Whiteout, Part 1: Uncovering the human toll of Colorado’s secretive ski industry
Summit Daily News
First of three parts.
It could have been a crisp, winter morning, with the sun showing near the top of the ski lift, or maybe it was lower down the mountain on a biting, blustery afternoon when it happened. It probably occurred between Feb. 16 and March 6. Few can say for sure.
According to the data, the unknown skier was probably a 37-year-old man from the Front Range. More than likely he would have been tearing down advanced terrain at a ski resort in either Summit or Pitkin counties when he hit a tree. Odds are he was wearing a helmet, but statistics suggest he would have been going far too fast for it to do him much good.
Ski patrolers would have rushed to his aid, administering CPR and using a defibrillator in an attempt to revive him. Then, they’d have shuttled him down to a medical clinic at the resort’s base. He could have then been transferred to the hospital, where a doctor would have called the official time of death. And, as is most often the case with Colorado’s ski fatalities, the cause would have been blunt-force trauma to the head.
This narrative closely follows ski-related fatality trends in the state during the past 10 seasons. However, it’s only a guess.
The skier also could have been a woman, a child, a beginner or an expert. Their death could have torn open a void in the lives of grieving family and friends, who might now have more questions than answers. The truth is, the skier’s identity is unknown.
At least 137 people died in accidents at the state’s ski resorts since the 2006-07 season, according to a database compiled by the Summit Daily News. Who they were, where they lived, as well as where they died and what caused it — all of that has been accounted for in each case. That is, with a single exception: the unknown skier, No. 130, a statistic without a name.
In Colorado and across the country, a lack of transparency is the industry standard for skier deaths. Although these events forever stay with the loved ones left behind, reliable facts about on-mountain accidents are difficult to obtain.
INTERACTIVE MAP: Click top right corner to view full-page map, click on icon on the top left for a full list. Zoom in to each resort to see where each skier death occurred on the mountain, and click on the skier/snowboarder icon to learn more about the participant who died on the slopes. Interactive map by Heather Jarvis
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As a rule, ski resorts do not furnish statistics on injuries or fatalities, and the trade associations that represent them aren’t much more forthcoming. News outlets scramble to report on ski deaths as soon as they catch word, but those stories are often incomplete and without context. Some incidents, like No. 130, slip through the cracks altogether. As a result, the public is largely kept in the dark on the safety records of the state’s resorts.
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. But to better understand the human toll associated with Colorado’s winter getaways, you have 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. Records from those offices now comprise a comprehensive catalog of Colorado ski deaths over the past 10 years.
Throughout this series, the data will shine new light on skier death trends, help decipher fatality rates for each resort and offer an in-depth look at why a secretive status quo for the ski industry persists. And by explaining how investigations of ski deaths are conducted — in addition to how state law removes liability for the state’s ski areas and leaves families with few options for legal redress — this series hopes to present a level of clarity about skier safety seldom seen outside of inner circles.
THE DEADLIEST DESTINATION
To find out where the unknown skier died, the recent statistics suggest beginning the search with Breckenridge Ski Resort. With nearly 1.7 million annual visits, the nation’s busiest ski area accounts for five of the state’s 13 ski-related fatalities so far this season — the most in a single winter at the resort.
Had skier No. 130 died there, a member of the resort’s public relations staff, upon being contacted by media, would send along a brief email confirming the death.
“Breckenridge Ski Resort, Breckenridge Ski Patrol and the entire Vail Resorts family extend our thoughts and support to our guest’s family and friends,” the statement would read from John Buhler, the resort’s vice president and COO.
Almost word for word, that quote is one Breckenridge has distributed before, used for each of the five incidents there this season — one in December, January, February, March and April. The same was also true of the four deaths there the prior year.
In 2015-16, they were No. 118, Christopher Dutko, 26, a resort employee who collided with another skier and then struck a tree; No. 122, John Sherwood, 43, also a victim of blunt-force trauma from an accident with another skier; No. 123, David Carr, 32, who snowboarded into a tree; and No. 124, Catie Abeyta, 20, who struck a tree while skiing.
