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Safer Slopes

The tragic death of Ron LeMaster in a blindside collision has brought up questions about safety and personal responsibility at ski resorts. Do we need more transparency?

It was a clear, warm, quiet early season day on Nov. 30, 2021, at Eldora. The Front Range ski area had been open for just 11 days. It was a weekday and there were very few people up on the mountain.

Ron LeMaster, 72, a world renowned ski coach, ski author, and ski photographer, had been up that morning photographing a ski team. But as the weather got warmer, and more people started to arrive, he put his camera away and turned to his friend, Gordon Reece.

“Better get home to my wife,” LeMaster said. “The circus has arrived.”

But it was still an extremely slow Tuesday with no new snow and barely anyone up on the hill. LeMaster took off down Windmill, a blue run on the front side of Eldora, skiing perfectly as “The Master” always did. He never saw the snowboarder who collided with him. It happened in a split second. The impact was tremendous. It killed LeMaster almost instantly.

The man who hit him, Nicholas Martinez, 28, got up and attempted to flee the scene. But Reece took a Ecellphone photo of him. According to witnesses, Martinez then grabbed the phone before another bystander retrieved it from him. Martinez was gone before ski patrol arrived to find LeMaster motionless and bleeding.

No one would have known who he was if not for Eldora’s parking employees who caught him trying to drive away.

Since no one saw the collision, the police could not charge Martinez with anything more than a petty offense of leaving the scene, which carries a $1,000 fine—to which he has pleaded not guilty.

“In my mind, that’s essentially a slap on the hand with no investigation,” says Alexis LeMaster, Ron’s daughter. She says that she’s still dealing with a legal nightmare from her father’s death, even a year after the fact.

The fatality sent shockwaves through the snowsports community because Ron LeMaster was a skiing celebrity. He had coached the sport for over 30 years, partly with the U.S. National Ski Team, and he’d written several influential books on the sport, including Ultimate Skiing, and The Skier’s Edge.

Eldora has continued to increase safety messaging on the mountain.

But the other reason Ron’s death made waves had nothing to do with who he was, what he accomplished, or how he died. It’s the same reason any accident at Eldora—or elsewhere in Boulder County makes hasty headlines. Any time the county Sheriff’s Office responds to a call in the county—whether it’s to an emergency rescue, a shooting, a traffic accident, a fire, or a fatality at Eldora—every resident who’s signed up for the emergency mass notification system receives a phone or text message, email, or notification (residents choose how they want this information when they sign up). And with the Sheriff’s Office’s news release system, media outlets quickly receive advisories.

Most other counties in ski country don’t have such a system. And without any kind of legal requirement for resorts to report injuries or fatalities that happen on their slopes, there’s a black hole surrounding in-bounds accidents. No one is publicly keeping track of those numbers on a year to year basis.

Some politicians and organizations like Safe Slopes Colorado (SSC), a non-profit activist organization advocating for accident reporting, are trying to change that. In March of 2021, SSC helped Colorado Sens. Jessie Danielson and Tammy Story draft SB 184, the Ski Area Safety Plans and Accident Reporting bill. The bill made it onto the floor of the Colorado House and would have made it mandatory for ski resorts to track and report accidents, injuries, and fatalities. SSC argues that this kind of transparency is necessary and the only way to truly make the slopes safer.

The resorts are not on board. They maintain that reporting accidents wouldn’t do anything to make people ski safer—that it would only cause potential visitors to be unreasonably afraid of the activity, despite their concerted efforts at keeping it safe and welcoming.

Do We Need More Transparency?

Ron LeMaster was the third death at Eldora in 2021. That calendar year, five skiers and boarders lost their lives in-bounds at the resort. It was Eldora’s deadliest year to date, an unfortunate spate of tragic accidents that cast a shadow over the friendly 680-acre resort.

Alexis grew up skiing with her dad. He coached her the same way he’d coached professionals, and, naturally, she grew to love the sport. Her dad was one of the safest skiers she’d ever seen. He was always alert. He was always in control. And he actively avoided crowds—just as he was trying to do on the day he was killed by a dangerous rogue snowboarder.

That part freaks Alexis out the most.

“If the person I know who is the most aware and cautious of his surroundings on the mountain, if he can be caught by surprise, anybody can,” she says.

Until recently we had no idea how often accidents like this occurred at Colorado ski areas. Even now, the numbers we have aren’t perfectly accurate or very up-to-date. In late 2020, for the first time ever, the Colorado Department of Health & Environment (CDPHE) surveyed hospitals in 20 different mountain ZIP codes and published its results online. It found that during the 2018–19 season, there were over 8,003 emergency room visits, 1,577 ambulance transportations, and 684 hospital admissions over a 120-day season. We don’t know how many accidents occurred that did not result in a hospital visit.

