Who Has The Right Of Way On The Slopes?

Last March, I had a collision on the hill, I sprained my ankle and that messed up two weeks of snowboarding. I’m going to start this article by saying: (a) I accept responsibility for the collision and (b) I’m glad that I was the only person affected – the other dude was ok.

Do You Know The Responsibility Code?

This got me thinking about right of way on the mountain, as well as some of the other issues that come under being safe on the slopes.

You’re probably aware of the following rule: People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them.

This is actually just one of the rules, or guidelines, that form the skier/snowboarder responsibility code. If you have a quick search around the web, you’ll find the list in a many different places, with slight variations, but essentially the guidelines are consistent. I took the following from About.com:

National Ski Responsibility Code:

  • Always stay in control, and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects.
  • People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them.
  • You must not stop where you obstruct a trail, or are not visible from above.
  • Whenever starting downhill or merging into a trail, look uphill and yield to others.
  • Always use devices to help prevent runaway equipment.
  • Observe all posted signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas.
  • Prior to using any lift, you must have the knowledge and ability to load, ride and unload safely.

Let’s look at a few potential problem areas with being safe on the hill.

A sudden change of direction?

In the collision that I mentioned above, I was riding down a red run. It wasn’t particularly steep, more of a wide and fast run. I was practicing my carving and travelling fast. I was approaching a skier in front, who was making short, consistent turns. I planned to go past on his right hand side and was traversing in that direction to do so…

As I got close, the guy made a sudden change in direction. He swept a long way to the right; it seemed as if he was going to stop at the side of the piste. I was on a toe edge, travelling fast, tried to hammer the anchors on, lost the edge on the afternoon-bumps and slid into him.

Like I said above: the accident was my fault. I was travelling too fast to deal with a possible movement of a skier/snowboarder downhill of me. And as per the rules, it’s my responsibility to avoid them.

But personally, I don’t ride like that. If I’m travelling down a slope and decide I want to make a significant change from my current line, I look back up the hill. Why not? That’s what you do when you’re driving a car; if you want to move across into the outside lane you check your mirrors, look over your shoulder and then indicate.

There’s nothing about that in the responsibility code. Should there be? Currently, the downhill skier/snowboarder has the right to move in whichever way they desire, providing they’re already in motion. Personally, I think if you’re on the hill, you should consider how your movements could affect those around you…

Looking up hill before setting off

Now this is covered in the responsibility code, and I think it’s a guideline that more people should be aware of:

  • Whenever starting downhill or merging into a trail, look uphill and yield to others.

On busy slopes I constantly encounter other slope users who set off from a standing position, without checking what’s coming down the slope. It’s dangerous – they often set off right into someone elses path.

Some people might consider this rude, but when someone pulls out in front of me, I slow down and inform them that they should check up the hill first…

Not understanding park rules

It’s one thing to follow the general responsibility code, but if a slope user decides to ride through a park, they should be aware of park etiquette and park rules. The worst situation of people being unaware in this regard that I’ve encountered, is the Stash in Avoriaz.

Because in many ways it appears as a run, you get a lot of beginner and intermediate skiers (sorry, it is mostly skiers) making their way through the stash, zig-zagging as they go. Often they’re not actually using the park features, they’re just interested, which is understandable.

But, too many times I’ve seen a skier turn across the start or the end of a box or rail, with near-collisions being the result. They sometimes stand in front of a box, or at the end, blocking the ride out. I’m amazed that the ski schools will actually lead a convoy of beginners through the Stash, slowly, weaving in and out and around the features…

The rules in parks are different; skiers and snowboarders alike need to be safe when using them.

What do you think?

Have you been involved in any on-slope collisions? Were you aware of the responsibility code? Do you see people or groups with unsafe habits on the hill?


  • Reply August 20, 2010


    I couldnt agree more with the comment about drastic changes in direction. That guy should have looked!!! If your competent and in control you can at least take a quick glance to see if anyone is coming. In my eyes this is similiar to the setting off guide, the only difference being that in one case you are stationary and the other your not.

  • Reply August 20, 2010


    1 more point. I do think the above comment is different from someone coming to a stop or shaving off alot of speed. In that instance I think the blame would fall 100% on the person behind.

  • Reply August 21, 2010

    David Z

    that exact same thing happened to me in February only I walked away from it OK. I blamed the kid, her parents said it was her fault, too. My helmet, i didn’t think to inspect it after wards and only noticed after I put it away for the season, is split completely on the inside under the padding.

    I understand that the person downhill has the right-of-way, but when making a sweeping turn across the fall-line, it’s imperative for the downhill skier/rider to make sure there’s nobody coming – the exact same thing you do when trails merge, you should do when you make one of those sweeping turns – especially at 4pm when everyone is on a crowded trail going back to the car park or lodge at the end of the day (as circumstances were in my case).

  • Reply August 23, 2010


    The only way to be safe on the slopes is if you treat them the same way you treat a road when you’re on a bike..

    Assume everyone is a bad skier/boarder and that they *will* do the most stupid thing that you can think of with little regard for anyone else on the slope (and not even any fear of being pulled over by the police!).

    So regardless of who should have right of way, its madness not to check every angle and assume the worst and board defensively, i.e. not putting yourself in danger.

