Slope Rage

Fall Line
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Fall Line
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It's not road rage, with irate drivers pulling pistols from under front seats and blasting away. But slope rage, the younger brother of the modern highway phenomenon, has violated the peace of the ski slopes as confrontations, collisions, reckless skiing and rude behavior now mar too many ski days. The ski industry is worried, and it is mobilizing.

The National Ski Areas Association has launched its Heads Up campaign to educate slope-users about mountain etiquette and safety. And from Killington, Vt., to Mammoth Mountain, Calif., there are new uniformed courtesy patrols to keep skiers and boarders in line. Abusive and speeding sliders are being chased down and warned. Blatant offenders are having their passes pulled."We had a lot of people complaining that they didn't feel safe anymore," says Mike Colbourn, marketing vice president at Vermont's Stowe Mountain Resort. "We felt we needed to send a message."

Last season, Stowe translated that message into top-to-bottom "comfort zones" that featured a beefed-up patrol to enforce speed limits and rules of decorum. The resort put sharp teeth behind the effort, pulling about 35 percent more passes than the previous season.

A decade ago, young snowboarders were singled out as the source of ballooning boorishness on the slopes. These days, with boarders more assimilated into the mountain culture and with increasing numbers of older riders, resort operators no longer point the finger their way. So who, or what, is to blame?

Many veteran ski operators and industry insiders cite recent changes to on-snow sports:

Improved equipment, such as shaped skis and snowboards, allows beginners to shorten the learning curve and become proficient before absorbing mountain etiquette, which previously was learned in the years it took to reach expert skill levels. Better equipment, such as wider, shorter skis, also opens more terrain to less experienced skiers and riders.

The high cost of skiing has customers less willing to be patient with the inevitable frustrations of a complex, speed-driven winter sport.

Better and more expansive grooming means more people traveling at faster speeds.

And finally, there's a new look to the alpine melting pot. Twenty years ago, America's slopes tended to be one-activity playgrounds. Today, downhillers, snowboarders, telemarkers and skiboarders share the slopes, but with varying needs and expectations.Hunter Mountain, N.Y., skier Robert Misner, 30, is fed up with today's stressed-out skiers and calls for better self-control. "Don't ruin my day of skiing because your cell phone is out of juice and you can't get your Cisco quote. Don't treat the kids in ski school as moving gates on a race course," he says. "I came to the mountain to get out of the office, not to stress over skiers skidding over the bumps. Stress is a fact of life. Leave it at home." Out-of-control skiers have caused Ryan Kelsey, 23, to alter the way he skis. "The code of conduct on the slope has changed from enjoying yourself to a constant looking over a shoulder or ahead in order to avoid a confrontation with another skier," the Avon, Colo., resident says.In a new Killington, Vt., program, Family Ambassadors patrol designated areas to keep speeds low and the atmosphere non-intimidating to inexperienced skiers. "The message is: There are plenty of areas to open it up on this mountain. This just isn't one of them," says resort spokesman Steve Wright. Of course, the fact that Killington, among other resorts nationwide, has to police its clientele to act in a manner that years ago would have been considered common courtesy is in itself significant. A recent survey in "U.S. News & World Report" shows 89 percent of Americans feel civility and manners have deteriorated. The "You talking to me?" line made famous by Robert De Niro in 1976's "Taxi Driver" seems far less than psychotic behavior today. So, are America's ski slopes just a reflection of an increasingly rude America? Mary Mitchell, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette," thinks so. "With the increase in technology, we are dealing face-to-face with people less and less, so our people skills are getting worse and worse," she says. "We're out of practice."The Philadelphia-based writer notes that an economically flush America also tends to be an impolite America. "With our economy booming, people have more money and more power and a consequence of that is an increased sense of entitlement." Respecting mountain courtesies, such as yielding to the downhill skier, result not just in a more civilized day on the slopes but in a safer one, too. "The etiquette of sports is more closely tied to safety than in other public arenas. So if you have a deterioration of a sport's etiquette, you have a concurrent deterioration of safety," Mitchell warns. The courts have taken up the issue. In a precedent-setting case last spring, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that an expert skier who crashed into another skier and killed him in Vail, Colo., should stand trial for reckless manslaughter. The defendant's attorney argued that the skier simply lost control on a steep slope and that there was no criminal intent. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the skier was, in fact, criminally liable for his behavior. There's no proof, however, that rude behavior leads to a jump in serious injuries. Slope fatalities, which have averaged 34 annually, haven't shown an increase over the past 15 years. The industry has always strived for safer mountains. The new push focuses on inconsiderate behavior: cutting someone off on a trail, not yielding to uphill skiers, skiing too fast for conditions or crowds, not alternating in liftlines, not helping a fallen skier gather his equipment. Many skiers consider ski schools the logical starting point to teach the Skier's Responsibility Code, a seven-point manifesto of on-snow etiquette and safety. Kevin Anderson, director of the Killington Ski School, which instructs roughly 20,000 beginners annually, says his instructors emphasize the Responsibility Code but students simply aren't in class long enough anymore for it to sink in. New skiers also don't ski with their families as much as they did in previous generations, and don't learn ski manners from their parents. "We get two or three days with them, but then they go with their peers," Anderson says. Manners and civility have been called the WD-40 of life. If so, there are a lot of moving parts on America's slopes today in need of social lubrication. The appeal of the mountains has always been as an escape from the pressures of everyday life. With a 24-hour, switched-on, jacked-up society, skiers need that sanctuary more than ever. It seems, however, that the mountains are becoming more of a reflection of society than an escape from it. "When you have Bart Simpson writing 100 times on the chalkboard that pork is not a verb, you know the world has changed from when I was a kid," Stowe's Colbourn says. "The mountains are starting to show that."The solution is obvious, if difficult to administer. "I remember how inviting it was to learn to ski when there was always someone around to ask if I was OK when I fell," says New Jersey skier Paul Entin. "If people were simply courteous and exercised a little common sense, ski areas would not be compelled to create slow skiing zones, nor would they need to invest in patrollers to enforce their rules."