Lyn Herrick may be the most loved -- and hated -- person on the mountain.
She and her 80-plus-member Mountain Responsibility Team, dressed in distinctive bright-yellow parkas, are charged with getting skiers and boarders to slow down in heavily trafficked beginner areas at this popular family resort. There's muscle behind their warnings: Ignore them and they'll yank your $53 lift ticket -- more than 20 so far this season.
"Our big thing is to stop accidents before they happen,"explained Herrick, a veteran ski patroller. "We're trying to educate people out there. A lot of them don't have any idea that they're doing anything wrong."
I saw that firsthand. When one "yellow jacket" overheard my 15-year-old son Matt urging me to go faster one sunny day recently, she immediately instructed me to do just the opposite -- to my son's obvious bewilderment.
Around the country, aggressive efforts to encourage skiers and boarders to behave more safely and civilly on the slopes are underway at ski resorts from Stowe, Vt., to Vail and Aspen, Colo., to Park City, Utah, to Northstar-at-Tahoe, Calif. This month, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) is kicking off its first new safety campaign in more than a decade -- this despite poor snow conditions that have resulted in the season's slow start.
These efforts, prompted in part by skiers' complaints, are coming at a time when the industry is working harder than ever to improve its flat numbers by attracting a new generation. Families already account for more than half those visiting ski areas: Kids under 18 are a fourth of the skiers and nearly half of the snowboarders in the country, according to the NSAA. But parents on the slopes lament the lack of consideration afforded the littlest boarders and skiers.
"It's scary when people go whizzing by little kids," said Denise Folz, who lives in Maryland and was skiing at Breckenridge in Colorado recently with her 4-year-old nephew.
"They're going faster, a lot of them on terrain they shouldn't be on," agreed Mary Schatz, who helped spearhead the Keystone program that started three years ago with just a handful of volunteers. "I want to feel that my grandchildren are safe on the mountain. We need to define what behavior is acceptable."
"The guy who ran into my wife didn't even stop to say he was sorry," said Kansan Jim Dellinger, whose vacation was interrupted when his wife suffered a concussion at Vail recently.
Though the NSAA is quick to point out that skiing and snowboarding are far safer than biking or driving in a car -- less than one fatality for every million skiers -- the sport's real and imagined risks have been widely discussed since the much-publicized slope-side deaths two years ago of Michael Kennedy in Colorado and Sonny Bono in California. Last year, there were a record 12 deaths in Colorado, spurring even more discussion.
At the same time, the overall rate of reported skiing injuries has dropped dramatically in the last two decades. Those overseeing skier safety say what's key is for all those on the slopes to improve their manners, acknowledge the potential risks and behave responsibly. These mountains are not a theme park, after all.
"I see this sport starting to get some of the characteristics of road rage, and I don't like where that's heading," said Stowe Ski School director Dave Merriam, who also travels the country coaching for the Professional Ski Instructors of America. "You don't want to send a message to kids that such in-your-face, aggressive behavior is OK."
"Maybe we're all suffering from the increased pace of life," added Chuck Polton, director of Copper Mountain's 150-member ski patrol. "They're so focused on the limited time they've got. They aren't paying attention."
To make them notice, a growing number of resorts has clearly marked slow-skiing family zones so that novice skiers and their parents won't be unnerved by hotshots in a hurry. Killington in Vermont has designated an entire mountain as a family ski zone this year.
Some ski resorts are using additional tactics. Northstar is offering a free kid's lift with the purchase of a child's helmet at the resort's retail shop. This comes as the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is urging skiers and boarders to wear helmets to prevent head injuries. The commission says helmets can prevent or lessen more than half the head injuries to children and nearly that many to adults. (For more information on skiing and snowboarding safety, call the CPSC hot line at 800-638-2772 or visit the Web site at www.cpsc.gov.)
Stratton Mountain in Vermont "offers free lessons to skiers and boarders who look like they're having a hard time on the mountain," explained Steve Hamer, chief of Stratton's ski patrol.
All of these efforts are being bolstered by the NSAA's hip "Heads Up" safety initiative that includes cards handed out reminding adults and children of the industry-wide skier responsibility code:
Stay in control.
People ahead of you have the right of way.
Stop in a safe place for you and others.
Look uphill and yield when starting downhill.
(Check out the NSAA Web site at www.nsaa.org for more tips on skiing safely with kids as well as places to find kids-free and other deals and links to ski resorts around the country and in Canada.)
"No one thinks anything can happen to them," said Copper's Chuck Polton. "They don't have enough respect for the mountain."