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Maxed Out: Mountain safety requires more than lip service, Vail Resorts

'Stop lying.'
For many, groomed runs equal safety.

“Liar, liar, pants on fire...”

William Blake

Oddly enough, the 1810 Blake poem, The Liar, didn’t contain that exact line. Yet, it continues to be cited as the source.

It did, however contain the verse:

“What infernal serpent

Has lent you his forked tongue?

From what pit of foul deceit

Are all these whoppers sprung?”

And for the purposes of what is to follow, I say, close enough. Yes, friends, we are veritably surrounded by tellers of whoppers, serpents with forked tongues, people who fabricate with no conscience and bring to mind the old joke, “How do you know when (fill in your personal favourite here, I believe when I heard it the target was the head of personnel) is lying to you? Their lips are moving.”

That said, in these times and with multiple modes of impersonal communication, no lips need move. Fingers text, tweet, email, and the culprits hide behind a cloak of anonymity.

This has all bubbled up most recently from several sources. And, frankly, it’s a toss-up between which source is most reviled in town. So I’ll just flip a coin and, son of a gun, Vail pops up first.

In response to Paul O’Mara’s letter in last week’s Pique, “Serious injury on Whistler Mountain ‘could have been avoided,’” an unnamed “representative” for Whistler Blackcomb stated, “We also place the utmost value on safety, as it has always been—and remains—our top priority.” Italics mine.

Liar, liar, pants on fire.

Perhaps I’m being too quick to judge. Perhaps whomever penned that whopper was just ignorant and not deceitful. Perhaps it was written by a Broomfieldian who has never, in fact, set foot, ski or board on Whistler or Blackcomb. In that case, feel free to wear the sobriquet ignorant rather than liar for whatever moral comfort it may provide.

But for those of us who frequently slide down either Whistler or Blackcomb, we can only wonder in what universe the respondent resides. Anyone who frequents the mountains would more likely guess safety is unlikely to be any priority or, perhaps if it is at all, it is likely not among the top 20 priorities for the carpetbaggers running the show these days.

Dear unnamed respondent: The top priority of Whistler Blackcomb—Vail Resorts—is profit. Full stop. Profit, maximizing shareholder return, however you want to say it, has pride of place in the firmament of the corporation. It outshines all other priorities, informs all operations, drives all decisions, leaves no room for other trivial matters like guest safety.

How has WB become less safe since passing into the hands of Vail? Let me count just some of the ways.

The former Safety Department, that small army of volunteers who used to stand safely on the downhill side of the yellow “Slow” signs scattered around the mountains at choke points and family zones have been replaced by, well, “Slow” signs. Like most signs, they are ignored. To be fair, they were often ignored when manned, but the yellow jackets frequently chased down the miscreants skiing dangerously, caught them and managed to get their passes hotlisted for a period of time.

In that regard, safety has been reduced to signage and some fencing.

And on the subject of signage, as many people have asked, what happened to the signs reciting what used to be called the Skiers’ Responsibility Code that were tacked up on the first dozen lift towers? Perhaps they’ll be sold off like the old Fitz lift chairs. A quaint relic of the past.

It’s easy to argue the mountains are less safe these days. Harder to prove. It didn’t used to be that hard. WB, even before B and even after the two were joined, was willing to share tidbits of data like how many injuries Ski Patrol attended to per 1,000 visitors. No reason not to, since the number was generally better than what was considered a good target. Last time I asked, it was around 1.7 per 1,000. Try getting that information these days and someone in Broomfield will have a stroke.

If safety was any priority, more resources would be steered toward grooming. In the era of the Coefficient of Epic and repeated increases in uphill capacity—bigger lifts—grooming is a key lever in safety. It is unsafe to get more people up the mountain faster if there aren’t sufficient ways for them to safely get back down. And for many, groomed runs equal safety.

As important as providing that terrain is providing safe ski outs at day’s end. Yet, we see fewer groomed ways down than we used to. I barely need to take off both gloves to count the number of times Lower Franz has been groomed this season to provide an alternative to Lower Dave to Creekside. Lower Gearjammer on Blackcomb has seen grooming machines more frequently, but not that often.

And the marquee run on WB, the run that is touted in ski magazines, the one always voted the best run on either mountain by locals, yes, Peak to Creek, is a serious safety trap. What used to be groomed twice a week is now groomed closer to twice a season. Well-founded gossip last year was that at least some members of Ski Patrol threatened to stop rescuing people on the run until the moguls were groomed out, because taking a toboggan down was simply unsafe.

Top priority? Sayin’ it don’t make it so.

But don’t feel bad. You’re in good company. Closer to home, the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s touted strategic priority, community engagement, has and still is taking a kicking lately. The shameful, quicker than you can say community engagement approval of the new Fitz lift—needed only for the bike park, since the quad is woefully under-utilized by skiers—in exchange for money and no more parking was an affront to the whole community.

So far, that strategic priority has only resulted in a new general manager being hired. While I wish Ms. Elliott success, I’m wondering exactly what universe the just-announced plan to severely curtail question-and-answer period at the beginning of each council meeting squares with the idea of enhancing community engagement.

It feels like we’re drifting further and further into that brave new world scheduled to arrive almost 40 years ago. A world where war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.

Lack of trust, lack of faith, lack of empathy for people in positions of power are what follows from being repeatedly lied to. What follows after that isn’t pretty.

As a former U.S. president was reported to have said, “Don’t be pissin’ down my back and tellin’ me it’s raining.”

Stop lying.