YOU WOULD BE HARD-PRESSED TO FIND A FAMILY MORE PASSIONATE ABOUT SKIING THAN KELLI AND CHAUNCY JOHNSON.
The Johnsons, who live in northern Wyoming with their four children, have built their lives around the sport. Kelli was a ski instructor in high school, and you could say they owe their marriage to it, having had their first ski experience together during a fifth-grade ski day at Antelope Butte Mountain Recreation Area in Wyoming and later scheduling their college classes at Utah State to make room for skiing. They married in 2001, and by 2010, had three young children — all of whom were taught to ski at early ages.
As much as the sport has blessed the Johnsons, it also resulted in one of the most heart-wrenching ski accidents ever.
Christmas Eve 2010
On Dec. 24, 2010, the Johnsons took their children — Elise, 5, Milli, 3, and Logan, 4 months — to their local hill, Hogadon Basin Ski Area outside Casper, Wyoming. With 600 feet of vertical, Hogadon is a family-oriented ski hill spread out over 60 acres, with one double chairlift and a magic carpet for beginners.
Chauncy painfully remembers that day before Christmas — which, as a family man, had always been his favorite day of the year. Kelli had taken Elise to ski a run. What happened next would forever, and profoundly, change the lives of two families.
Kelli only remembers small portions of that afternoon and, thankfully, does not remember the instant when a speeding snowboarder violently collided with her and Elise. The snowboarder was a 23-year-old pass-holder at Hogadon.
“I remember going up the chairlift with [Elise], and we were discussing which run we should take,” Kelli recalled during a recent interview with Colorado Public Radio (CPR). “I stopped to help Elise get her ski back on. I remember up to that point, but I never saw the snowboarder coming … I think it all happened so fast.”
The collision killed Elise and the snowboarder, and left Kelli with a severe brain injury and paralyzed arm. It was an unprecedented tragedy. No one in the ski industry could recall a skier-skier collision resulting in the death of two people.
For Chauncy, the memories are especially overwhelming. During the CPR interview, he recalled being informed by a ski patroller. “I was told that there was a terrible collision, and that three were down,” he said, reflecting on that excruciating moment. “And they said only one had a pulse.”
Both the snowboarder and Elise died instantly — the snowboarder from blunt chest trauma, Elise from a broken neck. Chauncy knew the blow must have been especially violent and sudden.
“Someone gave me Elise’s shattered helmet,” he recalled, holding back tears. “I live with those memories really every single day.”
Because of the collision, Kelli’s head brutally impacted the hard snowpack, causing a severe traumatic brain injury from the whiplash. She fractured her C-1 vertebrae, resulting in partial paralysis, and was in a coma for months afterward.
It is a small blessing that Kelli does not remember the violent collision, but when she awoke from her coma at Craig Hospital in Denver, she learned she had missed not only Christmas, but the funeral and burial of her first-born daughter.
Kelli says that although she suffered extensive physical injuries, Chauncy endured the deepest emotional trauma. Imagine the pain of having to come home on Christmas Eve, with two small children awaiting Santa Claus and the joys of family and the holiday season — and your wife clinging to life in intensive care. Imagine the grief of making arrangements for your child’s funeral. Imagine the heartache of removing Elise’s Christmas presents from under the tree.
“Why did this have to happen on my favorite day of the year, while doing my favorite thing, skiing?” Chauncy remembers painfully.
It is a testament to his strength and character that in the midst of this tragedy and anguish, Chauncy nevertheless had the compassion and thoughtfulness to send flowers to the grieving family of the snowboarder.
“I stopped to help Elise get her ski back on. I remember up to that point, but I never saw the snowboarder coming … I think it all happened so fast.”
Giving Meaning to Loss
Kelli remained hospitalized for weeks, with months of painstaking physical therapy still ahead. She had to relearn how to walk, eat, and swallow. She miraculously regained much of the use of her body over the course of intense rehabilitation at Craig Hospital. Today, she still suffers from partial paralysis, but has increasing movement along her right side and arm.
Her recovery was so remarkable, Craig Hospital honored Kelli with its prestigious 2017 Inspiration Award to recognize her rehab efforts and committing herself to preventing such accidents from impacting others.
