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Questions Linger After Ski Lift Safety Working Group Halts Without Recommendations

Stephanie Daniel

Safety advocates worried about injuries at Colorado's ski resorts say months of talks with the state and industry about the hazards of riding chairlifts and other issues went nowhere. One group, concerned about children who fell out of lifts, says the state's Ski Lift Safety Working Group lacked focus and a mandate.

"I feel very insulted," said Larisa Wilder, who leads Boulder-based Parents for Safe Skiing. "We were given this promise of a working group, and it was treated nonchalantly."

The working group was a who's who of Colorado skiing. Representatives from the industry participated alongside advocates, key lawmakers and injury attorneys.KUNC investigative reporter Michael de Yoanna talks with Colorado Edition host Erin O'Toole about what came of the state-moderated Ski Lift Safety Working Group.

The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, or DORA, moderated the group and hosted two meetings last year, but canceled a third meeting in late October because of weather. For weeks, several participants waited for the meeting to be rescheduled, but it never happened. Finally, in December DORA confirmed to KUNC that the working group's meetings were "paused."

"We never discussed child ski lift safety," Wilder said, referencing the working group's cancelled plans to discuss "loading/unloading ski lift passengers in certain age and height categories."


Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC

A KUNC investigation last year found that in a five-year span between 2014-2018, 74 people were injured after falling from or slipping out of ski lifts. In the vast majority of cases, the cause was "skier error." The state relies on resorts to determine what happened in such cases. In reports filed with the state's Passenger Tramway Safety Board that we reviewed, the accounts of the injured parties were not included. There is no space on the forms for them. About a third of the skiers resorts blamed for their own injuries were children, including a 3-year-old.

KUNC Investigates: The Thousands Of Colorado Ski Injuries That Resorts Don't Tell You About

Citizen advocates, including Wilder, sparked the working group's formation last year after appearing at the Capitol for sunset-renewal hearings for the tramway board, which is overseen by DORA. A lightning rod incident for Wilder and the roughly 1,500 families she represents was when a 6-year-old girl was injured after falling from the Sundance lift near the fourth tower at Eldora Mountain Resort. The group questioned why the girl was riding the lift with another child and wants the industry's practices regarding children on lifts to change.No changes came from working group.

"No formal decisions or recommendations have been made or instituted to date," Lee Rasizer, a spokesman for the tramway board, said in an email.

Both the tramway board and DORA declined interviews, issuing statements about the working group instead.

"The meetings that did occur included a respectful exchange of ideas and viewpoints between stakeholders, including consumer groups and the ski industry, on how to potentially make Colorado's model ski industry even better," Rasizer said. "The group's primary goal was to discuss skier safety and offer new ideas on, and opportunities for collaboration to ensure consumers are protected to the fullest extent possible."

Another participant, Democratic state Rep. Julie McCluskie, whose Western Slope district includes resorts, thought conversations went well. She said DORA is considering a safety initiative for lift attendants this winter.

"DORA is helping us stand up a more targeted, focused review of training program for our resorts," McCluskie said.

While not a result of the working group, DORA confirmed it has plans to research regulations and safety training in other states.

"We intend to use that research to guide discussions moving forward," Rasizer said.

McCluskie also praised Colorado Ski Country USA for its participation in working group meetings. She pointed to a new safety video released by the trade group in December.

"It's designed specifically for children and to be more engaging for children and youth," McCluskie said.

The video includes an animated penguin named "Penny" in a turtleneck sweater who provides tips on for boarding and riding chairlifts safely.

Wilder said that video fails to address her organization's main concern that children may ride lifts alone and, when they do, are expected by resorts to voice concerns for their own safety to lift attendants.

Colorado Ski Country declined to be interviewed but in a statement called the video a refresher on safety. The trade association also lauded the working group as "a valuable avenue for sharing information and perspectives about chairlifts and chairlift safety."

Wilder and others said state officials lacked a mandate to create new safety initiatives or strengthen existing rules.

"We didn't have a goal," Wilder said. "We didn't have an agenda in that this is what legislators want us to do: accomplish this."

Dan Gregorie, the president of the California-based SnowSport Safety Foundation, agreed.

"The process never had any clear direction," he said.

Gregorie spoke about data at one of the working group's meetings. Chairlift injuries are the only injuries that Colorado resorts have to report. Gregorie said that's a problem for consumers who want to know which resorts are the safest to visit.

"What about the rest of the slopes?" he said. "There are injuries taking place and the resorts aren't required to tell the public about them."

