2017 Year in Review: Shining a light on skier deaths and the lack of transparency at Colorado ski resorts
December 23, 2017
Editor's note: The Summit Daily is counting down the top 10 stories of 2017.
Colorado's most popular ski resorts are carved out of our public lands. Breckenridge, Keystone and Vail Mountain — to name the big three — all pay millions in fees to the U.S. Forest Service for the privilege of operating highly profitable concessions there. Despite that, these businesses largely operate in secret when it comes to vital public safety information on skier deaths and injuries.
In 2017, the Summit Daily decided to change that, piecing together a comprehensive database of 137 skier deaths over the past 10 years. That data, pulled from coroner's office documents across 16 counties, shined new light on the nature of these tragedies, particularly as they occur in Summit County.
"What we have right now is very bad public policy," ski safety activist Dr. Dan Gregorie told the Summit Daily. "It's strongly weighted toward resorts and protecting them from liability, and not preventing the public from accidents and injury. They should provide the information to the public so they can make a judgment about how safe or relatively safe one resort is compared to another."
From the 2006-07 ski season through 2016-17, the 58 skier deaths in Summit County were more than twice that of any other county in the state.
With 22 inbounds deaths during that 10-year timespan, Keystone Resort saw the most fatalities in Colorado for a single ski area. And based on the resort's estimated 1.2 million annual skier visits, Keystone also was one of the front-runners for fatality rate, approaching five times the likelihood of some of the state's other more popular ski areas.
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The Summit Daily used that information as the basis for "Whiteout," a three-part series in April that explored the systemic lack of transparency surrounding accidental ski deaths in Colorado and the grief and uncertainty families who have lost loved ones face.
Though the Daily was able to piece together a complete database on skier deaths, verifiable statistics on the prevalence of catastrophic injuries out on the ski hill, including broken backs, necks and spines, life-altering head injuries and forms of paralysis, are practically impossible to acquire.
To better understand the human toll associated with Colorado's winter getaways, we had to go to one of the few sources of public information on the subject — the coroner's office for each of the state's 16 counties where ski areas exist.
During the course the investigation, we discovered that the Summit County Coroner's Office stood apart from its peers. Of the 58 ski-related fatalities recorded in Summit County over the past 10 years, only five autopsies have been performed. That's in stark contrast to coroners in most other counties with ski areas, where autopsies are the standard for most accidental deaths.
The series didn't lead to policy changes at the state's resorts, but it did bolster the Daily's vigilance in reporting on skier deaths and injuries.
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