How safe are California ski areas?

Don't try this at home, kids. Mike Wilson backflipping under Squaw Valley's Granite Chief chair. Ryan Salm

Ski resorts have seen a high number of inbounds fatalities this winter season and headlines about recent ski accidents -- including a chairlift derailment at Sugarloaf, two tree well deaths at Whitefish, and an inbounds avalanche at Fernie -- have skiers and snowboarders more concerned with safety than perhaps ever before.

This week is the National Ski Areas Association's National Safety Awareness Week, and on Tuesday, the SnowSports Safety Foundation, a California-based non-profit, issued a first of its kind report on the safety standards at California ski areas.

The report, called the California Mountain Resort Safety Report, examined 25 ski areas in California during the 2009-2010 winter, looking at two main categories: impact protection -- like fencing and padding -- and trail design and maintenance, including terrain hazards like creeks and cliffs and how those were marked. Researchers also looked at terrain parks, chairlift safety bars, resort boundaries, on-hill vehicles and more.

"There aren't any laws or statutes for impact protection or hazard protection at any ski resorts in California," says lead researcher Dick Penniman, a snowsports and avalanche safety expert and the Chief Research Officer for the SnowSports Safety Foundation. "What we wanted to do was try to show the ski and snowboard public what resorts are doing on their behalf to try to minimize serious injuries. Our approach is strictly educational: We're trying to teach people what to look for, in terms of safety, when they're choosing a ski area to visit."

Penniman said they were solely focused on infrastructure meant to prevent severe injuries or fatalities. "We're not addressing stuff designed to prevent bumps and bruises," he said. "We're looking at issues at resorts that could cause severe life-changing types of injuries."

The researchers visited the ski areas midweek and went unannounced so they could see the ski areas in their normal state. "We went anonymously; we wanted to do a blind study and not have any preparations made on our behalf," Penniman said. "We wanted to see what the average skier would see."

The resorts are given a score between zero and 10, with 10 implying the most safety structures in place. For overall scores for impact protection, Badger Pass, Northstar-at-Tahoe, Tahoe Donner, Sierra-at-Tahoe, and June Mountain scored the highest. In the trail maintenance category, Heavenly, Sugar Bowl, Dodge Ridge, Alpine Meadows, Mammoth, and Northstar earned the highest scores. You can find the full report and scores here.

But Penniman is quick to point out that they didn't intend to rank the resorts on which are the safest. "We're trying to stay away from judgment of which resort is better than others," he said. "What we've tried to do is leave it up to personal choice. If you want to go to a resort that's doing a particular kind of thing regarding safety, now you can find that out. The resorts don't advertise this on their own."

What he will say, however, is that the resorts' safety standards remain varied.
"There's inconsistency between resorts," Penniman said. "Some resorts are doing quite a bit and some seem to be not doing much of anything."