Are skier collisions up at Mammoth Mountain? If so, why?
“During the holidays, it was collision after collision after collision,” said one local paramedic, who requested their name not be used, when asked if accidents between skiers and snowboarders were up this year. “One guy beat up a dude who ran into his daughter.”
A Mammoth Lakes Police Department arrest log confirmed that a three-year-old female experienced a “loss of consciousness due to collision,” on December 19, 2017. “The dad said he looked up, it was clear, and all of a sudden, bam! She got nailed by a snowboarder,” said MLPD Sergeant Joe Vetter, who responded to the incident.
“I know of a couple other instances we weren’t involved in,” said Vetter on Monday, February 12. “But It seems like collisions are getting more and more [frequent]. What that’s related to, I’m not 100 percent sure, but they seem to be on the rise.”
Vetter also said that “one of our officers’ mothers was visiting up here and got clobbered by a snowboarder about two weeks ago.” Vetter said the “snowboarder took off … and she actually broke something in her neck” that required minor surgery.
Jayson Smith, Assistant Director Ski Patrol at Mammoth Mountain, told The Sheet that leaving the scene of an accident, other than to get help, can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor. Smith, along with Health & Safety Manager Cindy Dady and Public Relations Manager Lauren Burke, spoke to The Sheet on Monday about Mammoth’s elimination of the Hill Safety Department last season (2016-17), and whether it has anything to do with the perceived increase in skier collisions this season.
“The changing of the Hill Safety program has nothing to do with the collisions,” Smith said.
Smith explained that the Hill Safety Department, started by Dennis Agee in the early 2000s, was “phased out” last season when some of its leadership moved on to other ski areas. “We took the opportunity not to fill …those 8-10 [Hill Safety Officer] spots and supplement them with ski patrollers,” said Smith.
Smith said that, while the Hill Safety Department was in existence, there were only 40 front line ski patrollers at Mammoth. Now, Smith said, MMSA has added 10 more for a total of 50.
“We certainly didn’t get rid of [the Hill Safety Program],” said Smith. “We actually made it better.”
Former Mammoth Mountain Hill Safety Officer Sally Sperle said that the biggest part of her job during the season of 2015-16 was telling skiers to slow down on Mammoth Mountain.
Sperle said that a Hill Safety Officer was almost always posted at several of the biggest intersections at Mammoth. She said that their job was to inform guests about the relationship between speed and safety.
Former Hill Safety Officer Charlie Bennett said the top of Chair 1 is referred to by patrollers as “Times Square,” and that, as a Hill Safety Officer, “you’d be up there yelling and screaming and people just blow by you.” Bennett said that, after helping patrollers post signage and identify hazards in the morning, “we’d go down and stand at [different] areas” where trails merged. He said he had to complete about two weeks of training and pass a ski test to become a Hill Safety Officer.
Sperle said she thinks having Hill Safety officers to remind people to slow down helped ski patrollers do their jobs more effectively. “The Patrol have so much going on already,” said Sperle. “If you’re a patroller, are you going to go tell that person to slow down or are you going to help somebody who’s hurt?”
“Standing there and watching what people actually do…was definitely mind-blowing. Like cutting off ski school. People would actually ski through the little kids,” recalled Sperle.
Smith said that the Hill Safety Department was “never really intended to take over patrol duties, it was intended to augment [mountain] safety.” Smith said the “mountain safety” umbrella includes everything from designating slow zones to closing runs to guest education.
Cindy Dady said that Mammoth Mountain now utilizes department heads, managers, and other front-line employees who are “out in very visible jackets deployed at our slow zones” to tell visitors to slow down on busy weekends (such as this one). She said that when those employees witness people going too fast, “they will make contact with their eyes, slow them down, then our patrol backs up that group and are the individuals who interact with guests who might have been going too fast.”
Dady said that a team of employees will accompany speeders onto lifts and hand out “Know the Zone” cards and discuss safety initiatives and the Skiers Responsibility Code with them. She said they’re often rewarded with hot cocoa. Dady said that Mammoth is also introducing these materials to its lodging and retail properties (see an example on page 3).
Bennett and Sperle both said they were concerned that mountain hosts (identified by their trademark yellow jackets) may not be as firm with problem skiers as Hill Safety Officers once were.
“We were a little more of a younger crowd than the hosts, so we were… a little more aggressive,” said Sperle, who said she had the right to give warnings or to pull passes.
“The hardest part out there,” said Smith, is that “the definition of ‘reckless,’ or ‘going too fast’ is subjective.” He said that patrollers now take photos of violators’ passes and that Mammoth is “creating a database on each guest that skis here.” He said this is a recent development in the last year.
Smith said that any guest who gets a second offense for speeding (and any employee who gets a first offense) now must go through the “Ride Another Day” program in order to get their pass turned back on.
That program is a short film (followed by a questionnaire) about a five-year-old girl who was killed by a snowboarder in Montana. The snowboarder also perished in the incident, and it was reported that he was going approximately 50 miles per hour when he collided with the young girl. The video is available online (warning: it’s a tear-jerker) and was produced by the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA).
“The responses that we’re getting is [guests] didn’t realize” the potential dangers of speeding, Dady said. “They see themselves as a changed person after watching the video.”
Smith said that the video is also mandatory for anyone involved in a collision who is determined to be at fault. He said that the length of a pass suspension “depends on the egregiousness” of an offense, and did say that there are a few Mammoth guests with lifetime bans.
When asked if he thought people speeding was resulting in more collisions, Mono County Paramedic Training Officer Ray McGrale said, “As far as trying to make an injury pattern because of one specific thing, it’s going to be hard.” McGrale added that “When snow conditions are lesser during the holiday season and there are more people congested into a smaller area, it’s a numbers game.”
Laurie Bates, Emergency Room Department Manager at Mammoth Hospital, did not return a call for comment about admissions to the ER during the open hours of the ski area, though Ehren Goetz, Communications Strategist, told The Sheet that Bates said any information she could offer would be “anecdotal.”
The Sheet then asked Goetz for admissions rates to the ER from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. during the holidays of the last few seasons, which he declined to provide, saying in an email that “any patient information from this or previous years we could provide would be inaccurate to report any direct correlations.”
According to a 10-year injury study published by the NSAA and conducted by Jasper Shealy, PhD, of the Rochester Institute of Technology, as a percentage of all accidents, collisions with another person have not changed significantly in the past 10 years.