    If that means you can’t ride a run the way you want to, then unfortunately it means being patient and waiting for it to clear up so you can do it ‘your’ way.. or, accepting that it’s just not going to happen and take a different route or change your style temporarily.

    Massively sucks, but the alternatives aren’t worth it.

  • Reply August 23, 2010


    Hey Tim – good points!

  • Reply November 29, 2010


    Down hill skier has the right of way. period. Pay attention. If you couldn’t stop in time, you are not in control. Moving traffic is different than standing idle intersecting traffic. This idea of looking uphill as the down hill skier is nothing like driving a car, unless you want yellow lines on the slopes. Get in control.

  • Reply November 29, 2010


    Hey Bob,

    like I said, I accept responsibility for this collision, and I follow the rule of the downhill rider having right of way.

    But do you think the downhill rider takes absolutely no responsibility for their course of action on the slope? Is there not a certain level of responsibility and safety of all users on the mountain?

    Cheers, Gavin

  • Reply October 12, 2011

    Peter H


    I’ve had this exact conversation and I strongly agree with your thoughts on this matter. Those who disagree usually suggest that the downhill rider assumes no responsibility for theirs and others safety uphill, and as such, can do what they like.

    If a downhill rider makes an unpredictable, rash, or wild maneuver which leads to a collision with the uphill rider, both can ultimately be hurt. It’s dandy to attribute fault but does fault prevent accident or injury? No. It’s a matter of blame and shifting responsibility, and ultimately childish and short-sighted. If the downhill rider took a moment to consider how their actions may affect an uphill rider passing them could a situation be avoided? Probable.

    So what’s preferable? Downhill rides accept no responsibility and do what they like hoping things work out for the best, or both parties make efforts to keep the mountain a safety place to play?

    Everyone maintains responsibility for their own safety, this includes being considerate of how our actions may affect others, regardless of our relative position on the mountain.

  • Reply October 14, 2011


    Hey Peter,

    well put. Your message is spot on – take responsibility for your own safety and be considerate of how you may impact on others. Full stop.

    Yes, the up-hill rider has some advantages – they’re already looking in the forwards direction. But the downhill rider is well advised to consider how their movements may affect others around them (or behind them in this case). Look over your shoulder if you’re making a big/sudden change – be safe with it…


  • Reply November 22, 2011


    My shoulder dislocation was the result of a young british skier riding into the back of me as i was riding out from a box rail hit.

    This happened in Les Arcs apocalypse park, which is basically like a rat run, with a load of skiers, ski schools and non-freestyle orientated snowboarders winding through at any given time.

    Had i not been on the floor nearly passed out I would have given him and his parents an earful, what is worse the kid didnt come and apologise, his parents stood by without saying a word, then ushered him off as my level of screaming in agony increased…

    My only regret from the whole thing was that he wasn’t in any way injured, and that dislocation and subsequent ones has stayed with me many years later and continues to be an issue…All because he wasn’t paying attention of his surroundings or the people ahead of him.

    I am only glad that the resort i frequent these days, La clusaz, is much quieter, and has the park set to the side of the run and fenced off, rather than it being situated on the actual run a’la les arcs.

  • Reply November 23, 2011


    Hey James, that sucks about your shoulder. As for the dude that did it, and his lame parents, WTF? It’s basic manners to apologise. If someone is on the floor and hurt badly, it goes beyond manners, you should frickin’ help them.

    Parks like that can be annoying. The Stash at Avoriaz can suffer from the general mountain user just winding their way through, moving in between the obstacle without thought that they’re actually park features, and someone who is riding toward the feature is going to use the feature, and therefore the landing area.

    It’s bad.

    Lack of education like that isn’t easy to fix in the individual – but by having parks sectioned-off goes a long way.

  • Reply January 25, 2012


    I agree completely with you Gavin.
    On the first day of my holiday last year I had come off a red route onto a blue. I was going quite fast but could see a nice line to avoid slower slope users. There was a skier in front of myself that turned last minute into the gap I was going for. I had a quick choice to make, either crash into him from behind or stop myself using a padded snow cannon. I chose the latter.

    I was going too fast to be able to stop as my board skipped over the compressed snow. Luckily I just had a sore knee and was fine to board for the rest of the holiday. But it did get me thinking, if he had just looked, he could have just let me past and followed in behind me.

    After seeing what happened the skier stopped in the middle of the piste and my friend told him what to do, in french.

  • Reply January 27, 2012


    Hi Benjamin,

    glad you escaped without any impact to your holiday. Every time I come back to consider this topic, I become more sure that even if you’re the downhill rider/skier, you should still take responsibility for your movements. I’m out in Breckenridge at the moment, been riding on the hill today. If I change my course, I always look first. If I’m gonna try a trick on the piste, I check if there’s anyone close to me at the sides or behind… doing tricks I’m more likely to sketch out or skid to the side. So I check.

    Absolutely, if you’re uphill of another slope user, you have the advantage of (probably/hopefully) being able to see them and therefore plan around them. Use that ability.

    But planning is probably a good point to make here. You can only do the best with the info you’ve got. Yes, that doesn’t mean taking silly risks because you didn’t expect someone to turn. But at the same time, a rider/skier that suddenly veers in a different direction without considering other slope users is in the wrong. That’s how I see it.


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