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Last winter, after skier Sarah Burke died from injuries sustained in a crash at Utah’s Park City Resort, the 29-year-old halfpipe champion’s family received hospital bills totaling a reported $200,000. Though Burke is Canadian, she wasn’t covered by her national health care system or by the Canada Freestyle Ski Association, because she was training for an unsanctioned U.S. event when she fell. That left Burke’s agent, Michael Spencer, asking for charity from her fans, who came through with the amount in just 24 hours. But Burke’s insurance woes caused consternation throughout the action-sports world.
“Securing reliable insurance is the hardest part of our job,” tweeted American big-mountain skier Cody Townsend shortly after Burke’s death.
Indeed, most adventure athletes aren’t paid enough to afford medical insurance, which is unusually pricey owing to the risk inherent in their jobs. Townsend, who has had four injury-related surgeries, often finds himself denied coverage. Others, like Don Bowie, a climber and expedition mountaineer, aren’t willing to spend a quarter of their salaries on premiums. “So I just don’t have insurance,” he says. “It’s too expensive.”
These days, many athletes are wondering whether the new Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, will ease the pain when its most toothy provisions go into effect in 2014. There’s certainly one upside: insurers will no longer be able to deny banged-up athletes because of previous injuries. (This is the preexisiting-conditions language you’ve heard so much about.) But they will still retain the right to exclude coverage for injuries suffered during certain risky activities. The Affordable Care Act won’t do anything to change that.
“The exclusions are in the fine print,” says Brandon Parrish, owner of RiderSurance, a company that scours health-insurance policies to find coverage for action-sports athletes. “And they can include everything from participation in organized races to the use of ropes while climbing a mountain.”
Another common exception is overseas travel: most American insurance plans won’t cover injuries sustained while you’re out of the country, and Obamacare won’t change that, either. You’ll still need to check the fine print and likely get special travel insurance to cover your vacations.
In Burke’s case, she simply failed to purchase single-trip supplemental insurance, which costs roughly $100 per week and covers most medical expenses. Her situation was unique in that it was caused by a misunderstanding rather than an inability to pay. Still, action-sports stars often leave sponsors in the difficult position of having to tell fans that an athlete’s health care isn’t their problem. In the days following Burke’s death, the drink company Monster Energy was inundated with indignant tweets like this one from Canadian Olympic gold-medalist rower Marnie McBean: “Why isn’t @MonsterEnergy paying #SarahBurke’s medical bill?”
Monster offered that they were “committed to helping [Burke’s family] financially,” though no specific figure was ever released.
For the rest of us, Obamacare will make it easier to get basic coverage, but not necessarily to drink deeply from the slacklining, big wall-climbing, freeskiing cup of life.
For two years, downhill skiers have been in a froth over a proposed gondola that would connect Utah's Canyons Resort to nearby Solitude Mountain, linking up 6,250 acres of terrain. Though the project has been slowed by concerns about environmental impacts, odds are that it will eventually get federal approval. Meanwhile, other Utah resort managers have been quietly discussing additional lifts and boundary openings that would bridge seven mountains throughout the Wasatch Range, creating a European-style network offering single-pass access to 17,000 acres. Here's a look at how and when this ambitious project could all come together.
1. SNOWBIRD <-> ALTA Since 2001, the AltaBird ticket ($99) has allowed skiers to swipe passes at boundary turnstiles.
2. ALTA <-> SOLITUDE PROPOSAL: A lift from Alta's base up to a cat-ski area known as Twin Lakes Pass, and another short lift from Twin Lakes Pass to the top of Solitude's Summit chairlift.
POLITICS: Alta's lift would be built in Grizzly Gulch, an area currently used for the resort's cat-skiing operation. Management needs to decide if closing that makes fiscal sense.
BONUS: Access to a 45-degree bowl full of open glades, cliffs, gullies, and ridgelines.
