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?"

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