This season, they are No. 125, Kevin Pitts, 48, who struck a tree while skiing; No. 127, Sean Haberthier, 47, after skiing into a tree while not wearing a helmet; No. 128, Ricardo Cohen, 26, after running into multiple trees; No. 133, Tess Smith, 15, who became unresponsive after breaking her leg in an accident where she also hit her head; and No. 137, Logan Goodwin, 12, who hit a stump just this past Saturday and later died from blunt-force trauma to the abdomen.
But the death in question — No. 130 — didn’t happen at Breckenridge. All that the state’s ski area trade group will say on the matter is that it occurred within its network of 22 resorts, of which Breckenridge and the other Vail Resorts properties are not members. Details like the person’s name, age, residence or when the death took place have never been released.
There’s a reason why it makes sense to look at Summit County first when searching for a ski-related incident: Far and away, it is the state’s deadliest county for accidental fatalities over the last decade. And at 21 accidental deaths since the 2006-07 season, Breckenridge is a leader in the state for fatalities, but it’s still not the state’s highest number. That distinction belongs to another Summit County resort.
With 22 inbounds deaths over that same stretch, Keystone Resort has seen the most in Colorado for a single ski area. Based on the resort’s estimated 1.2 million annual skier visits, Keystone is one of the front-runners for fatality rate as well, approaching five times the likelihood of some of the state’s other more popular ski areas.
At approximately 4.3 million visits, Summit County possesses just about 33 percent of the state’s yearly skier traffic, and yet combined with the 11 fatalities at Copper Mountain Resort and four at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area in the last decade, the county represents more than 40 percent of Colorado’s total ski-related deaths. Summit’s 58 deaths are more than twice as many as the county with the second-highest count — Pitkin, site of Aspen’s four peaks, with 24. No other individual county or resort has had more than seven in that time.
All are facts Harry and Lynda Taylor of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, wish they’d have known before their 27-year-old son, Jay, lost his life while skiing at Keystone in January 2016.
“We couldn’t make sense of it,” said his mother, Lynda. “We were totally, totally shocked. And there’s a lot of fallout — physical and psychological fallout — from these deaths within families. It is devastating, it is horrifying, and it’s permanent.”
With more information, maybe they’d have been able to steer Jay, an expert skier who lived in Boulder and loved heading to the mountains whenever he could, to a different resort. They never had the opportunity, and today they’ve become outspoken advocates for openness and accountability in the ski industry.
“I don’t know how they can justify not alerting and informing the public,” said Lynda. “If they’re going to talk safety, then let people know. The problem is the public is not informed, and it’s apparent [the resorts] don’t want those numbers out there so it doesn’t scare the public. They want it to appear like everything is lovely at this family resort.”
‘CULTURE OF CONCEALMENT’
The majority of ski areas are unwilling to release annual participation data — a key metric in assessing risk as it relates to the amount of on-mountain deaths — let alone any numbers on deaths or severe injuries. Moreover, what the trade groups hand over on ski accidents, based on figures shared by the resorts on a strictly voluntary basis, brings little more clarity on what’s happening throughout the state and nation.
Colorado Ski County USA, the group that speaks for most of the state’s resorts, supplies the current winter’s tally for member-resort fatalities, but offers up no other specifics about the incidents, citing privacy issues. Historical numbers aren’t provided either, the group states, because each incident already receives adequate coverage in the media.
The National Ski Areas Association, headquartered in Lakewood, publishes an annual snapshot on fatalities and catastrophic injuries from skiing and snowboarding that goes back 10 years across the country’s 460 or so resorts. Despite being labeled “comprehensive” and “transparent,” the data is not broken down by resort, state or region, and offers no other details on individual incidents.
“I don’t believe the numbers are accurate. They’re underplaying it,” said Dr. Dan Gregorie, founder of the SnowSport Safety Foundation. “If you use certain numbers, you damn well ought to be able to justify them. You can’t quote stats that you’re then not able to show.”
Gregorie, a board-certified specialist in internal medicine, founded the nonprofit soon after his 24-year-old daughter, Jessica, died in a snowboarding accident near Tahoe, California, in 2006. Through his San Francisco-based organization, he aims to increase ski resort transparency and injury prevention standards, not unlike the pressure put on the American automobile industry in the 1960s. He notes that the U.S. Forest Service, which grants 40-year permits to the ski areas that operate on federal lands, does little in the way of oversight.
