Putting the "Free Into Freeskiing

Cold Front

“If you break your neck jumping off a cliff, that’s your problem, says Vail-based freeskier and ski-film star Seth Morrison. “The mountains aren’t responsible for a lack of common sense—skiers are. Morrison, 30, knows the meaning of “assumed risks as they apply to resort-skiing in the 21st century. The same has not been true of the Colorado Skier Safety Act, which was passed in 1979, long before terrain parks, halfpipes, fat skis, helmets, and the phrase “huck your meat came into vogue. But all that is about to change. As of this season, a ski-at-your-own-risk amendment to the CSSA will apply to every resort-skier in Colorado—whether they’re sliding a rail, dropping a cliff, or slamming headfirst into the bottom of a superpipe.

Signed last summer by Colorado Governor Bill Owens, the Safety Act now labels all terrain within a resort’s boundaries—parks, pipes, cliffs, you name it—as part of the “inherent dangers and risks of skiing and snowboarding. It also expands the definition of “competitor to include anyone training for, or participating in, a special event at a Colorado ski area: Winter X Games in Aspen, U.S. Freeskiing Open in Vail, U.S. Extreme Championships in Crested Butte—those sorts of things. With the exception of resort negligence—say, unmarked rocks beneath a blind roller, or a jagged rail over a shark pool—the new amendment essentially states that you can get hurt at Colorado resorts, but you can’t sue ’em.

There are 27 states with ski safety acts in place. But as Geraldine Link, public policy director of the National Ski Areas Association, notes, none are as progressive as Colorado’s. “Right now, this one is unique, but I think we will see other states follow suit, she says. For the moment, most ski states appear content to rely on existing safety acts, however antiquated or ineffectual they may be. California, with its 24 ski areas, has no safety act at all. And Wyoming, home to Jackson Hole and some of the country’s steepest inbounds lines, hasn’t updated its books in more than a decade. Which is odd, given that new legislation would keep resort managers out of court, and let experts ski where they belong—on inherently hazardous terrain.With such an amendment in place, Jackson Hole might never have banned two-time World Extreme Skiing champion Doug Coombs for inbounds cliff-jumping in 1997. “That was a case of the rules being too strict. I was assuming my own risk, I wasn’t going beyond the boundary, and I wasn’t endangering anybody, says Coombs, who subsequently moved to France, where resorts are far less concerned about litigation. “I like what Colorado is doing. I think it’s great. It gives you more freedom in the mountains, and freedom of expression while you ski.