The Human Element
Skiing and snowboarding are generally very safe sports, especially compared to other sports or activities (like driving in the GOVY 500). While there are loads of things that can get you in the woods like avalanches, snow snakes, and an active volcano. It’s often your fellow human you need to worry most about.
Using our PSIA-AASI Teaching Snowsports Manual, it details the human factors that the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) identified as the most frequently associated with incidents occurring in outdoor activities (page 196):
Complacency – “Blue Run Blues”: when advanced skiers or riders get injured on intermediate slopes. It’s when we let our guard down or when we don’t keep our head on a swivel. It happens all over and not just on a ski run where we might catch an edge doing the easiest trick or going slow speeds. It can happen inside doing mundane tasks like teching students’ skis or walking across the parking lot. Boredom in our routines can create mistakes. It’s important that even in repetition, we stay engaged.
Over-Confidence – Confidence often comes in the subconscious calculation that comes through repetitious activity. Yet, how often are things the “same” each time on a mountain during winter? Unfortunately the reason the majority of ski resort fatalities are on intermediate terrain is the poor pairing confidence with actual ability combined with speed. In 2022 at Meadows, we had two fatalities, one on Ridge Run on an icy day, the other in Private Reserve after new snowfall following months of no new snow. Confidence likely had a factor in both.
Distraction – So many details are at work at a ski resort. A new skier or snowboarder must think about many things out of their normal sphere when they first get here: driving up to a snowy mountain earlier than usual, navigating the multiple lines to find reservations, sorting all the gear, getting to the places on time, other students, the weather. All these distractions impairs situational awareness and they rely on us to make sure they’re safe.
Differing Perspectives of Risk – Students are taking lessons because they’re not as experienced and need guidance. As a result students and instructors have different lenses in which they view the mountain, and even the roads that they get here with. This requires the instructor to assess and reassess what the student might be going through mentally and physically.
Risk Compensation – As the ski industry undergoes more advances in safety technology, there’s an argument that some skiers and riders may increase their risk taking. For example, wearing helmets and body armor may cause a rider to try new tricks that they otherwise wouldn’t.
Expectations & Peer Pressure – Most of our students have been exposed to skiing and riding through some form of visual media, either through the Olympics or YouTube or social media. Occasionally you’ll find a student who’s maybe done the sport through Wii… All of the students will have expectations of how they’ll approach the sport. Compounded with expectations from others, like friends, parents, or other students, skiers and riders can come with varying degrees of motivations and goals that we’ll need to continually reassess.
Fatigue & Stress – Our students probably got up early, traveled from farther than they’re used to, possibly enduring environmental stressors like elevation and wind, all while trying to learn a new sport. They might be a little stress. You might hear someone tell you, “Don’t call last run,” because at the end of the day we’re tired and get sloppy. They’re all factors we need to remember when our students are opted with an easier run at the end of a lesson or a new, more challenging one. Stay on the safe side, and go for the easiest way down.
Watching this video, how many of the above human variables might have been present?
Keeping in mind the Human Hazards we’re all capable of, we can begin to think about decisions that we need to make, and have the ability to control, to keep ourselves and our students safe.
Make sure your students are in the right group
Before leaving the base area, asses your students verbally and physically of their goals, motivations, and abilities. Managing a split, or even moving a student into another group, is much easier if it’s early in the lesson and near the base area with other groups.
Mitigate crowd exposure and traffic flows
Choose appropriate terrain and snow conditions
Use experiences to target change in performance and understanding
Utilize different class handling options
Depending on the group’s ability and age, there are more resourceful ways to move the group to enhance learning and reduce harm:
- Call-Down – instructor stops below group, has students come down one at a time based on a set cue like a raised hand
- Line Rotation – instructor demos and then stops below, first student goes about 500 ft past, second student goes another 500 ft past the first, and so forth until each student rotates through before repeating
- Midway – set a specific location for students, instructor goes halfway, calls down students to meet at preset spot
- Follow Down – set a specific location for students to go to, allow students to go one at a time and meet at that location
- Follow The Leader – instructor sets the pace and the set task, students follow the same track or do the same task at the same time
- Free Swim – Everyone goes at once to a preset location; Red Light/Green Light falls into this category
Using the types of group management above, instructors can then create various ways for students to learn the skills they need to be successful.
Use different Teaching Styles to present information
Depending on your group’s level of listening and understanding, different teaching styles can optimize the learning environment:
- Command – instructor defines and controls pacing and direction of the learning experience
- Task – instructor sets up a defined activity to frame the experience, allowing some freedom of pacing and movement
- Reciprocal – instructor pairs or groups students to explore a defined experience, with facilitated and self-guidance activity
- Guided Discovery – instructor guides students through a variety of options towards a defined outcome
- Problem Solving – instructor allows students to work through their own solution toward a defined outcome
As an instructor in charge of ensuring the safety of yourself and your students, you need to actively be on the lookout for others, and constantly keeping your head on a swivel. There are ways to set yourself up for success:
- Always try to stay grouped up (rather than taking up a lot of space or across the hill)
- When stopping, move to edges of runs, behind signs, near or behind light posts, lift towers, or other visible places
- Be aware of tree exits/entrances or side hits
- Keep your body positioned so you can can face and/or see uphill traffic
- Never get on the backside of a snowboarder (they can’t see you!)
- Make note of movement patterns of those in front of you and prepare for sudden movements
- Give plenty of room when passing people – don’t cut them off
- On cat tracks, call “On your right/left” loudly and with plenty of time
- Don’t wear headphones – you can’t hear someone calling out
Know the dangerous crossings, mergings, and funnel points at Meadows:
- Top of Buttercup to everywhere
- Cross traffic at bottom of Magic Carpet to MHX/Lodge area
- Top of Easy Rider – traffic funnels to enter Fireweed Park
- Mitchell Creek merges with I Hear Cars/Jigsaw
- Cattle Crossing at North Canyon and Lower Elevator
- Stadium Flats at Tillicum crossing
- Trillium and North Canyon crossing
- Kinnikinick & Lady Finger crossing from HRM
- Merging of Nettie’s Run & Shooting Star Ridge