KUNC's investigation found that in one year (2017) skiing or snowboarding incidents led to 5,660 emergency department visits and 597 hospital discharges in Colorado. The numbers, from the state's public health department, could not be linked to specific resorts.

That contrasts with resort injury data gathered by the National Ski Areas Association. For roughly the same period (the 2017-2018 ski season), resorts around the country reported 37 injuries. The only injuries tallied are those that are considered "catastrophic," like a broken neck or paralysis. That places the rate of catastrophic injuries below one in 1 million skier visits, according to the NSAA.

Gregorie said the NSAA's numbers provide a skewed picture to consumers. He spoke in hopes of finding lawmakers interested in transparency and safety at resorts, but said he is still looking. He was disappointed that the working group didn't even issue a final report.

"You can't have good safety management and outcomes unless those folks managing the safety process have accountability to their consumers and to the public," Gregorie said.

Aside from meeting notices and some state presentation materials, there are few public records associated with the working group's meetings. A recording of a Sept. 24 meeting became corrupted and could not be distributed.

Also, no minutes of the meetings were taken. Open meetings law requires that state public bodies take minutes. Rasizer, the tramway board spokesman, said the Ski Lift Safety Working Group was not a state public body as defined by that law.

"The participants were not members of a state body or engaged as an advisory committee and did not participate in policy or rulemaking," Rasizer said in an email. "Members of the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board did not participate in this discussion forum."

The lack of public records available from the working group's discussions was concerning to Jeff Roberts with the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

"A lot of people in Colorado that would be interested in ski lift safety should have some idea of what's being talked about in the public domain," Roberts said. "You can split hairs and say its not a state public body if its not formally constituted, but that doesn't mean it's still not a good idea to keep minutes and have a record of these meetings."

Utilizing the group's meeting sign-in sheets, KUNC reached out to some of the participants. One, Sgt. Chris Fiegel of the Boulder Sheriff's Office, expressed concern about child welfare at resorts. He investigated the case involving the girl at Eldora, looking at it through a very different lens to the ski industry's. To him, the girl, who was attending ski school when she fell from the lift, is a potential child endangerment case.

"It's like if you drop your kid off at a daycare, that daycare kind of becomes the parent and is responsible for the safety of the child at the daycare," Fiegel said. "So why would a ski class or anything else be any different? Especially with 5, 6, 7-year-olds."

Endangerment laws make it illegal for adults to place children in harmful situations. Prosecutors in Boulder are reviewing the case, the sergeant said, looking at everyone — from staffers at the resort on up the management chain to the executives and owners who formulate policies.

Eldora officials declined to comment for this story but essentially reiterated in an email what they've said before about the case: "We take safety seriously, from the way we train our teams to the way we operate the resort. We continuously review our policies and procedures to ensure Eldora remains a safe and great place to learn."

KUNC filed an open records request with the tramway board for Eldora's report on the girl who fell from the lift. "Skier error," the resort concluded, was why she fell from the lift.

Safety advocates say the industry lacks accountability for the safety of its consumers and that they will not give up their fight. Wilder's group is offering pink stickers that parents can buy to place on their children's helmets, telling lift attendants to "Assist me in loading! Safety scoop me onto the lift! Lower the safety bar for me!"

She is also pushing an online campaign to encourage parents to ask more questions about resorts.

"We have 10 questions to ask the resort before you go skiing," she said. "We're the demographic that resorts are going after — families. One way or another, they'll have to work with us."

Copyright 2020 KUNC

I joined KUNC in 2016 to oversee news operations just as the station changed its format to round-the-clock news and information. I got my start as a journalist at the turn of the century, working as a newspaper. I took the advice of my mentors and didn't get too comfortable at any one place, working in several newsrooms along Colorado's Front Range, learning a little more about the state each place I went. I spread my wings as a freelancer after that. I worked for many publications, including Salon, 5280 magazine in Denver and my own, now-defunct bloggy news site that, among other things, ran cartoons rejected by the New Yorker. I also got my first taste of broadcast journalism, working for "48 Hours Mystery," "60 Minutes" and, eventually, a day job as a producer at the investigative desk at 7News in Denver. My first story in public radio was a collaboration with KUNC in a subject I've long explored -- the treatment of injured troops returning home from war. It won a national Edward R. Murrow award, one of the many awards over my career I've been lucky enough to win. In 2017, I won a Columbia-duPont award for my investigation into the same subject with NPR Investigative Correspondent Danny Zwerdling.