Fixler: Clearing the air on Colorado ski deaths (reporter’s notebook)
April 26, 2017
On Feb. 29, 2016, an email arrived to my inbox.
It was polite, articulate and exceptionally vulnerable. It requested a response at my earliest convenience, but had the pointed approach of basically asking, "Why haven't you already written a story about my dead son?"
I'd not yet been on the new job four months, and this type of appeal was outside my comfort zone. In other words, when I made the decision to move up to the mountains for an environment reporter position, I didn't foresee — nor did I desire — writing much about death.
The phone call with Lynda Taylor of Massachusetts, about her 27-year-old son Jay who died while skiing at Keystone Resort on Jan. 20, was tough. Functioning in equal parts as a journalist and a therapist, I listened to her frustration over what she believed was a community conspiring to prevent Jay's accident from hitting the news. We talked for a little more than an hour, though it felt like an eternity. After hanging up I walked outside, my throat clenched and I broke into tears. And then I went back to work.
I had no idea the conversation would set my course for the next year and a half, reporting on an industry I would later learn operates with little regulation and liability, and almost no oversight concerning safety, fatalities and injuries. But death after death that season — and there would wind up being six in the county as part of the state's 11 — it became clearer how the system functions.
That made us here at the newspaper curious just how many people die at Colorado's ski resorts each year. And how many we and other news outlets might be missing. Those questions led us to pursue statewide data and produce our three-part series "Whiteout" on ski-related deaths during the past decade.
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Since it published, I've heard the criticism that skiing is inherently dangerous, that resorts shouldn't be held accountable for deadly accidents. Why blame the ski industry?
If that's all you took away from reading the series, give it another look. It was never about hanging these tragedies on the businesses that drive our tourism-based economy. Instead, we wanted to know why statistics on ski-related accidents and fatalities were so hard to come by and why the ski industry systematically obscured statistics that could yield greater public safety.
At the same time, a widely known statistic is the county's rising suicide rate, a sad fact that's galvanized health care professionals, government officials and community leaders to take action. Over the last several years, Summit County skier deaths are on par with suicides, but don't seem to receive a comparable level of local concern. Our work on "Whiteout" is a tribute to the 137 individuals confirmed dead from skiing or snowboarding in Colorado since the 2006-07 season.
Even so, there are almost certainly others who were overlooked in our months-long effort to memorialize every skier death over the past decade. Just this week, we learned the identity of a skier death that had long evaded us — 44-year-old Jim Bell of Olathe, Kansas.
Now two weeks since the release of the series, we've received an outpouring of support from the local community, with readers calling, writing and stopping in to the office just to say thank you, that this is a story that needed to be told for years. A handful of others objected there was no mention of the role ski patrollers play every day. Some said that their merits and personal struggles were blatantly ignored. We hoped to tell those stories, too, and inquired with resorts about doing so. They declined. In addition, as employees of the ski areas, few have the ability to speak to media without permission. Otherwise, they could be fired.
What the series attempted to do, aside from helping put a face to and humanize each of these 137 cases, was offer closure for the many who have lost someone to the sport. Many of the families we talked to wanted only to know what happened, and what might have been done to prevent it from ever occurring. The friends and relatives of Kevin Pitts and Sean Haberthier, both of whom died at Breckenridge Ski Resort this season, said the same. And after finally reaching her earlier this week, Courtney Bell, widow to Jim, signaled agreement. I have no doubt the next family, and the one after that, and after that, will express similar sentiments once they fully realize they're far from alone.
The notion of writing about so much loss and personal tragedy, through even all this, remains a foreign task to me. This reporting experience has reiterated yet again that rarely do we choose our paths in life, often they choose us — even if we don't particularly enjoy them.
So as a service to the many people touched each time these awful events transpire, we'll continue to closely track them. Because as averse as I may be to writing about people dying on the slopes, I can attest that it doesn't begin to scratch the surface of the pain the families and friends feel over the sudden and premature death of their loved one.
Kevin Fixler is a reporter for the Summit Daily News.