Slippery Slopes Blame dumb decisions--not skiing--for the deaths of Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono

January 19, 1998

In skiing news last week, trees remained undefeated and untied.
In 33 years on the slopes, I still haven't seen a tree taken
down on a stretcher.

After Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono hit trees while skiing and
died, a wire service story appeared on the Internet with the
headline, KENNEDY AND BONO DEATHS SHOW PERILS OF SKIING. Our
sympathies go to the families of the deceased, but Kennedy's and
Bono's deaths show the perils of going stupid on the slopes.

Just for starters, Kennedy was taking what was going to be his
last run of the day. The dread "last run" has caused more broken
bones than the Green Bay Packers. Tradition in ski lodges is,
when you see somebody with a cast by the fireplace, the first
thing you say is, "Last run?" The person nods. You nod. Makes
sense. By the last run you're cold. Your muscles are tired. Your
reactions are a little syrupy. The light is flat, so you can't
see the bumps and the hollows and, especially, the ice patches
that start forming when the sun goes behind the mountain about 3
p.m.

But Kennedy went two exits past last run on New Year's Eve. The
lifts were closed. It was 4:15 p.m. on Aspen Mountain, which is
like 3:15 a.m. in downtown Detroit. Anybody with half a cerebrum
is inside. Plus snow conditions that day were "scratchy," hard
and fast. A hockey stop that might carry you 25 feet in good
snow can take you 100 in scratchy.

O.K., dumb time to be skiing, but all-world dumb time to be
skiing while videotaping friends and family playing ski
football, as Kennedy was, and skiing while looking backward for
a pass himself, as he did right before his fatal collision with
the tree. I suppose there are some similarities between skiball
and pro football. As in the NFL, the receivers wear gloves. As
in the NFL, snowplows are involved. Unfortunately, also as in
the NFL, there are boundaries, and Kennedy hit one of these just
after having made a catch.

Kennedy did all this despite the fact that his family had been
warned the day before by a senior official of the Aspen Skiing
Co., which runs the facility, that playing ski football was a
very bad idea: Somebody could get hurt, possibly a Kennedy.
Nevertheless, the family played some more.

As for Bono, he was supposed to be a good skier, but he was 62
and lived in two places, Palm Springs, Calif., and Washington,
D.C., where there aren't a lot of double-black-diamond slopes.
Lots of dangerous moguls but not a lot of places to work on your
parallel turns. Bono must not have been too good. Two years ago
he took a bad chin gash when he collided with another skier.

So, here's a busy congressman-restaurateur, skiing on a senior
ticket, with his wife, Mary, and their two children at Heavenly
Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe five days following Kennedy's death.
After the Bonos' little girl falls on an intermediate slope,
Mary takes the children down another trail. Sonny sees it as a
chance to do some tree bashing, telling his wife he would meet
her later.

The term tree bashing is a bit of a dark joke, a reminder of
just how dangerous a thing it is to do. On days when the powder
is all skied off, you take to the patch of trees that divides
the slopes because the snow is always knee-deep in there. So is
the danger, since you've got to weave through trees, which are
often no more than five feet apart, at 20 to 30 mph in snow that
has settled some and is hard to turn in. Make a mistake in there
and you're eating more tree than Ewell Gibbons. You have to be a
damn good skier to tree bash. People who have skied their whole
lives never go in there.

At Heavenly there are signs everywhere that say NO TREE SKIING.
Apparently, Bono felt about ski-resort signs the way Kennedy
felt about ski-patrol warnings. At 6:45 p.m., about 5 1/2 hours
after Bono had split up with his family, he was found dead by
the ski patrol.

Hey, people do stupid stuff all the time. A man in Virginia died
last July when his bungee cord turned out to be longer than the
distance he wanted to jump. Four men in New Zealand were killed
over the holidays trying to reenact a television commercial in
which four rugby stars make a simulated leap off a 100-foot
waterfall to grab a can of apple juice. You don't have to be a
politician to come up with a bad idea.

Look, skiing is safe. According to the National Ski Areas
Association, about one skier per 1.42 million ski visits ends up
in a pine box. Cycling kills 10 times that. Water sports kill 25
times that. Skiing isn't like flossing sharks. Just read the
little signs, listen to the guys in the bright-red coats and try
to make sure your last run isn't really your last run.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of broken skis and ski poles lying under tree]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)