Mountain News: Who's got your back skiing in trees? 

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REVELSTOKE, B.C. — In early January 2009, Mark Kennedy was skiing after being set down on a mountain by helicopter near Blue River, B.C. Customers were told to ski in tandem, using a buddy system to keep track of each other.

It didn't work in this case. Kennedy fell into a tree well and his ski buddy, Adrian Coe, wasn't there to retrieve him. Kennedy's widow, Elizabeth Kennedy, has filed a lawsuit against Coe. She claims he was negligent in his responsibilities. Coe denies the charge, responding that he notified the guides as soon as he realized Kennedy's absence.

The Revelstoke Times Review describes this as potentially precedent setting in Canadian law.

"The case raises some very interesting legal issues (as to) the duty of care that one individual has to another in this type of recreational setting," said Robert Kennedy, the lawyer for Heli-Cat Canada, a business trade group.

"Not only the heli-skiing and snow-cat skiing industry are watching, but lawyers generally are watching the case to see what the outcome will be, because it's far from clear in the law what the legal duty of care is in this situation," he tells the Times Review.

Adventure Journal, an on-line site, says it's common practice for helicopter skiing operations to pair skiers and boarders together in tree runs. Coe, who was visiting alone, was matched with Kennedy by his guide atop a west-facing run.

The writer for Adventure Journal, Steve Casimiro, says he has skied the run many times. "It's a relatively gentle pitch, slope angle in the mid-30s, with glades at the top of the run and a logging cut that opens wide into stumps and young evergreens below that, offering an open shot to the pickup on the valley floor."

Adventure Journal further explains that after skiing the forested section, the guides assembled the group at the top of the open pitch, called the Cut Block, and instructed them to ski en masse to the pickup. About a minute after finishing the run, Coe said, he realized that Kennedy hadn't.

In her suit, the widow argues that the guide's assignation of Kennedy and Coe as ski buddies constituted a contract that required them to ski in close proximity to one another, keep each other in sight, and assist each other in event of a problem.

In his rebuttal, Coe argued that he had not agreed to be Kennedy's partner, that if they were it didn't constitute a contract, and that the tree well into which Kennedy fell was in the open logging cut where ski buddy guidelines wouldn't apply.

Coe also said the victim skied irresponsibly by not wearing a helmet, keeping his pole straps on, skiing away from other members of the group, using inappropriate ski equipment for the conditions and not carrying a communication device like a whistle or radio to alert others.

The Revelstoke Times Review points to another tree-well death in British Columbia, this one in 2011. In that case, Evan Donald died while heli-skiing with CMH Revelstoke, for whom he worked. His death prompted the family to raise questions about the responsibility of the company and the buddy system as a whole.

The newspaper talked with Joy Donald, the mother of the victim, who said her son was advised by the guide to avoid a small hill, because he was on a snowboard. His two ski buddies didn't go with him, however, so they didn't see when he fell into a tree. The Times Review said it could not verify her account of what happened.

But the mother said that the ski buddy system could be improved. "You know your real buddies are going to protect your back, but what about people you don't know?"

Skiers trend older

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — The average age of skiers is 38.5 years. But who skis the most?

It would be somebody considerably older, 68 and above, who averaged 9.5 days of skiing last season. But baby boomers — those aged 49 to 67 this year — also skied more than the national average of five times per year.

That comes from the National Ski Areas Association, courtesy of the Associated Press. The news agency traces this surge in silver-haired skiers to artificial hips, knees and other medical advances, along with shaped skis, improved grooming and then the luxury touches such as high-speed lifts and even ski valets.

"There are no excuses," said Aspen's Klaus Obermeyer, who is 94.

Billy Kidd, the skiing ambassador for the Steamboat Ski Resort and the 1964 Olympic silver medallist in slalom, is a walking billboard for the latest in equipment innovations.

"At 20 years old, I didn't care about comfort," Kidd said, who is 70. "I still have to have control, but the top priority for me (now) is comfort."

Staying out of avalanche trouble? Be honest

DRIGGS, Idaho — It's early yet, so no avalanche fatalities have been reported in the Teton Range on the border between Idaho and Wyoming. If history is any guide, there will be.

It won't be for lack of opportunities to discern risk. Multiple seminars are held each year on both sides of the range, in Jackson Hole and in Teton Valley. And there are a great number of avalanche professionals, including Lynne Wolfe.

Wolfe is a backcountry guide, winter and summer, and also editor of The Avalanche Review, a journal published four times a year, covering everything from avalanche forecasts and research to risk assessment and rescue dogs.

She tells the Valley Citizen out of Driggs, where she lives, that while she has skied British Columbia, Alaska and the Alps, she seems to like skiing in the Tetons best. "I'm kind of a Teton snob," she said.

But she has plenty of company in the Tetons. Access is difficult, so competition for fresh snow is fierce, and people are willing to take greater risks in pursuit of untracked snow.

Her advice for skiing the untracked power? Be honest in how much you know and what you don't know.

"The heart of good decision-making is understanding what kind of avalanche problem you're dealing with and not underestimating things," she told the Citizen.

Time to recalibrate elevation of peaks

JACKSON, Wyo. — It's time to recalibrate. Grand Teton is not 13,700 feet after all, as many locals can readily recite. It's actually five feet taller.

How so? Angus M. Thuermer Jr., the long-time managing editor of the Jackson Hole News&Guide, talked to surveyors, GIS experts and cartographers to explain why something so precise measured in feet and inches is, actually, somewhat difficult to measure. It mostly has to do with sea level.

The Teton Range has continued to rise since the Hayden Survey first surveyed the peaks in 1872, perhaps 5½ inches. And measurements from the valley floor are accurate. What's changed is a new understanding of sea level.

Steve Reiter, with the U.S. Geological Survey in Lakewood, Colo., explained that what has changed in the last century is an understanding of what gravity does to sea level.

"Gravity is unevenly distributed over the globe. Where strong, it's going to pull that ocean down in a valley."

If you were on the Pacific Ocean on a perfectly calm day, for example, "that ocean surface (would have) hills and valleys on the order of 10 feet," he said.

Gravity is affected by mass, and areas beneath mountains tend to have a lot of it.

This means that with all this mass of mountains in Wyoming, there is stronger gravity. Bob Smith, a geophysicist and a professor at the University of Utah, explained that you should think of a canal of water that crossed North America. This water-filled canal would be five feet lower as it passed under the Grand Teton than it would at the Atlantic or Pacific.

"Sea level would be different at Jackson Hole than in Denver or Boise."

This new understanding also means other peaks in the Teton Range aren't quite the height everybody thought they were. Hundreds of them go only by their elevation, as in the case with Peak 9,974 feet. Properly, It's now Peak 9,980 feet.

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