DENVER -- With expert trails no longer posing enough of a thrill for some skiers, Colorado legislators have shielded ski resorts from lawsuits by the growing number of people who get a rush from riding cliffs and half-pipes.
Under a bill passed yesterday by the State House, cliffs and extremely steep slopes would be included on the list of the inherent risks of the sport, letting resorts off the hook for injuries people suffer while skiing them. The list already includes everything from trees and rocks to hydrants and lift towers.
It also protects resorts from being sued for injuries suffered on equipment in freestyle terrain parks such as rails, half-pipes, quarter-pipes, and fun boxes, which did not exist when the ski safety act was passed in 1979.
The bill, passed earlier by the state Senate, heads to the governor's office for approval.
Resorts in one of the nation's top ski states say the changes are needed to reflect the reality on the slopes.
''Skiers have just started skiing every inch of a ski area, including areas that are dangerous," said Senator Jack Taylor, a Republican and one of the bill's sponsors.
The bill was introduced by Representative Al White, a Republican, at the request of Colorado Ski Country USA, the trade group representing the state's 24 ski areas.
The original law was intended to protect the state's ski industry from lawsuits by setting out rules for what a resort must do, such as marking manmade objects that are not easily visible and providing safe ski lifts, and what responsibilities skiers have for their safety.
The ski industry is second only to agriculture in Colorado, bringing in an estimated $2 billion to $2.5 billion a year. That includes income from lift tickets, hotel stays, ski shop rentals, and other related businesses.
But some legislators worried that the changes shield resorts too much and put at risk inexperienced skiers who might stumble onto extreme terrain.
Under current law, resort operators are required to put up signs to warn skiers of obstacles, but once they do, those objects are no longer considered inherent risks and could be grounds for a lawsuit.
The current system has left resorts fearful of posting signs, which is bad for skiers, said Senator Dan Grossman, a Democrat, who is also a skier and lawyer.
He worked to change the bill to include a new kind of sign -- two black diamonds with an E in one and an X in the other -- to warn of extreme terrain.
The new bill defines extreme terrain as areas with cliffs with at least a 20-foot rise over a 15-foot run and slopes with a minimum average pitch of 50 degrees. The existing law did not define extreme terrain. Freestyle terrain would be designated by oval signs in orange.
Representative Paul Weissmann, a Democrat, said the wording could mean resorts would not have to be responsible for warning skiers about cliffs that may exist in or around regular skiing trails.
Melanie Mills, a Colorado Ski Country USA lobbyist, said skiers would not normally happen upon a cliff unless they wandered from a run, something which they do at their own risk.
Grossman acknowledged that the change does not give ski areas an incentive to mark dangerous spots on regular runs but that it is far better than giving them immunity from problems caused by cliffs.
James Chalat, a lawyer who has represented many injured skiers, said resorts should be forced to do more to warn people of obstacles. He said he fears the changes will take pressure off resorts to make sure terrain park equipment is safe.
''Liability breeds responsibility," he said. ''I don't think [skiers] realize that sometimes these jumps aren't built correctly. They make some assumptions that some basic safety parameters are being followed."
Trevor Lenard, a self-described ''ski bum" who works at Paragon Ski & Sport in Telluride, said that notion violates the spirit of skiing, a fiercely individual sport. ''There's no assumed safety," he said. ''It's a mountain. It's not like going to a mini-golf course. You're going to a mountain to slide around with sticks on."