To honor their daughter, and create a meaningful legacy, the Johnsons are partnering with the National Ski Areas Association to launch a powerful safety campaign, #RideAnotherDay, intended to elevate the conversation about responsible skiing and riding behavior.
“My hope is to truly get this message out there to others,” Kelli says. “If anyone just hears this message even once, they will hopefully change how they conduct themselves on the mountain.”
The Johnsons’ dream is that the campaign will help transform the culture on the mountain and have a trickle-down effect on younger people.
Thankfully, these incidents are incredibly rare, but they happen, and families say with genuine sincerity they don’t want to see this happen to anyone else’s child. The Johnsons, however, took this pledge to heart and gave their full backing to highlight the need to change behavior — even if it means telling their story to anyone who listens, reliving, time and time again, the incredible pain and heartache from that day. It’s astonishing that they are willing to put themselves through that moment to substantively change the sport they love.
The Johnson family generously offered — voluntarily, on their own initiative — to donate a sizeable amount of money from a settlement to create a safety initiative with NSAA to compel people to confront the consequences of reckless skiing and change the culture of the sport.
To be sure, the never-ending challenge of emphasizing safety while also acknowledging the risky nature of the sport overall is a delicate balancing act.
As an industry, we need to make sure we do not over-dramatize the relative dangers of the sport. There is, after all, an uninformed perception of the comparative risks in skiing and snowboarding, despite the fact that studies confirm that they are remarkably safe, especially compared to other similar recreation activities.
At the same time, we recognize the need for ongoing guest education for all manner of safety issues: avalanches, lift safety, tree wells, terrain parks, helmets, and — especially — speed and reckless skiing. Neither our guests nor the media fully recognize the great lengths to which ski patrols go to ensure a safe experience and educate guests on safety. However, safety is a shared obligation.
Skiers and snowboarders control their own actions, and, more than anything else, it is their individual judgment and control that largely dictates their safety (and others’ safety as well). Thus, #RideAnotherDay is a critical complement to ski patrols’ efforts at promoting safety.
“I want to raise the level of awareness of the importance of safety and respect for others out on the mountain,” Kelli stresses. When asked about his perception of mountain safety prior to that fateful Christmas Eve, Chauncy describes an air of “lawlessness” at some ski areas he visited, where some skiers acted recklessly, ignoring the potential consequences of their behavior.
#RideAnotherDay is the Johnsons’ attempt to change that. While some may not understand how they can still embrace skiing and boarding after losing Elise, Chauncy puts it in perspective.
“My last memories of being with Elise were on the ski slopes, and while it was extremely difficult for me to start [snowboarding] again, those experiences sort of help me commune with my daughter. And we have four young kids who ask us, ‘When are we going skiing again?’ So, I want to raise my kids with the opportunity to do the same thing that we love, and not raise them in a scenario where they’re in fear of skiing.”
It took Chauncy one full year to the day before he got the courage to go back out on the mountain. On Christmas Eve 2011, he returned to snowboarding at Beaver Mountain in Utah. “It was very difficult for me,” Chauncy says, holding back tears. “But luckily, there was 10 inches of fresh snow,” he adds, smiling.
The Johnsons have been speaking often to audiences of ski operators, where they stress that more needs to be done to police the problem of reckless skiing and disregard for others.
“I know that many ski patrollers feel their main obligation is to provide medical care for injured guests, and they do an amazing job in that role,” Kelli told a packed session at NSAA’s National Convention in May 2017. “But it’s long overdue that we change the culture to emphasize more of a role where ski patrol concentrates on policing such conduct. It may be an unenviable task, but as my family knows first-hand, it’s a particularly critical part of their job.”
She is right. In fact, it is the role of any medical professional — ski patrol included — to emphasize not just treating injuries, but also taking measures to prevent such injuries from occurring in the first place. Prevention requires everyone to police reckless behavior, including lift attendants, ski instructors, hosts, race coaches, even employees on their days off. If you see something, say something.
#RideAnotherDay provides resorts the opportunity to emphasize improving ski safety culture. The campaign features a video and print component to give areas the flexibility to use these tools as they see fit.
