Summit County records slight increase in skier deaths
Five people have died in Summit County from injuries sustained while skiing and snowboarding this season.
That number is one more than the four people who died from skiing accidents in the 2013-14 season, including three at resorts and one backcountry avalanche death.
Summit County Coroner Regan Wood said the 2014-15 number seemed about normal, if not on the low end, of skiing-related fatalities since she started working with the coroner’s office nine years ago.
She added that the number of deaths seemed to correlate with a below-average snowpack, though it is difficult to draw conclusions about skiing fatalities given their small number.
According to National Ski Area Association data released in October, the ski industry in North America has averaged 39 skiing fatalities a season in the last 10 years.
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The large majority of those occur in Colorado, said Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs for the association, because the state receives a corresponding amount of the industry’s skier visits. To further put Summit’s number of skiing fatatlities in context, Byrd added that Summit County typically records seasonal skier visits on par with the state of Utah.
Skiing and snowboarding, while somewhat dangerous and thrilling activities, remain relatively safe, Byrd said, with a 10-year fatality rate of 0.56 per one million skier/snowboarder visits.
“You’re far, far more likely to die in a car accident driving to the ski area than you are skiing,” he said.
In 2012, according to the National Safety Council, 931 times more people died in vehicle accidents than the average number of annual skier deaths.
The NSAA does not include in its statistics deaths that occur while people are skiing or riding at ski resorts if they are found to be primarily caused by natural factors, like heart attack or stroke. The association also only counts in-bounds deaths.
SUMMIT SKIING DEATHS
In Summit, Wood attributed a decrease in skiing fatalities in recent years to preventative measures taken by local ski areas, including placing more employees on the mountain who encourage skiers to slow down in high-traffic areas as well as closures and warning signs around areas with less safe snow conditions.
Of the eight resort fatalities and one backcountry avalanche death in the county in the last two seasons, all were men between 19 and 60. All were skiing except for one snowboarder, and one of the nine men was not wearing a helmet. Six of the deaths were the result of collisions with trees.
Tree skiing is especially risky, Byrd said, as a recent industry study found that half of all skiing fatalities in the last five years occurred after skiers and riders hit trees.
Two of Summit’s skiing-related fatalities in the last two seasons happened at Breckenridge Ski Resort, one occurred at Copper Mountain Resort and five were at Keystone Resort. No one has died at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area in the last two seasons, though Wood noted that the resort is still open and a fatality there is unlikely but possible.
A Vail Resorts spokesman declined to comment on the fatalities.
Of the five men who died this season, one had recently moved to Summit County, two were Front Range residents and two were from out-of-state.
BROKEN BONES AND COLLISIONS
Shelly Almroth, trauma program manager at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, would not provide any information about traumatic injuries treated at the hospital.
Per Centura Health policy, she said, she referred a reporter to disaggregated state data maintained by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment so as not to give out data specific to the resort community. Other hospitals in resort communities, including the Aspen Valley Hospital, have released information on trauma cases.
Industry-wide, 50 catastrophic injuries have happened on average every year to skiers and snowboarders over the last 10 years, according to the NSAA. Catastrophic injuries include paralysis, broken necks and back and life-altering severe head injuries. They don’t include injuries like broken wrists and twisted knees.
That translates to an average annual rate of catastrophic injury of 0.87 per one million skier/snowboarder visits.
The NSAA noted that the majority, 56 percent, of the 52 people who suffered catastrophic injuries in the 2013-14 season were not wearing helmets when they were injured.
Overall injury rates have been declining over the last 35 years, according to a study released in 2011 by Jasper Shealy, professor emeritus of the Rochester Institute of Technology, who has researched skiing injuries since 1980.
Shealy analyzed suspected injury incidents responded to by ski patrol and found the rate for skiers was 2.5 incidents per 1,000 skier visits in the 2010-11 season, which translated to a 20 percent decline in suspected skiing injuries since 1980. The rate for snowboarders was 6.1 incidents per 1,000 visits.
His study found that collisions with fixed objects have been declining while collision rates with other people have not changed.
Shealy also found that skiers were nearly twice as likely to collide with other people than were snowboarders.
More information about total skiing fatalities this season in Colorado and across the North American ski industry will become available in the summer.
PREVENTING ACCIDENTS AND INJURIES
The NSAA always recommends people prevent serious injuries or death by taking lessons, Byrd said, especially for those who have never skied or snowboarded before or have spent time away from the sport.
People should also wear helmets but understand their limitations, he said. Helmets can help prevent head injuries and reduce their severity, but helmets don’t prevent death, especially when skiers are traveling at high speeds and through trees or on rocky terrain.
Helmet use across North America increased dramatically from 25 percent in the 2002-03 season to 73 percent in 2013-14, and Byrd said helmet use is even higher in the Rocky Mountain region.
Wood said people should ski and ride in control on terrain appropriate for their ability level. She emphasized the importance of athletic training and fitness.
“It’s not just the younger snowboarders skiing out of control. It can happen to anybody,” she said. “Make sure you’re fit and ready to be on the hill.”
She often finds underlying heart conditions that went undetected that cause deaths in Summit and at local resorts, she said. “A lot of people come up here and don’t realize they have hypertension or an enlarged heart.”
Altitude can exacerbate those conditions, especially combined with exercise and alcohol, which is why visitors coming from low elevations should spend a night in Denver on their way to the mountains and should ease into their ski vacations.
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