Thursday, January 29, 2015

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Mountain Creek: Unsafe at Any Age

This is a story of profit over people.

A couple of weekends ago I went with my girlfriend and her children for a day of skiing at Mountain Creek in Vernon, NJ. On our first run of the day my girlfriend was coming to a stop on the side of the slope when she was suddenly hit by an incoming snowboarder. After hitting her, the young snowboarder – who must have been in his 20s – proceeded to disentangle himself. When I told him to stop moving to avoid compounding her potential injuries he continued as if nothing was said. It was clear at that point that the guy had no regard for the safety and health of his victim and that all he was concerned with was getting away.

Before he could manage to get up, I decided to hold him to the ground in order to prevent him from fleeing the scene until a ski patrol showed up. Needless to say, a scuffle ensued as he kept trying to escape. As I held him to the ground I repeatedly told him that he had a responsibility to stay since he had most likely injured my girlfriend. Later on, in fact, we found that that was indeed the case: a couple of torn ligaments, a flipped meniscus and no more skiing for the season plus crutches, a knee brace, hours of physical therapy and possibly knee surgery.

The scuffle went on forever, or at least so it seemed to me. As none of the supposedly free and brave onlookers mustered the courage to intervene the snowboarder eventually managed to punch me in the face. Nevertheless, I kept holding him to the ground as I resisted the temptation to punch him back. It was then that, out of the blue, a friend of his showed up. He pulled me away thus allowing the perpetrator to get up and leave. Yet, rather than following them I decided to attend to my injured girlfriend and her children as we waited for ski patrol to show up. 

Eventually ski patrol managed to arrive and little by little there were five or six of them around us. They formed a semi-circle in order to prevent oncoming skiers and snowboarders from hitting us. I have to say it was a surreal scene. Young snowboarders and inexperienced skiers kept flying by with no regard for anybody but themselves. At one point one snowboarder came down the mountain flaunting a can of beer his hand. All the ski patrollers managed to do was to yell at him. None followed him. There was no accountability.

And here lies the crux of the matter and the reason why I wrote earlier that this is a story of profit over people: there is zero accountability for hazardous behavior at Mountain Creek. As a matter of fact, one of the ski patrols at the scene of the accident told me that they are not even allowed to touch skiers. "If they want to leave we cannot stop them," he said as he checked my jaw for injuries. Another ski patroller told my girlfriend that the most they can do is to expel someone from the premises but that it is a very rare thing for them to do. In fact, only once during his 8+ years as a ski patrol on the mountain he managed to follow someone down the slope to make sure he left the premises.

With this type of non-existent accountability it is understandable that the conditions on the mountain would be unsafe. When people realize that they are not held accountable for their hazardous or injurious behavior it is to be expected that the frequency with which people will engage in such behaviors will increase. The amoral snowboarder who injured my girlfriend is a perfect case in point. He severely injured someone, fled the scene and suffered no consequences. What are the chances that 1. he would not return to Mountain Creek and 2. that he would be more careful in the future? Probably not many. In fact, I am willing to guess that as my girlfriend was being transported down the mountain on a stretcher he and his buddy were probably laughing at the incident over a cold one at Mountain Creek's outdoor bar.

The question that arises at this point is: why would Mountain Creek risk alienating those customers who end up injured because of the lack of safety control on the mountain? My guess is that the resort's accountants must have run their numbers and found that it is more profitable for them not to alienate their core customers – young snowboarders – by discouraging their behavior than to risk losing the few who get injured as a result. In fact, Mountain Creek makes sure to exempt itself from any liability occurring on its premises by making participants sign a liability waiver. One such waiver states:

I understand and EXPRESSLY AGREE to the fact that skiing in its various forms is an inherently hazardous sport that has many dangers and risks. I realize that injuries are a common and ordinary occurrence of this sport. I, or if skier is a minor, I individually and on behalf of said minor, EXPRESSLY AGREE, as a condition of being allowed to purchase a Season Pass or participate in the Student Ski & Ride Voucher Program and to use the ski area facility and premises, that I freely accept and voluntarily assume ALL RISKS of personal injury or death or property damage, and FULLY RELEASE Mountain Creek FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY for personal injury, death, or property damage arising out of or resulting from my participation in this sport... (emphasis added; source)

What Mountain Creek doesn't say in the waiver is that the resort does not have any meaningful safety and accountability systems in place for those who engage in hazardous behavior towards others. In so many words and as my girlfriend's incident clearly shows, it would not be unthinkable for someone to literally kill or cripple someone else on their property and get away with it. Ski patrol will not stop them (which is why I believe "Ski Patrol" to be a misnomer that should be changed to "Ski EMS"). If you think I am exaggerating read the liability waiver in its entirety. Mountain Creek has no incentive in discouraging hazardous behavior because it has totally insulated itself from all liabilities by making people sign such waiver. After being injured, customers cannot successfully sue Mountain Creek for damages and, if the person who injured them does not take responsibility, victims are left to fend for themselves.

Given the ever increasing amount of young snowboarders on their slopes – itself a much more dangerous sport for both practitioners and others than skiing – Mountain Creek's owners must have decided that it is more profitable for them to let these kids run wild and undisturbed in order to keep them coming in greater and greater numbers. This view is supported by the fact that starting this year Mountain Creek has dropped the previously mandatory safety training – the Park Pass – for all skiers who wished to enter the terrain park at South. Or, alternatively, they may simply have decided to maximize the resort's profitability by minimizing safety to the bare minimum – i.e. to the minimum level that allows them to maintain the perception of safety while counting on the fact that most people won't realize that they are entering the wild west of skiing until it's too late. And when they do, these people will realize like my girlfriend and I that they have no meaningful way of redress.

Either way, I believe it is crucial for people to distinguish reality from fantasy. In the case of Mountain Creek the reality is that people are dealing with an operation that is unsafe at any age.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Monday, January 19, 2015