The lifts on every B.C. ski hill are subject to the standards and inspections of the B.C. Safety Authority. The roads leading to the resorts are generally the responsibility of the Ministry of Transportation and Highways.
If you were deliberately assaulted with a ski pole the RCMP would be happy to look into it for you. And if you are concerned about spoiled food in the lounge at the base of the mountain, you can call the health inspector.
But if you are concerned about the safety of the runs themselves — those slippery, 60-degree hillsides surrounded by trees, rocks and gullies, where people deliberately hurtle themselves downhill at speeds that can approach 80 kilometres per hour — chances are you are going to have to trust your own judgment.
In the wake of the Dec. 22 death of Saanich teen Reid Kyfiuk while snowboarding on Mount Washington, Black Press asked the question “who is responsible for making sure ski runs are safe?”
The answer, to a certain degree, is the resort owner.
But it comes with a pretty big caveat. Skiing, by definition, comes with some risk. Ski resort owners are self-regulated, self-inspected and self-policed. And through the use of signed waivers and ski code warnings — not to mention B.C. law — the onus for safe skiing is largely on your shoulders.
Before you ski on Mount Washington, for example, you receive a waiver stating you are aware it involves “many risks, dangers and hazards.” The waiver then goes on to list more than 50 of those risks, before concluding with — in bold, all-caps type — “negligence on the part of the releasees.”
The B.C. Occupiers’ Liability Act allows instances where property managers may exclude their duty of care by “express agreement, or by express stipulation or notice.” In cases like 1993’s McQuary v. Big White, B.C. courts have ruled that ski hill waivers and signage constitute reasonable steps of such notice.
The Act also states that in such situations the obligation of the property owner is limited to not “creating a danger with intent to do harm to the person or damage to the person’s property,” or “act with reckless disregard to the safety of the person or the integrity of the person’s property.”
Canadian Ski Council president Paul Pinchbeck and Mount Washington director of business operations Don Sharpe said resorts work hard to ensure reasonable care.
Foremost is the Alpine Responsibility Code. Widely posted on B.C. mountains, it is a list of safe behaviours that skiers and snowboarders are required to follow.
Each resort is also usually staffed by a mix of professional and volunteer ski patrol members. They will typically sweep the mountain prior to opening to ensure boundary markers are in place, as well as place warnings about potential hazards such as ice and exposed rock.
Sharpe said Mount Washington’s ski patrol has the authority to close a run should they deem those hazards too extreme. Closure decisions based on weather conditions such as wind or fog are also within their purview, although less likely to happen due to the way conditions can quickly change.
None of these services are legally required, but tend to be standard practice across the industry. Decisions are based on the personal experience and judgement of ski patrol members, rather than any codified set of guidelines common to each mountain.
“Ultimately you could describe us as self-regulated,” Pinchbeck said. “We maintain a rather large paid patrol force or volunteer ski patrol. In terms of standards, it’s up to the resorts.”
Neither the B.C. Public Safety ministry, nor the Community, Sport and Cultural Development ministry were able to answer questions on this issue, saying it was outside their jurisdiction.
According to the most recent report issued by the Ministry of Justice, there were 61 deaths in B.C. attributed to skiing or snowboarding between the years of 2007 to 2013. Only three of them were in the Island region and just one of those in Courtenay.
While conventional thinking might attribute the vast majority to head and other blunt injuries, a sizeable amount (20 per cent of ski deaths and 46 per cent of snowboard deaths) occur because of suffocation and drowning. This occurs when skiers topple into pockets that can form at the base of a tree and get stuck as powder snow blocks their breathing.
Should a ski incident result in a death, it can initially become a police matter. But unless circumstances point to the need for a criminal investigation, the process is usually quickly handed over to the B.C. Coroner’s office.
Const. Rob Gardner of the Comox Valley RCMP said that is exactly what has occurred in the Kyfiuk case, where the police is no longer involved.
“Initial indications are that the hole might be the result of a tree that … may have been pulled out,” Matt Brown, regional coroner for Vancouver Island told CBC shortly after the incident. “He was unfortunately found in the bottom of it.”
Coroner Barb McClintock said, the coroner’s mandate is to answer questions surrounding sudden death including cause and circumstance, and to make practical recommendations aimed at preventing future deaths in similar circumstances.
“In a case like this, they would probably be more directed at all ski hills in the province rather than just the one involved (although there could be some unique circumstances found that would apply to only one),” she said.
“The coroner does not have the power to enforce recommendations but does ask that anyone to whom recommendations are directed send a response in a reasonable length of time (we’re usually looking at 60 to 90 days).”
The coroner is prohibited by law from making any finding that would imply legal blame or responsibility.
In the meantime, Sharpe does not see the need for an outside authority setting and enforcing standards for individual resorts. Both he and Pinchbeck said the industry is doing what it can to allow people to ski or snowboard in the safest conditions possible.
“Skiing and snowboarding can be a risky activity but we spend a considerable amount of time educating the public,” Pinchbeck said.
“Resorts are very focused and aware of risks. They are in the business of providing safe fun.”
What about the lifts?
While ski runs are not subject to any outside regulatory authority, that is not the case for ski lifts.
Lifts are regulated under the Safety Standards Act, Safety Standards General Regulation and the Elevating Device Safety Regulation, which is enforced by the BC Safety Authority.
Lift incidents are investigated by BCSA for the purpose of learning and preventing reoccurrences. Public reports of non-compliance on lifts can be registered through the BCSA website and will be forwarded to the appropriate safety program representative for follow up.
Operations that fail to meet their obligations under the act can face compliance orders, fines and other discipline. Incidents are publicized on the BCSA website.
Passenger behaviour is by far the major source of lift-related injury in our province with 50% of incidents resulting from inappropriate or unruly passenger activity.
— source, BCSA