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Maxed Out: Is it safe?

'In popular culture, perception is reality'
A helivac takes off from the Whistler Health Care Centre in March 2022.

Preparing to leave the Village early Saturday afternoon I heard a game-changing sound. Changed my plan to leave Lot 4 via Lorimer Road. Changed someone’s plan to have a great ski day.

It was the whoomp-whoomp sound of a chopper landing on the pad at the Whistler Health Care Centre.

Someone’s day was not ending the way he or she planned. Not with a soft ski down and maybe an après snack and beverage at one of the base watering holes. Far from it.

By the time I got to my car, the chopper was shutting down. Good to go on Lorimer after all.

Stopped at the intersection, I watched a massively bundled-up person being carted away by a team of emergency nurses and paramedics. Possible causes reeled through my mind from other helivacs I’ve either witnessed or heard about. High-speed encounter with rock, tree, other immovable object? Cliff huck gone wrong? Heart attack? High-speed encounter with another skier or rider?

Not great conditions for hucking cliffs. Looked heavily bundled up for heart attack. Busy Saturday afternoon left me favouring the physical impossibility of two people trying to occupy the same space at the same time with mass and momentum behind them. Collision. Highest probability.

There’s a perception in the community and in many other ski towns that sliding down the mountains isn’t as safe as it used to be. Nostalgia? Maybe. But in popular culture, perception is reality.

Of course, perception is not reality in a literal sense. But perception can become our own and even a collective reality—there is a difference—because perception has a potent influence on how we look at reality.

It was several years ago when, in one of those moments of clarity, I realized I was skiing the same way I always rode a motorcycle, which is to say hyper defensively. There is no margin of error on a motorcycle. You’re never going to come out ahead in a collision, no matter what you collide with. You’re likely to suffer an injury from minor—road rash—to fatal just going down on one without being hit or hitting anything other than the road.

You learn to watch and be aware of everything. Road conditions, debris, drivers, weather, all potential threats. Like other risky endeavours, there are old riders and there are bold riders... but there are few old and bold riders.

And so it has become, or seems to have become, with skiing and boarding. I get more emails about unsafe conditions on the mountains than any other single topic. Reports every week about someone having been hit, people I know, people I don’t. I’ve visited intake at the Whistler Health Care Centre in the early afternoon. Looks like they’re having some kind of sale so many people are lined up, some on crutches, some in wheelchairs, some just hobbling toward the nearest open seat.

Skiing and snowboarding can be hazardous and involve the risk of physical injury or death. It says so in big, bold letters right on the waiver of liability we all agree to, either explicitly or implicitly. Having waived legal rights to sue for injuries—legal niceties aside—we’re on our own.

Whether you believe Whistler Blackcomb could do more to make conditions safer isn’t up for debate this week. We ski; we’re on our own. That’s the reality every day we head up to slide down.

You can complain about the increased uphill capacity without a concomitant increase in skiable acreage. Or the extent of grooming—understanding this year’s low snow has made grooming difficult. Or the fewer safety people who seem to be on the mountains at strategic points.

But WB can’t, and never has been able to keep us safe. The litany of problems and causes is long. Some are technical; most are human.

Popular ski technology is one. Fat skis, particularly rockered skis, give their users a false sense of their own ability... or lack thereof. Useful in deep powder, worthless on groomed runs, it’s impossible to not see skiers smearing their way down the slopes at high speed with absolutely no ability to carve a needed turn or stop quickly. The popularity and ubiquity—it’s almost impossible to rent anything else—make them dangerous on the feet of lesser-skilled skiers.

Of which there seem to be many. The decline of snow-sport popularity has been greatly exaggerated. Call it the Coefficient of Epic if you want, but there seems to be a higher proportion of lesser-skilled people here than there used to be. And conversations with visitors often get around to the more challenging terrain dished up by WB than many other resorts they’ve visited because they’ve purchased an Epic Pass.

I’m not a member of the I Hate Snowboarders club. I’ve had nearly as many close calls from skiers as boarders. But the inescapable fact is snowboarders have a blind side. Approach it at your peril.

Antisocial media is often fingered as a culprit. So many poseurs; so many bubbles. Go-Proing their way down the slopes oblivious to the surroundings that fall outside their camera’s field of vision. The kindest thing you can do is snatch their selfie stick as you ski past them and throw it in the trees.

Unlike reports from many of the most-visited ski areas in the U.S., I tend to believe drunken and stoned sliding isn’t the biggest problem here. I don’t see that many people pounding drinks at the mountain establishments and then skiing down. Maybe the folks in emerge have a different take on it. Don’t know.

All this is important to me and has taken on even greater importance now that I’m trying to teach a seven-year-old grandson about safety on the mountain. We talk about the importance of looking over our shoulders to see what’s coming before we drastically change the pattern of our skiing. Of the importance of having a discernable pattern when skiing, that is, staying in our lane. Of not stopping below a high point. Of looking uphill before starting from a stop. Of helping people when they’ve fallen. Of not taking those tempting hits on the side of the runs when they’re crowded or blind air ever. Of not treating a crowded run like it’s a closed race course... even when he sees the club kids doing exactly that.

Of being considerate because it’s more important to his own safety even than it is to other people’s safety.

Not the easiest lesson to learn when you see so many people who ignore it.