Signs of the Times

Under pressure from insurers—and inspired by Disney—ski areas introduced colorful symbols to convey a trail’s difficulty. More than 40 years later, airports get in line.

Imagination is not the hallmark of most government agencies, so let’s give a cheer for the folks at the Transportation Security Administration. After successfully testing the idea at the Salt Lake City and Denver airports—the nation’s busiest travel hubs for skiers—the federal agency is using symbols similar to ski-trail signs to speed airline passengers through security lines. A green circle indicates the line for infrequent travelers—beginners—unfamiliar with protocol, such as not carrying bottled water through security. A blue square is for somewhat regular travelers, and a black diamond for veterans.

In 1964, under pressure from insurers to make skiing safer, the newly formed National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) introduced signs that indicated the degree of difficulty of ski trails. The original trail signs would not be familiar to today’s skier. A yellow triangle signaled “more difficult,” for example, and a maroon, not black, diamond was the designation for the most challenging trails. A problem should have been foreseen. European trail signs at the time used red to mark intermediate trails—confusing and unsafe if you were an American skiing abroad.

The solution came quickly. Less than three years later, the NSAA learned that the Disney Company was thinking about building or buying a ski resort and had proceeded as far as designing trail signs. Disney had even tested skiers’ reactions to potential signs, concluding, for example, that the symbol for easy terrain should be a circle, perceived as soft, and it should be green, perceived as gentle. More difficult terrain would best be indicated by a blue square, and most difficult by a black diamond. The NSAA liked what it saw and, in 1968, switched to today’s iconic shapes and colors marking the slopes.

Trail signs don’t calibrate trail difficulty uniformly. They measure the relative difficulty of terrain within a single ski area. A skier struggling down a black-diamond trail at Ski Butternut in the Berkshires, for example, will certainly have even more trouble on a black diamond at California’s Squaw Valley. Shame, too, on the airline passenger caught in a black-diamond line carrying forbidden ski poles. Signs are not intelligent; hopefully their users are.

John Fry is the author of The Story of Modern Skiing, about the revolutionary innovations that changed the sport after World War II.

– SKI Magazine, November 2008