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Tips for staying safe on the slopes this winter

Skiers and snowboarders sit on a chairlift on opening day at Colorado’s Breckenridge Ski Resort last November. This past ski season was the fifth busiest on record. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

Despite the challenges of the last 20 months, the past ski season was a banner one. Nationwide, 59 million people — including a wave of newcomers nudged outdoors by the pandemic — donned ski or snowboarding boots, making the season the fifth busiest on record.

Although ski resorts can’t yet speculate on how busy this season will be, if the slopes follow the same trend as national parks and other outdoor areas, 2021-2022 could break even more records. As crowds return to the slopes this winter, it’s important to remember that the same elements that make skiing a thrill can also make it hazardous. Depending on the run, the average skier descends a mountain at around 10 to 20 mph. It’s easy to see why even the most seasoned of skiers or snowboarders aren’t immune to accidents on the slopes.

“I like to remind people that there is no reason to push the limits. Take the time to just enjoy skiing and riding in a beautiful place,” said Hunter Mortensen, ski patrol director at Breckenridge Ski Resort. “Beyond that, it all goes back to the basics: Show respect for yourself and for others, give each other space, and remember it’s not a race. The season is long, and this is a high-output sport, so pace yourself.”

As we prepare to get back out there, we asked a handful of ski industry professionals to share their advice on how to stay safe in the mountains, both at designated ski areas and in the backcountry. Here’s what they had to say:

Know the signs of acute mountain sickness. If you’re visiting a mountainous region from a flatter state, you’ll probably experience altitude sickness. It often feels like a hangover, because the symptoms include confusion, shortness of breath, severe headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue or poor sleep, as well as loss of balance, energy or appetite. That first one especially can make skiing dangerous.

Some ways to treat altitude sickness are getting rest, returning to a lower altitude, reducing your activity level, and taking ibuprofen for the headache. It’s also helpful to spend your first day off the slopes, so your body can begin to acclimate.

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Rick Shandler, safety team program director for the National Ski Patrol, said skiers should also be properly hydrated and mindful of the effects of caffeine and alcohol.

Remember: We’re still in a pandemic. Because skiing is an outdoors, socially distant sport, it’s a fairly safe form of recreation and socialization in terms of coronavirus spread. However, the pandemic isn’t over, and mandates are still in effect in many places.

“We encourage everyone to follow the safety precautions laid out by each resort, which may vary this year, so check your local resort for more information,” said Luke Ratto, program director of Ski Utah Interconnect Tour. “A good rule of thumb is to always have a mask in your back pocket in case it’s needed.”

It also wouldn’t hurt to carry proof of vaccination for resorts, because many are requiring it for indoor dining and activities. And don’t let the fact that you’re on vacation make you less mindful of the precautions you take in your everyday life, such as thoroughly washing your hands and isolating if you feel sick.

Know your skill limits. Skiing safely is all about staying within your personal limits. At a minimum, skiers should choose runs and terrain appropriate for their abilities.

Early in the season, it’s good to have a clear understanding of your fitness level, goals and expectations of what makes for a good day skiing, said professional skier Chris Davenport.

“Typically, it’s when people ski or snowboard with unrealistic expectations of their goals that things can go wrong,” Davenport said, adding that problems also arise when skiers “get powder crazy and try to ski too hard, too fast.”

Shandler also urges skiers to stay within their skill level and slowly build up to more demanding runs over time. If you find yourself in an area that’s beyond your scope, he said, reduce your speed to help you stay in control.

It’s essential to understand that, even if you’re a proficient skier at resorts, skiing ungroomed snow in the backcountry requires a completely different skill set, said Anna DeBattiste, public information officer of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association. At resorts, you generally don’t expect rocks, trees and other hazards, and you certainly don’t expect to come across “mandatory air,” meaning your skis must leave the ground to clear exposed rocks. In the backcountry, on the other hand, successful runs are all about your ability to evaluate the snowpack and terrain and to make wise choices.

Consider going with a guide. If you’re new to skiing, hiring a guide is beneficial for myriad reasons. They’ll teach you how to improve your technique, so you won’t waste energy unnecessarily (or potentially hurt yourself); they’ll be able to guide you to runs that are appropriate for your skill level or that will help you gently level up; and they have lots of useful on-mountain knowledge, among other reasons.

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Even if you’re an accomplished skier, going with someone whose job it is to intimately know the mountain helps unlock experiences you may not have noticed when you gave the piste map a once-over. It also makes for a smoother day: With a guide, you’re often able to avoid the long lift queues.

Guides are doubly important in the backcountry, where there’s no ski patrol and you’re entirely responsible for your own safety. “Hiring a local guide is often your best option if you are unfamiliar with the local history, terrain and current snowpack,” Shandler said.

Professional skier Lucas Wachs said hiring a guide also makes for a better day on the mountain. “They are there to help you stay as safe as possible and have the best day you can have,” he said. “No matter your skill level, there is always something to learn from a guide.”

Be prepared for potential accidents. Whenever Davenport visits a new ski resort or backcountry zone, he always saves the ski patrol or mountain rescue service phone number in his phone. “You never want to be in a situation where someone is injured and you don’t know how to call in help,” he said.

In the backcountry especially, it’s vital to always carry proper gear (at least a beacon, shovel and probe) and to know how to use it.

“Before heading out, make sure you’ve taken an avalanche safety course, like AIARE 1, for example,” Ratto said. The courses teach newbies not only how to use their gear, but also how to choose safe routes, read the avalanche forecast, make smart choices and evaluate risks. Other courses to consider include Wilderness First Aid and Wilderness First Responder.

In the event of an accident, stay calm. If you’re at a resort and an injury occurs, Ratto recommends alerting ski patrol as soon as possible. Let them know where the accident took place, the number of people involved and the type of injury, so they can come prepared. While you wait, put on layers if you’re carrying them.

If you’re not the injured party, secure the scene to prevent an even more dangerous situation, such as a collision. Mark the scene of the accident by placing your skis and poles uphill of the victim in an “X” shape. It helps warn other skiers to steer clear and makes it easier for ski patrol to find you.

Mortensen recommends downloading the free EpicMix app if you’re planning on skiing at any of the 33 Vail-owned resorts in the United States. Not only does it provide real-time information about terrain, lifts and conditions, but it also provides quick access to dial ski patrol.

For backcountry folks, response plans depend entirely on your situation, but the first thing a group should do is call 911, DeBattiste said. If you don’t have cell reception, look for another backcountry recreationist to flag down, or, in a worst-case scenario, send one person in the party out to make the phone call.

Know when to call it a day. If there’s one thing ski patrollers know to be true, it’s that most injuries occur at the end of the day. “ ‘Just one more run’ are famous last words,” Shandler said. “Fatigue makes you sloppy and more accident-prone.”

Wachs echoes that sentiment. “Skiing when you are tired or fatigued, from my experience, always makes it easier to get hurt,” he said. “Injuries usually happen when you let your guard down.”

Given the rising price of lift tickets (Vail Ski Resort, Steamboat Springs and Winter Park in Colorado, as well as Deer Valley, Utah, all charged more than $200 a day during peak season last winter), it’s understandable that you may want to get the most out of your day, but it’s essential to stop while you’re ahead. Even the priciest lift ticket will probably cost less than a hospital bill.

Berg is a writer based in Colorado Springs. Find her on Twitter (@baileybergs) and Instagram (@byebaileyberg).

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