It's a sunny Saturday afternoon in the placid Poconos, but the Camelback Ski Area looks like the Pennsylvania Turnpike at rush hour. Seven thousand skiers swarm over 25 trails, speeding and skidding and smashing into one another in a mad dash to the lift line. The area owes its profitable traffic to man-made snow, which has brought the sport so close to New York City and Philadelphia that skiing almost qualifies as an inner-city sport. Camelback is only 1½ hours from midtown Manhattan and less than two hours from Philly, if you don't mind driving fast.
Fred Klee, however, does mind. A 17-year veteran of the Pennsylvania State Police, Klee makes his living dissuading would-be Cale Yarboroughs from expressing their freedom on the open road. And now, at a busy Camelback trail junction, he's patrolling again, this time on skis. His bright-yellow parka identifies him as one of the area's 22 Rangers, many of whom are fellow troopers moonlighting out of nearby Swiftwater barracks in Monroe County.
Should a speeding skier bisect a slow-moving file of ski-schoolers or otherwise demonstrate a reckless disregard for the rules and responsibilities of safe skiing, Klee will swoop down on him.
Though he eschews chewing tobacco and aviator shades, Klee is the quintessential state trooper as he pulls over an errant skier. He plants his poles and leisurely pulls off a glove. "Are you familiar with the Skier's Responsibility Code?" he asks the offender. It's impossible not to be. The code's six rules are plastered to every flat surface at Camelback, but who reads the fine print? Klee takes down the skier's name and address, and with a red El Marko brands the $21 lift ticket with a large X. The skier shies like a startled mustang. Klee reassures him. If he sits through an 18-minute video on ski safety, the voided ticket will be redeemed. Clicking on a microphone fastened to his collar, Klee radios the base office: "I've got another void for the one o'clock movie."
"We have a lot of problems with reckless skiing," says Kathy Moore, who along with Klee manages the Ranger Patrol. "We needed somebody to enforce the rules. The Ski Patrol has its hands full just treating injured skiers and checking conditions around the mountain. Troopers know how to deal with people in difficult situations. They can't be intimidated."
Kathy's father, Jim, co-founded Camelback 22 years ago and still runs it today. He has another justification for the Rangers. "Most major accidents are caused by people skiing too fast," he says. "And then they turn around and sue the ski area. Litigation is the ski industry's number one problem."
Moore compares the plight of ski resorts to that of physicians, who must pay increasingly large malpractice premiums. "The difference is, medical attention is a necessity," he says. "But skiing's a discretionary activity." Moore thinks judges too often let personal injury cases go to juries, who are "naturally sympathetic" to plaintiffs. Last fall he issued a call to battle. "At some point," he wrote in a ski industry newsletter, "the defending forces must fortify a position strong enough to hold and man it with troops and officers capable of holding it." Hence the Ranger Patrol.
Most of the "voids," says Kathy Moore, are "16-to-26-year-old males. Sure enough, in the wooden hut that serves as Camelback's screening room, three blank-faced teenage boys have gathered for the one o'clock show. Ranger Tom Jones reads them an admonition: "Just as every good driver should know and observe the rules of the road, every good skier should know the rules of the slopes." The first two offenders listen attentively. The third stares sullenly at the floor. "I can't believe it," he complains, "I was just skiing along and happened to take a fall in front of this Dudley Do-Right."
The movie rehashes skiing's six commonsense commandments and stars an animated character named Mogul Mike. Mike does everything wrong, schussing down closed trails and flying off cliffs a la Wile E. Coyote, but he always comes up smiling. Like the teenagers, Moore finds the movie too tame. Next year, he says, he'd like something with more wallop. "I want actual footage of a collision followed by a shot of a quadriplegic in a wheelchair," he says. "I want the viewers to say, 'Hey, this could happen to me!' "
The Camelback Rangers do a lot of paper work. Klee estimates that his men have compiled 400 rap sheets—index cards with the names, addresses and alleged violations of each offender. "Why do we have to fill these cards out?" asks one teenager. "Statistical purposes," says Jones with a vague wave of the hand. The cards, however, seem more likely to be used as legal ammunition. According to Rollin Schaeffer, the head of the Ski Patrol, a few voids have already turned up in patrol toboggans. A severely injured skier would have a hard time convincing a jury that a ski area was negligent if the area had repeatedly busted him for being reckless.
Camelback says the ski cops have gotten a positive response. They may be firm, but they're unfailingly polite. Schaeffer claims to have noticed a slight drop in the injury rate since the Rangers began patrolling. "Families like them," adds Moore, "and so do people who've been knocked down, like I was the other day on The Interstate." He pauses. "That's the name of one of our trails."
Interstates? State troopers? What has skiing come to? Maybe it had to happen, but how long before skiing cops are aiming radar guns at careless skiers or citing forgetful ones for not buckling up...their boots?