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Slippery Slopes
Rick Reilly
January 19, 1998
Blame dump decisions—not skiing—for the deaths of Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono
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January 19, 1998

Slippery Slopes

Blame dump decisions—not skiing—for the deaths of Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono

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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 5½ hours after Bono had split up with his family, he was found dead by the ski patrol.

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