Snow and Avalanche Center 2007 Avalanche News

Snowmass adjusts ski closure policy
Avalanche death prompts a Skico internal review

Scott Condon - Aspen Times - Aspen, CO Colorado
November 9, 2007

SNOWMASS — The Aspen Skiing Co. will adjust the way it closes terrain when avalanche conditions warrant it this season at Snowmass ski area, company officials said.

The Skico will use more signs and ropes to close terrain in the Hanging Valley Wall area in response to the death of a skier there in December, according to a statement provided to The Aspen Times.

Blake Davidson, a 25-year-old local man, was killed after he picked through some extreme terrain, ended up in a closed area, launched off a rocky ledge and triggered an avalanche when he landed.

The Skico statement indicates that there are some highly skilled skiers and riders capable of tackling terrain that once was considered untouchable. Given their abilities, closure ropes and signs will be used to close areas that the patrol felt didn’t need to be marked in prior years because of the natural barriers in them, the statement indicated.

Skico officials declined to comment on the new policy. They were concerned that discussing the issue would renew the pain for Davidson’s family and friends, said Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle.

Instead, the company released a statement that explains the new policy, when asked by the Times if last year’s accident would spur new approaches. That statement follows in full:

“After last season’s avalanche on Snowmass, Aspen Skiing Company undertook both internal and external reviews of the snow control program and protocols,” the statement said.

“Avalanche experts, including those from Colorado Avalanche Information Center, investigated and determined that our snow safety protocol and procedures leading up to the incident were consistent with industry standards.

“However, our internal review determined that terrain formerly viewed as unskiable or extreme was now being tested by a group of high level skiers and riders,” the statement continued. “Cliff bands, dense trees and narrow steep couloirs that may have been viewed as unskiable in past years may not constitute natural barriers to entry for some individuals and will be treated as areas that need to be marked when closures are in place, depending upon the circumstances.

“In addition, in the spirit of cooperative education the Snowmass Ski Patrol had discussions with individuals who may access this type of terrain. The Patrol is available throughout the season to address any questions that anyone may have regarding open or closed terrain and asks that if there is any doubt at all, to err on the side of closure and ask a ski patroller,” the statement concluded.

The policy results from a no-fault, gray issue that came to light during Davidson’s tragic accident. Skico officials acknowledged shortly after the death that Davidson and a colleague might have interpreted a closure differently than the ski patrol intended.

The patrol placed a closed sign at the entrance to Rayburn’s Chute, expert terrain within the Hanging Valley Wall area. It was intended to signify that the closure extended to the rocky cliff bands to the left and right of that chute, Skico Senior Vice President David Perry said at the time.

Davidson and his ski buddy stayed to skier’s left of the chute, then headed back to the right. They negotiated a cliff band and picked through rocks on patches of snow, according to the Skico’s investigation. The area they entered wasn’t roped off and was lower on the mountain than the closed sign. Few skiers and riders had the ability to access the area, Perry said at the time.

Skico officials were careful not to place blame on Davidson and his colleague when discussing the accident last year. There were no allegations that they knowingly entered a closed area.

The new policy indicates the Skico won’t leave any decisions open to interpretation this season. The policy was prepared specifically for Snowmass Ski Area.

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