3. SOLITUDE <-> CANYONS PROPOSAL: A gondola from Canyons to Solitude.
POLITICS: Backcountry skiers are upset that the gondola will cut through prime off-piste lines. Environmentalists are concerned that Canyons will develop land adjacent to the new lift, polluting the watershed. Since this is federal land, moving forward requires congressional approval; a bill made it through the House of Representatives and was expected to come up for a Senate vote in late 2012.
ETA: The gondola could be built in time for the 2013-14 season.
4. CANYONS <-> PARK CITY PROPOSAL: A lift from Canyons to Park City.
POLITICS: Talisker, a Canadian company, owns Canyons and the land Park City operates on. But Talisker and Park City have been in a dispute over the terms of the lease. They expect to resolve it early this winter.
ETA: The lift could be built within two years of an agreement.
BONUS: Access to an open bowl and aspen glades.
5. PARK CITY <-> DEER VALLEY PROPOSAL: Access points along the boundary between the two resorts.
POLITICS: Deer Valley and Park City execs are studying the logistics of a dual ticket.
ETA: 2013-14 season.
6. PARK CITY <-> BRIGHTON PROPOSAL: Two lifts starting at Guardsman Pass, a seasonal backcountry road. One would carry skiers to Park City, the other to Brighton.
POLITICS: This is all private land, so approval hinges on Park City resolving a dispute with Talisker Land Holdings, its landlord. Environmentalists may try to halt construction over concerns that it will pollute the watershed.
ETA: The lifts could be built within two years of an agreement between Talisker and Park City.
BONUS: Trails down to the lifts would include everything from easy groomers to glades.
7. BRIGHTON <-> SOLITUDE The resorts were linked in 1984. The SolBright Pass ($82) allows back-and-forth access through several gates.
ENDLESS TURNS The numbers on a hypothetical ski-tour loop beginning and ending at Snowbird: $105: Price of a lift ticket 15: Number of chairlift and gondola rides (includes existing lifts) 5: Hours of travel time
For Navajo activist Klee Benally, the San Francisco Peaks mountain range in northern Arizona is where the world was created. The four tallest mountains there, like pillars, uphold his universe. Even people who don't follow his religion, known as the Navajo Way, may be able to relate to the feeling that comes from being in a silent forest—what Emerson called, “a sanctity which shames our religions.”
His most recent act of protest against Snowbowl has landed him with a complaint accusing him of violating federal law by disrupting work in a U.S. Forest Service office in Flagstaff, Arizona. He and three other protestors face fines of up to $5,000 and up to six months in jail each for the misdemeanor charges, according to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court.
The Forest Service owns the land where Arizona Snowbowl is located.
Wearing white suits and masks, the group displayed large banners, according to the complaint (PDF). Members of the public trying to buy permits and maps felt "intimidated" by the protestors and worried that they would not "be able to escape out of the building," it contends.
The complaint, which was based on video surveillance that did not contain audio, goes on to say that the group began chanting loudly.
However, Benally said regional forester Earl Stewart received the group politely, shaking his hand several times, and that it was "a very cordial meeting.”
A video taken by a member of the protest group shows a couple conducting business at the front desk and protestors quietly standing around the perimeter of the room holding signs. Benally is so soft-spoken that his voice can scarcely be heard above the near-constant sound of a camera shutter as a photographer takes pictures of him.
Benally said he thinks the charges are trumped up and that the complaint, brought three months after the fact, is meant to "deter further protests” at Arizona Snowbowl as the resort gears up for its first ski season making the wastewater snow.
The timing of the complaint "sends a message,” said Benally. "It shows the government's lack of good faith."
Benally and two of the other protesters turned themselves in to U.S. marshals Tuesday and were arraigned hours later. One of the conditions of their release, pending trial, is that they stay away from the National Forest offices and from Arizona Snowbowl. Benally, however, is allowed to visit the area so he can continue to practice his faith. Their next court appearances are scheduled for December 27.
Leslie MacMillan is a freelance journalist who has written for the New York Times, Associated Press, the Boston Globe, and others.