Summit County Ski and Snowboard Safety

By Lynn Bojinoff

Skiing and snowboarding are at the heart of the Summit County winter lifestyle, and with seven nearby ski resorts that makes a lot of sense. Winter sports are a main reason why many people live in Summit County and why visitors flock to the area every year. The Colorado Rocky Mountain ranges that surround the towns of Summit County are grand and gorgeous and draw people from all over the world to come out and engage in adventurous mountain activities. It is worth getting to know as much as you can about the high alpine environment so that you’ll have a safe and enjoyable experience when visiting the area. Take some time to review these safety tips before you get into the snow this winter season.

Fitness Level

Consider your fitness level when preparing for a safe day out on the slopes. It is important to stay on terrain that matches your ability and fitness level. General fitness is a good start, but there is also sport-specific preparation that you can do before coming to the mountains to ride. Training for flexibility and agility in addition to strength can improve fitness for skiing and snowboarding, and this combination of physical skills will contribute to on-snow success. And it will ultimately reduce your chance of injury. Yoga and stretching exercises are beneficial before a day of energetic activity in the mountains.

Altitude Adjustment

The base of the mountain resort areas in Summit County start at well over 9,000 feet, and elevations rise to heights of more than 12,000 feet. Breckenridge’s top elevation measures in at 12,998 feet. If you come from sea level or an elevation significantly lower than that of Summit County, it is likely you’ll feel the effects of this altitude. Be aware that altitude sickness can sometimes occur, typically causing mild to serious symptoms including headache, dizziness, loss of appetite and low energy.

The best treatment for altitude sickness is to get down the mountain. If you are on the mountain and your condition is severe to the point where you are feeling sick, confused and/or having trouble walking straight, call for medical help immediately.

When you first arrive in the mountains, it is good advice to take a day to acclimate before riding a chairlift to the top of Breckenridge or Copper Mountain. Take it easy your first day, perhaps walk around a little in the base village, avoid caffeine, drink water, eat well and try to get a good night’s rest.

Hydration is a very important element in adjusting to altitude and preparing for a day of skiing or snowboarding, especially if you’re new to the area. Summit County’s climate is high and dry and can quickly cause dehydration, which can lead to a medical emergency if not addressed. A rule of thumb when you are active in the mountains is to drink half the number of ounces of your body weight in pounds. So if you weigh 130 pounds, try to drink 65 ounces or more of water throughout the day, or at least a half gallon. It may seem like a lot, but your body will need it.

Sports Equipment

Having the proper skiing and snowboarding equipment contributes to on-mountain safety and it requires some advance preparation. If you bring your own gear, make sure everything has been maintained properly and it is in good condition to take to the mountain in any snow conditions. There are equipment rental and repair shops at the bases of all the Summit County resorts to help you if you are in doubt about the suitability or safety of your gear. For the sake of safety as well as comfort, consider renting new equipment, especially old or outdated.

When renting equipment, you will be asked to convey your skiing or snowboarding ability level. Be sure to report this accurately because it is unsafe to rent equipment that doesn’t adequately match your abilities. There is a lot of difference between skis and binding settings for a beginner skier and those for an expert skier. The ski technicians at the shops are there to help you and give advice.

Mountain Attire

While locals may lightheartedly chuckle about how quickly the weather changes in the mountains, they also take it seriously from experience. A critical part of your plan should be to dress in weather-proof, breathable and wicking layers. This means no cotton undershirts or sweatshirts. In changing mountain weather, skiing and snowboarding safety requires that you choose appropriate, sport-specific clothing. Rain, sleet and waterproof jackets and pants will help counteract cold-weather injuries such as hypothermia. Proper clothing and layers will also help prevent other severe injuries such as frostbite. 

It is smart to make a head-to-toe clothing checklist to assure you have packed everything you need in order to keep your skin covered in cold and variable weather. Helpful items that are often overlooked include a neck gaiter, which can be pulled up to cover your face when it is cold, and a thin insulating hat to wear underneath a helmet. If your extremities are subject to an uncomfortable chill, bring along some hand and toe warmers. In your pockets take sun-protecting lip balm and sunscreen to reapply throughout the day, as the sun’s rays are especially intense at high altitudes. Plan to protect your eyes as well by wearing goggles or good sunglasses that fit property and that don’t fog up to block your view.     

