chutes to go through. My favorite day is what we call wind pack, which is when it snows a lot, but the wind hits that particular area and packs the snow down to this perfectly buffed, packed powder. Stand up, and you can see all the way down to Lake Crowley on a clear day.''

-- Jerry Rice


5 photos, 3 boxes


(1 -- color) A skier gets some serious air in Northstar-at-Tahoe's terrain park, above. Daredevil maneuvers on the mountain can be exhilarating, but safety should be taken into account in the wake of some tragic crashes last season.

(2 -- color) At left, Lauren Hickey of Lake Tahoe, with her dog, Rocco, stands atop Jakes Peak, a backcountry spot that overlooks Emerald Bay. Hickey is one of several locals to identify a favorite run at Tahoe or Mammoth; see story Page 5.

(3) Young skiers learn to control their speed by using the ``snowplow'' -- sometimes referred to as the ``pizza wedge'' -- position. Out-of-control skiers pose a danger to themselves and others on the slopes. Helmets are recommended for all skiers and snowboarders, not just for children.

(4) Snowboarding carries its own dangers. Risky maneuvers and excessive speed cause many serious injuries. The penalty for violating speed rules can be the loss of your day or season pass, even jail time.

(5) no caption (child wearing sunglasses and helmet)


(1) SLOPE SAFETY (see text)

(2) NEW THIS WINTER (see text)

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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 10, 2006

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