Mountains of death: Industry officials, lawyers, speculate on common denominators but can’t agree on a cause | SummitDaily.com
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Mountains of death: Industry officials, lawyers, speculate on common denominators but can’t agree on a cause

Jane Reuter

SUMMIT COUNTY – Sixteen skiers died on Colorado slopes this year, a record dating back to 1963 and the inception of Colorado Ski Country USA, which keeps track of skiing-related fatalities.

Ten of those 16 people suffered a fatal injury after skiing into trees.

But beyond that common thread, ski area officials say there’s little that appears to link the deaths. (Ski Country USA does not track health-related deaths, or fatalities that occurred outside ski area boundaries). Ages of the victims ranged from 7 to 65; they were skiing on beginner to expert runs. Most were not wearing helmets, but at least one man – who died of head injuries – was wearing one.

Six of the 16 deaths occurred at Vail Resorts-owned ski areas, among them one at Vail, two at Breckenridge and three at Keystone. Vail spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga said resort officials have studied those accidents extensively.

“Our understanding is that in each of the trauma-related incidents across our resorts, there was a loss of control followed by collision with a fixed object – tree or snow,” Ladyga said. “Time of day, conditions, ability levels, ages, terrain – all varied. It ultimately comes down to personal responsibility.”

Theories surrounding the record death toll run the gamut. Summit County Coroner Dave Joslin, who was called to ski area medical centers several times this season, said, “It’s a consensus of opinion between me and my deputies that the less-than-premium snow conditions could have contributed to skier deaths in Summit County.”

Some ski shop owners say overcrowded slopes are forcing people into tighter spaces. Others speculate better equipment gives people an added sense of security, encouraging them to take greater chances.

Attorney Linda Chalat believes low snowfall helped drive those death tolls to record highs.

“We had 16 deaths this year, and the second highest was in 1998-99, and that was also a dismal year for snowfall,” said Chalat, a partner in Denver’s Chalat Law Offices, a high-profile law firm that takes on ski accident cases. “I think there is a correlation. Poor snowfall tends to result in icier patches. Most fatalities do occur on intermediate slopes because people have a stronger sense of security than on more challenging slopes. They hit the ice patches and unfortunately have catastrophic collisions with trees, man-made objects or other skiers.

“Those cases are tragic, but they are the result of the inherent risks of skiing,” Chalat said. “There’s no action to be made against the ski area. It’s an element of the sport that people need to be aware of. Perhaps the message should be skiers should be aware that with the variations in snowfall and thus variations in conditions, they need to heed those changes so they can always remain in control.”

Heather Fowle, communications manager for Ski Country USA, doesn’t buy into Chalat’s snowfall theory.

“That’s speculation,” she said. “There’s no evidence that supports anything like that. It’s totally unfortunate, but there is no rhyme or reason why there were so many fatalities this year.”

As to overcrowded conditions, Ladyga also points out that many of the Vail Resorts fatalities occurred on runs that were nearly empty. Several of the ski areas also have added terrain in recent years, she said.

No matter the reason or lack of fault, Ladyga said Vail Resorts plans to strengthen its helmet recommendations during the 2002-2003 season.

“One thing that will change for next year is our position regarding helmets,” she said. “We will strongly recommend the use of helmets for children ages 12 and under who participate in our ski and snowboard schools across our four resorts. To that end, any parent not wishing for their child to wear a helmet while in ski and snowboard school will have to sign a release.”

The death of a helmetless 7-year-old girl who hit a tree during an Aspen Highlands ski lesson was only part of that decision, she said. That fatality did prompt Aspen Skiing Co. to require helmets for all children ages 12 and younger enrolled in a ski school lesson.

“We had been discussing it for some time prior to that incident,” Ladyga said. “I think as a result of that incident and the fact that the majority of kids in our ski school classes today are already in helmets, it really is time to take that extra step to prevent head injury.”

Greg Guras, owner of A Racer’s Edge ski shop in Breckenridge, says helmet use is on the rise, but not dramatically.

“It’s a single to low double-digit increase each year,” he said. “I think it’s a helmet sport. I would probably say that without helmet use, those numbers (of skier deaths) could be higher. What about all the people that go into the trees with helmets and walk away?”

Eli Robertson, owner of Silverthorne’s Virgin Islands Ski Rental, agrees.

“It makes sense to wear a helmet when you’re riding a bicycle, it makes sense to wear a helmet when you’re skiing,” he said. “It is a larger percentage than it used to be. It’s still far removed from the majority, but it’s a growing minority.”

He believes changing equipment has made some skiers risk-takers.

“They feel more in control, and as a result, can take a bigger risk,” he said. “To me, (the record deaths are) because people are doing more dangerous things. It’s not because the sport is more dangerous or there’s less snow.”

Jane Reuter can be reached at 668-3998, ext. 229, or by e-mail at jreuter@summitdaily.com


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