According to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), there were 48 fatalities at North American ski resorts during the 2020–21 season. That’s out of an estimated 14.94 million skiers and 7.56 million snowboarders on the slopes. Compared to other sports, those numbers are relatively low and suggest the sport is generally safer than many others.

For example, in 2021, 20 people died playing football out of 4 million participants. Simply working out led to 526,530 injuries in 2017, according to a ValuePenguin study of sports injury data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. On paper, it seems skiing isn’t any more dangerous than common forms of exercise.

Wouldn’t it behoove resorts to report the numbers of accidents, injuries, and deaths on their slopes to report those numbers if they’re so low?

Legally, resorts are protected from being held responsible for accidents, injuries, or deaths that occur in-bounds. The Ski Safety Act of 1979 protects them from any liability, placing all legal responsibility for personal safety on skiers and boarders who access resort terrain, which makes the fact that Martinez has suffered no legal repercussions even more frustrating for Ron’s family—and the resort.

But if ski areas aren’t responsible, why not make them be more transparent? asks Alexis.

“What do [resorts] have to fear other than, perhaps, having a couple people choose not to go? ” Alexis says, adding that having a few less people on the mountain might improve safety anyway.

Addressing the Problem

Eldora has been proacitve when it comes to safety, even more so since Ron LeMaster’s death. Because of Boulder County’s EAS and the Sheriff’s Office’s news release system, Eldora has to be more transparent about its accidents than other Colorado ski areas. And that level of openness has resulted in one of the most aggressive safety campaigns of any resort in the country

In fact, in 2022, the mountain won an award from the NSAA for the Best Guest Safety Program in the country because the resort stepped up and addressed the problem head on. The resort was already a leader in safety before Ron’s death—and it upped its efforts since.

“Ron’s death, and the other tragic accidents we’ve experienced, inspired us to amplify our existing safety messaging,” says Sam Bass, Eldora marketing director. “We came up with some new ways to spread the word.”

Eldora’s Instagram feed is filled with safety messaging. The mountain uses more permanent and temporary signage on the slopes, on the lift towers, and in the lodges and bathrooms than it used to. Guests receive newsletters discussing safety and responsibility. The resort includes safety messaging in its snow report every morning and then pushes that out on Twitter and Instagram. And the number of safety patrol employees on the mountain has increased.

Eldora also created new safety mascots—the Safe T-Rex and Powder Penguin—both of whom hang out at the base area occasionally throughout the season as a friendly reminder to ski in control and with awareness.

How effective those methods are at actually improving on-mountain skier and boarder safety remains to be seen—because one of the biggest factors affecting safety on the mountain is the  behavior of skiers and riders themselves.

Alexis and Ron LeMaster. Courtesy Alexis LeMaster

Adrienne Saia Isaac, director of marketing and communications for the NSAA says that guests always need to remember safety is not an “everyone else” issue.

“[Safety] is up to every individual regardless of ability level or the number of seasons spent on skis to slide in a responsible way,” she says. “We can all do a little better to improve the safety of ourselves and others.”

Ron LeMaster would have agreed. Alexis says he was always preaching about how safety wasn’t just a factor of experience and skill level, but also a responsibility for everyone. He died because of a dangerous person, not because Eldora is an unsafe place.

“Ron was a friend to many of us here and a fixture at Eldora for decades,” says Bass. “Our sincere hope is that skiers and riders in Colorado and across the globe remember this terrible loss to our sport, and to Ron’s family, and bring with them a heightened sense of personal responsibility and respect for their neighbors every time they step on snow.”

Moving Forward

The Ski Area Safety Plans and Accident Reporting bill died in the House a month after it was introduced. The Senate Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources postponed it indefinitely.

The ski industry is one of Colorado’s largest economic generators, raking in $4.8 billion annually and employing some 46,000 Coloradans. It’s got leverage.

We reached out to both senators and the SSC for comment on this story, but none were available for comment. But Alexis LeMaster didn’t hesitate to offer her own stance.

“This is a huge topic for me. I don’t want to see the ski areas to go under. I don’t think they should be held responsible for everything,” she says. “But I think we’ve got to give and take a little bit here.”

If there’s any kind of solace Alexis takes from the whole experience, it’s the fact that her dad died doing the thing that made him happiest. It’s the idea that he would have wanted to go out with his skis on his feet, and the hope that his last run never ended.

“I hope that in his mind he didn’t know what happened,” she says. “I hope in his mind, he is still out there making fuckin’ great turns, like, ‘Man, this is an awesome run.’”

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