While helmets for skiing and snowboarding are not mandatory at the ski resorts, the majority of riders are wearing them these days; they are an excellent choice for preventing head injuries resulting from accidents or collisions, which can occur from no fault of your own.

On-Mountain Safety: Know the Code

The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) has developed a list of seven safety guidelines called “Your Responsibility Code” to help skiers and snowboarders have a safe and enjoyable mountain experience. When you buy a ticket to ride on the slopes, it becomes your responsibility to know and abide by the code for everyone’s safety. The seven key guidelines are as follows:

  1. Always stay in control and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects. (Obviously, this one is very important!)
  2. People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them.
  3. You must not stop where you obstruct a trail or are not visible from above (also known as blind spots).
  4. Whenever starting downhill or merging into a trail, look uphill and yield to others.
  5. Always use devices to help prevent runaway equipment.
  6. Observe all posted signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas. While it may be tempting in some areas, never duck under ropes. When you do this, you will lose your lift pass.
  7. Prior to using any lift, you must have the knowledge and ability to load, ride and unload safely.Ask a lift operator if you need help.

For additional advice, don’t overestimate your abilities, especially if it has been a while since you have been on skis or a snowboard. Recognize when you are feeling fatigued and when it is time to take a break. Stay within your physical and mental limits to reduce the chance that you injure yourself or others.

Along with adequate preparation, common sense goes a long way when in a mountain environment, where it is important to remain flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions and terrain.

 

Emergency Response While On the Mountain

If you are involved in a skiing or snowboarding emergency while on the mountain, such as a collision, promptly call the on-mountain emergency number directly or call 911. An on-mountain emergency call will likely get directed to the ski patrol team. Ski patrol call numbers are listed on paper trail maps and on ski area maps located at key trail intersections.

When making an emergency call for help, be prepared to give a precise location of the incident. If you can, report the name of the trail you are on and describe key markers along the trail that will help responders find you. You will likely be asked to report your name and call back number as well as to report the status of injured parties.

If you are involved in an accident in which you or someone else is injured, it is important to not leave the scene. If possible, move out of the way of heavily trafficked areas or areas where others cannot see you from above. Cross a pair of skis or snowboards to signal that someone is injured, and wait for mountain safety representatives or medical professionals to arrive.

Backcountry Hiking and Riding

When venturing outside of the ski-area boundaries of the resorts, it is essential to be equipped with experience, knowledge and appropriate gear. Any backcountry hiking and riding comes with risks and dangers that might not be apparent within the bounds of a ski resort, including avalanche danger, unmarked obstacles, cliffs and varied snow conditions, among others. Navigation skills and an understanding of changing weather conditions are also important to safely ride in a backcountry setting.  

The best way to prepare yourself for backcountry skiing or snowboarding is to take an avalanche safety course and commit to the time it takes to develop a full repertoire of backcountry skills. Always go with someone and ski or snowboard with others experienced in backcountry travel. If you are not familiar with the area, it would be a very rewarding experience to hire a local guide so that you can explore Summit County’s special places that are off the beaten path.

Take Lessons or a Tour

Just as it’s a safe choice to hire a local guide when venturing out into the backcountry, hiring an instructor can help you improve your in-bounds skiing and snowboarding skills. Instructors can offer expert tips and demonstrate safe progressions that will lead you to achieve your ultimate skiing and snowboarding goals. Safety, in this way, can be fun when sharing it with someone who has insider knowledge of places on the mountain that you might not otherwise find.

Helpful Ski and Snowboard Safety Links

Here are some links that you may find useful.

https://www.nsaa.org/safety-programs/safety-facts-tips/skiing-snowboarding-tips

Your Responsibility Code: http://www.nsaa.org/safety-programs/responsibility-code

Learn more about altitude sickness at the International Society for Mountain Medicine website at http://www.ismmed.org

For urgent care, St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco: https://www.summitmedicalcenter.org

Check road conditions for safe travel in the mountains: http://www.cotrip.org