In the video (http://www.nsaa.org/safety-programs/collisions), the Johnsons share their story, along with key safety reminders. The video was the brainchild of Catapult Marketing, an arm of Active Interest Media, which also includes SKI Magazine and Warren Miller Entertainment. The Catapult team also created separate artwork for posters. The arresting visual (shown at right) of a solitary, empty snow angel made by a small child after a fresh snowfall — with the tagline, “She was 5. You were doing 50.” — dramatically conveys tragedies that can result from reckless behavior.
“The image of a childless snow angel is instantly recognizable, but it’s a compelling reminder of the urgency of mountain safety for everyone,” says Earl Saline, NSAA’s director of education programming, who is leading the effort with the Johnsons to launch the campaign. “I cannot think of a more effective visual of the immediacy of our message.”
Chauncy came up with the campaign’s tagline. “When we got a group together from Catapult, NSAA, and the Johnson family, it was Chauncy who said he wanted to make sure everyone could come back, again and again, to experience all the joys of skiing,” Saline recalls. “He wanted everyone to ‘ride another day.’ We all said, ‘That’s brilliant!’”
NSAA will provide #RideAnotherDay graphics to resorts this fall, and areas may add their own logos to the artwork and use the materials for posters and in other applications — with their social media, on websites, in resort publications in hotel rooms, and as posters hanging in ski patrol shacks and other employee areas. Saline hopes that NSP volunteers and hosts will work with schools, coffee shops, rental shops, and other businesses to post the images around their communities.
Ski areas should include the video as part of their employee orientation in the fall, and to prompt discussions throughout the resort for a renewed effort to prevent recklessness and promote safety. Off-duty employees account for approximately 7 percent of all skier/boarder visits nationally — a sizable number of people who can elevate the conversation with friends, guests, and families, especially with younger skiers/boarders. This cultural shift must become ingrained, it must begin early, and it must be reinforced often.
“I want this campaign to actually empower all employees at ski areas, so that everyone plays a role in safety and policing reckless skiing,” Chauncy emphasizes. “I want to create a new generation of more respectful and more conscientious skiers and riders.”
The video should play an important role at ski patrol refreshers too. Further, when pulling passes from reckless riders, patrollers could require them to watch the video before getting their pass privileges back. This reinforces that their reckless conduct may have life-altering consequences. Ski areas should also include their race teams, clubs, and academies in this important conversation.
“I don’t know that to this point that there’s been a specific campaign that actually brings to light the reality of what happens when things [like our accident] go wrong,” Chauncy said during the CPR interview. He emphasized that he wanted the campaign “to be able to get people’s attention and help them look at this little girl, my daughter, the young man that was riding a snowboard, [that] this could be their brother, it could be their daughter, it could be their sister, it could be their mom. In that light, it just resonates at a different level.”
Hope and Change
An important underlying element of the #RideAnotherDay initiative is providing the Johnson family some deeply needed catharsis and an opportunity to continue their healing process. To tell their story — no matter how painful it may be to repeatedly relive — is a form of therapy in and of itself.
If the family’s efforts can raise awareness, change behavior, and prevent someone else’s family or parent from such suffering, they have demonstrated they are more than willing to re-examine that day over and over again. Chauncy emphasizes that their donation and their involvement in the campaign is not only to honor his wife and lost daughter, but also to honor the life of the snowboarder. (The Johnsons repeatedly stress that they carry absolutely no ill will toward the snowboarder, who paid the ultimate price for his actions.)
The family’s willingness to underwrite most of the cost of the safety initiative reinforces their resiliency, strength, and, most importantly, their passion for what this sport means to them.
“At the end of the day, skiing really is about family,” Chauncy says, underscoring in one short sentence the biggest selling point the industry has for promoting one of the most enduring pleasures of the sport. “Families that play together, stay together. That’s why we are doing this.” +
Video available for showing at refreshers
Kelli and Chauncy Johnson have recorded a short video that thanks patrollers for the work they do on the hill and encourages patrollers to help spread the word about the new #RideAnotherDay initiative. It is hoped that patrollers, who are often on the front lines dealing with guests out on the hill, can be positive ambassadors for this important message. Please contact NSP Marketing and Development Director Melanie Hood at firstname.lastname@example.org for details on securing the video for showing at your fall OEC refreshers.
A previous version of this article originally appeared in the NSAA Journal (vol. 25, issue 4).