In a joint investigation, NBC4 and NBC Bay Area uncover potential hazards at California Ski Resorts. Elyce Kirchner reports for NBC Bay Area.This story was first broadcast at 11 p.m. on Feb. 4, 2013.
When you purchase a ski lift ticket, it is buyer beware. Unlike most mountain states, in California, there is no ski safety legislation regulating the ski industry.
Now, the California Ski and Snowboard Safety Organization has released a new safety report card giving skiers a guide of what to watch out for while tearing down the slopes.
The CSSSO is a nonprofit that advocates for improved safety. The report card grades the safety features including impact prevention, hazard warnings, terrain park engineering, and safety procedures at 25 resorts throughout the state.
Overall grades ranged from a "B" at Granlibakken in Tahoe, to an "F" at Mt. Baldy in Southern California, due in part to poor impact protection and a lack of hazard warnings.
Much of the information in the report is based on a report conducted by former ski patroller and expert witness in cases against ski resorts, Dick Penniman. NBC Bay Area and KNBC-TV hit the slopes with Penniman to a few resorts to have him show us the potential hazards.
In general, Penniman said: “They are going through the motions. The fences and the hazard markings and the signage and all that stuff is up there, but when you look at it closely, some of it is incredibly dangerous."
To improve safety standards, Penniman and a team of researchers spent three months in 2010 documenting potential safety risks at 25 California resorts during unannounced visits.
Both NBC Bay Area and NBC Los Angeles discovered that many of these safety concerns have yet to be addressed.
Penniman showed our cameras that many of the same problems he witnessed three years ago, including steel cables at neck height, rundown chair lifts, lack of markers warning of icy bare spots, worn out padding, and exposed metal poles.
Jon Slaughter at Boreal Mountain Resort told NBC Bay Area that ski areas like his do all they can to make sure their customers are safe. He says Boreal constantly grooms their slopes and is continually reevaluating safety procedures.
“The problem with (Penniman’s) report was that it was put together on a single day,” Slaughter said.
The CSSO gave Boreal Mountain Resort an overall safety grade of a D, the lowest mark given to any resort in the Tahoe area.
The report cited snowmaking hydrants that were found on the trails, blind intersections, and insufficient padding as the reason for the grade.
The only other resort to receive a D was Donner Ski Ranch, Norden, for its lack of hazard warnings, signage, and chair lift bars. Donner declined to comment for this story.
Despite the low marks, Slaughter maintains that Boreal is committed to safety and affirms that the resort keeps detailed records for accidents that occur on the slopes in order to take corrective action.
When we asked to see those reports, Slaughter refused, citing company policy.
Dan Gregorie is the founder of the CSSO. He has been on a mission to get ski resorts to make accident data public since losing his daughter in a 2006 snowboard accident at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort.
“We really don’t have good information to understand where the greatest impact can be made, in terms of reducing accidents and injuries because we don’t have the data,” Gregorie said.
Gregorie has sponsored several ski safety bills that would have required California ski areas to establish safety standards and report injuries.
His bill was vetoed by both governors Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger. In their veto messages, Gov. Brown contended that the bill was unnecessary, while Gov. Schwarzenegger argued this is information already being tracked by the United States Forest Service.
NBC Bay Area filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Forest Service, but were told in a response: “Law Enforcement and Investigations does not track incidents in a way that would specifically identify ski resorts, therefore we have no records in response to your request.”
According to the National Ski Areas Association, out of the 9.8 million people who skied or snowboarded at a resort in the United States, only 51 were seriously injured in a ski accident. The trade association for ski area owners and operators states that 54 people died in the 2011-2012 ski season.
We asked to see those accident reports to independently confirm this seemingly tiny fraction of deaths and injuries, but were again told the information is confidential.
The Investigative Unit reached out to the California Ski Areas Association for comment on Pennimans’ report.
The non-profit trade association representing 29 snow sport areas in California did issue a statement. In part, CSIA stated: “Ski areas declined to participate due to the well-known biases of the author…and it failed to address the behavioral side of the safety equation.”
The president of Mt. Baldy responded to his resort’s the low grade by stating he doesn’t like being an "F" and will take a look at the recommendations from the report card to see what he can do to improve safety there.
To view the entire report card, CLICK HERE