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Danger on the slopes

Jane McCormack grew up on long, straight skis in Maine and New Hampshire when recreational skiing was a slower, gentler sport. Speed was for racers, not chair lifts. A crowd was the seven McCormack siblings packed into the family's station wagon, not the lines in the ticket queue.

As the sport changed, McCormack changed, too, from pre-parabolic to shaped skis, from King Pine, a family hill in New Hampshire's Lake Region, to the mountain resorts of Sunday River and Sugarloaf in her native Maine.

She was at Sunday River two weeks ago when a Massachusetts teenager slammed into her on Tempest, a black diamond trail. Her family would like to think she never knew what hit her. Jane died hours later of massive head trauma, leaving devastated family and friends to search for some meaning in the sudden death on a sunny slope of a 39-year-old elementary school teacher on her winter vacation with Bruce Brown, the man she called "the love of my life."

The Oxford County sheriff's office is investigating McCormack's death and will meet this week with prosecutors to determine whether to rule the collision an accident or to file charges against the 15-year-old skier from Dover, according to Captain James Mickon.

"While part of me believes that God took her now for a reason, another part of me believes that it was an avoidable tragedy," said her sister, Anne. "Certainly, that 15-year-old boy did not set out that day to forever change the lives of many in a single instant."

A hint of how many lives Jane McCormack touched was on display last week outside a Portland funeral home, where hundreds of people waited in sleet and rain to attend her wake. At the Reiche School, her 18 second-graders used crayons and markers to design a memorial wall at the Portland elementary school where she rose from a classroom aide to certified teacher after graduating, summa cum laude, from Maine's University of New England last year.

Neither skier was wearing a helmet that day, though doctors tell the family it is not clear that one would have saved her, her sister said. "We have been having the helmet debate in our family. She might have survived and never had any quality of life. I don't know."

What she does know, what everyone who skis knows is that it can be scary out there.

The number of skiers in the United States has been static for more than a decade, according to industry figures, but the variety of equipment one encounters on the slopes can seem overwhelming to a skier of average skill. Alpine skiers and snowboarders may share the trails with snow bikes and trick skiers and telemark skiers.

Although trails are usually well marked and ski areas routinely post reminders that skiers are responsible for staying in control and skiing at their appropriate skill level, there are no border guards to keep a hot-dogging skier of dubious quality off an advanced trail. Smart skiers ski defensively. There are few sounds more frightening than a speeding snowboarder coming up fast from the rear.

This winter I switched permanently from downhill to cross country, concerned as much by my tentativeness as by others' recklessness. Both are hazards on the slopes.

Anne McCormack isn't ready to hang up her skis, but she is determined to find some lesson in her sister's loss.

"I won't stop skiing, but I will never ski the same again," she said. "Skiing is such a thrill. It's as close as you can come to flying. I just want everyone to think twice, to remember that when you are traveling fast a slight body shift could change your direction. You have to be in control."

And remember that the skier directly in your path could be someone's sister, someone's teacher, the love of someone's life.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe

columnist. She can be reached


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