Family Safety on the Slopes

I went home with a black eye and a banged-up face the time skied into a tree. I was lucky.

I never realized how lucky until now, more than 20 years later. As anyone who hasn't been on Mars knows, Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono were killed on the slopes over the holidays within days of each other. Each collided with a tree. Both were in the midst of a family ski trip, Kennedy in Colorado -- his stunned children witnessed his death -- and Bono in California. His worried wife alerted the ski patrol when he was overdue.

Now skiing families around the country suddenly confront what parents don't really like to address: the riskiness of a sport they love because they can share with their kids, no matter what their ages. With one nearly 14-year-old who can never go fast enough on his skis, his 11-year-old sister navigating expert runs with ease and a 6-year-old who likes to out-ski mom, I've been thinking those same thoughts. Is this too dangerous a sport for families?

Absolutely not, says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) and himself a devoted family skier who skis often with his two grade-schoolers. In fact, many skiers believe skiing is safer than ever because of better equipment and more highly groomed trails.

Before you trade in your Ski Country reservations for plane tickets to a tropical island, Berry says, consider that last year 36 people were killed in skiing and snowboarding accidents -- less than one death for every million skiers. (Children rarely are even seriously injured.) More than twice as many people are killed by lightning strikes and nearly 1,500 in boating and cycling accidents.

``The risk is far less than people think,'' says Berry, nonetheless acknowledging that ``the thrill is part of the draw. The challenge is managing that thrill.''

But what about those nothing-can-happen-to-me teenagers? Berry acknowledges that older male teens and young men in their 20s are the most at-risk group (as they are behind the wheel of a car and in other sports).

For one thing, the National Ski Patrol regularly reins in those hotdoggers on the mountain, making them slow down, says patrol spokesman Rebecca Ayers.

``I see too many kids skiing unsupervised on slopes where they don't belong,'' adds Mark Anderson, president of the 28,000-member Professional Ski Instructors Association. Even worse, he says, are the number of parents leading their kids down slopes neither is ready for.

``None of us leaves the house in the morning thinking we'll be a story on the 6 o'clock news,'' Anderson continues. ``The point is to make them see it can happen.''

And to equip everyone in the family with the skills they need to make sure it doesn't happen. Last year, industry surveys show that more than half of ski resort visitors began skiing before age 17. The experts urge you to take to heart these family ski safety smarts:

-- Never allow a child, even a teenager, to ski alone. Adults shouldn't ski alone, either.

-- Ski or snowboard in the middle of the slope so that you will have more room to maneuver if you need it.

-- Stay in control. ``It's OK to ski fast,'' says the NSAA's Berry. ``But if you can't stop quickly, you're going to fast.''

-- Encourage helmets. More children and adults are wearing helmets every year, but the experts warn not to let them give you a false sense of security. ``It's what's in your head, not what's on it, that counts,'' advises Berry. ``You still have to ski appropriately.''

-- Keep off closed trails, no matter how tempting.

-- Avoid people ahead of you on the trail. They have the right of way. Whenever starting downhill, yield to others uphill, too.

-- Make sure each child has a trail map, hotel name and phone number in case you get separated. Before heading down the mountain, make a must-be-there time and place to meet.

Ski areas, for their part, are doing more than ever to keep the country's 52 million-plus skiers safe. A growing number of major resorts -- including Utah's Deer Valley, Colorado's Keystone and Steamboat Resort and Vermont's Stratton and Smugglers' Notch Resorts -- tout their family ski zones designed for slower skiers.

``We teach safety from day one,'' says Chris Kroos, senior vice president at Vermont's Smugglers' Notch Ski Resort, which has made families its key market. Safety is so important that instructors inject a lesson in their weekly skits for guests. ``The trick is to start them off right,'' says Kroos.

Ski areas (Smugglers' is one) also enable parents to rent beepers or cell phones so that they can keep in touch with their children in day care at the resort or those older kids out on the mountain.

Vail, Beaver Creek and Copper Mountain resorts are among the first to embrace the latest technology. Rockie (cq) Talkies are pocket-sized two-way radios that allow parents to keep tabs on their kids anywhere on a huge mountain. All it takes is the touch of a button. Rental averages $11 a day, says Neil Fancher, who developed the concept. Now hundreds of skiers a day are using them. Fancher promises they'll be available at more ski areas next year. (Any family who wants to try them -- they're great at theme parks -- can rent them directly from the company. Call 888-ROCKIE-T.)

Ski industry experts, meanwhile, say they're convinced these two high-profile deaths and the sudden focus on slope safety will have positive payoffs and not drive families away. Says Smugglers' Kroos: ``If anyone leaves the sport because of this, they probably weren't meant to be skiing anyway.''

See you in Colorado next month.

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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