Skiing: Seeing red when a green turns out to be black

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The Independent Online
For a good day's skiing, can you trust a piste map? Stephen Wood thinks not.

Guy Tillotson, a 25-year-old firefighter from London, had a weekend to kill in New York last February. He decided to go skiing. The people with whom he was staying suggested that he go to Killington, the biggest resort on the US East Coast. Tillotson checked with a couple of ski shops in the city, and they told him that there was good, challenging skiing there. So he took the train up into Vermont.

Having skied in the Alps since the age of five, Tillotson is a good skier. But he had never skied in America, and knew nothing of Killington. The first time he saw a piste map was on the way to the resort, and, he says, "the runs looked good on paper". Then he skied them - and was very disappointed. "I would say that the toughest runs, the double-diamond blacks, were just easy reds by alpine standards. There was nothing more difficult than that."

Tillotson was lucky: if he had seen the same piste map at home, showing 10 of those runs ("most difficult - use extra caution"), he might have been tempted to fly over for a week's skiing at Killington. As it was, he had paid only for a return journey from New York.

Every skier knows that you can't really trust a piste map, because every resort wants its map to have the full spectrum of colours, from easy greens for beginners to tough blacks for experts. One resort director I talked to admitted that although piste-grading is intended to serve as a reference by which skiers can relate runs in different resorts, it reliably shows only the relative difficulty of runs within an individual resort - because resorts cannot resist the temptation to define their most difficult runs as blacks and the easiest as green, with the reds and blues somewhere in between.

There are local idiosyncrasies to each piste map, too. Take Val d'Isere, some of whose green runs could, in the words of the Good Skiing Guide, "frighten the life out of you"; all skiers like to be able to ski home, and the resort offers runs to the bottom of the valley which ostensibly cater for every ability. But a couple of them are much more difficult than the piste map suggests, and could give tired beginners and intermediates a hard time. Then there is the resort in Switzerland with a difficult black run which, for years, was graded merely as a red. Why was this? Because, it is said, the restaurant at the top would have done less business if intermediate skiers had been frightened off the descent.

Valmorel's little idiosyncrasy is to define the piste colours differently from everywhere else (blue means "intermediate" there, instead of "easy"); St Anton's has effectively abolished black runs, by ceasing to mark them as pistes on the map.

In last month's issue of the Daily Mail Ski Magazine, its editor called for an official EU grading of pistes. "Surely it would make sense," wrote Dave Watts, "to have standard rules linking the grading of slopes to their gradient and real degree of difficulty." Which is a nice idea, but probably involves too many variables (Who defines difficulty? Average gradient, or at the steepest point? What about piste width?) to be workable.

Anyway, as Ian Sykes says, grading pistes will always be an inexact science. Sykes has been managing director of the Nevis Range resort in Scotland since the resort was created - and its pistes graded - for the 1989/90 season, and he points out that snow makes a big difference to safety and skiability. "In a good winter, when there's lots of snow, we can make the runs easier. But in icy conditions those same runs will be extremely difficult."

The trouble for Sykes is that the weather changes quickly in Scotland; in the beautiful Coire Dubh snow bowl at the side of the resort, he has "seen conditions change before my own eyes: a crust can be created very quickly, and the steep red runs which drop into the bowl then become very tricky - so we have to put warning notices up along the ridge".

When the resort was being created, there was no problem finding genuine blacks at Nevis, or greens (although getting snow cover for the beginners' slopes was a problem until a secondary area was opened). In between there are some smooth, wide blues and tricky reds.

"We spend lot of time arguing about regrading the runs, and I suspect it's the same at every resort," says Sykes. "Some people think we don't grade conservatively enough, some the opposite - although it's very important that we don't take too much account of what experienced skiers say. We have changed one run: Yellow Belly, which drops into Coire Dubh, went from red to black."

The aim of grading, he says, is "to try to set a consistent standard, because our main concern is that people should have a good day at the resort".

Sykes adds, however, that the resort has to take care with its piste- grading, to ensure that skiers don't get into trouble. He is not surprised if some US resorts seem to be over-cautious, because of the risk they run of legal action for negligence.

"In the eight years I've been here, there has been a definite change, too: we have become much more aware that people are prepared to sue us, for everything from getting a drop of oil on their ski-suit to crashing into a fence. We've been sued on a number of occasions, and there is currently a case with our insurance company concerning a skier who was badly injured by a snowboarder."

With the advent of the litigious skier, it is understandable that some resorts - US rather than Scottish - are now inclined to exaggerate the difficulty of their runs. But after I had met the disappointed Guy Tillotson on the train back to New York, a thought did cross my mind: if a resort suggests that its runs are more difficult than they actually are, that's misrepresentation, isn't it? And you can sue for that.