Indeed, while the U.S. Coast Guard compiles annual statistics on recreational boating injuries and deaths based on accident reports, no state or federal agency fulfills that role for the ski industry. The Forest Service’s role is to license the resorts and collect annual fees. However, it does not track nor require the release of ski-related stats to the public. Ultimately, no independent review exists for a sport that the local trade association estimates is a $5 billion yearly boon to the state’s economy.
That’s in stark contrast to statewide and national organizations that closely follow backcountry avalanche deaths and maintain a detailed online archive for public reference. On average, six people die in Colorado from backcountry slides each year — about half as many as at the state’s managed resort areas. One group has made it a mission to provide as much detail as possible about each incident.
“There’s a lot of power in the personal narratives,” said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “If you describe a story of the problems someone encountered, someone else may see elements of what they do, and that may resonate more and help others avoid that situation.
“Without understanding the nature of the problem,” he added, “it’s hard to know how to address it and what sort of effort is reasonable.”
The individual ski areas keep injury logs and fatality counts internally. How each uses that information to evaluate safety procedures and mitigate risk, though, is confidential.
“It’s a massive culture of concealment,” said Randy White, a part-time ski school instructor in southwestern Colorado who advocates for improving resort safety trainings and practices. “This business about data actually goes a layer deeper, because if they were transparent with information and the ski areas took it upon themselves to make it safer, something arises called a standard of care. They don’t want that to emerge, because they’d have to live up to it and would be more legally vulnerable.”
Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin separately declined to participate in this series, and forwarded the Daily along to Colorado Ski Country USA. Aspen Skiing Co. did not respond to requests for comment.
Broomfield-based Vail Resorts Inc., owner of Breckenridge and Keystone as well as Eagle County’s Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek Resort — all together amounting to 40 percent of the state’s deaths over that decade’s time — also declined multiple requests to discuss the topics of safety and ski area policies, or make any of its internal materials available. Instead, the company issued an emailed statement.
“The safety of our guests and employees is our top priority,” wrote Jim Jonas, director of corporate communications. “We are deeply committed to extensive skier safety programs and rigorous employee training to help prevent skiing and snowboarding incidents and injuries at our resorts. Any loss of life at our resorts is a tragic reminder to all of our employees to encourage safe skiing and to persistently seek safety improvements.”
In 80 percent of resort fatalities, the victim is both a man and a skier, and he’s usually in his late-30s. In one in five cases, it’s a snowboarder, and on average he’s closer to 29 years old. Based on the research, the best guess is that No. 130 is a male skier. Estimating where he might have died requires another well-guarded set of data.
Through past visitation data assembled from resort master plans for the many Colorado ski areas permitted through the U.S. Forest Service, as well as up-to-date regional and state approximations given to the trade associations, one can calculate approximate rates of incidence per resort and county.
The industry likes to say these fatal accidents are one-in-a-million events. In Colorado, with an estimated 13 million annual skier days in 2015-16, and an average of 12 deaths per year the past decade, that’s not far off. In reality, the numbers show it varies significantly from region to region and resort to resort.
Pitkin County, where Aspen Skiing Co.’s Aspen Highlands, Aspen Mountain, Snowmass and Buttermilk are located, has the highest rate of fatality for a single county in the state, at about one in every 600,000. Summit is not far behind in second, at about one in every 735,000.
No other county with more than one ski area and 1,000,000-plus annual skier days meets that one-in-a-million measure, and the data shows no conclusive pattern related to the amount of skiable acres at a resort or its difficulty of terrain, which is also not a standardized classification across the ski industry. Eagle County’s Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek Resort combine for a death once every 2,000,000-plus skier days, or slightly less than one per season.
Wolf Creek Ski Area in Pagosa Springs has the state’s worst fatality rate, roughly one in every 360,000 skier days. With an estimated 250,000 annual skier days, the Mineral County resort, in southwestern Colorado, amounts to less than one death per season, and stands at seven since the 2006-07 season.
Aspen Highlands, at one death in every 480,000 visits, comes in second. Keystone is third, with an average of two casualties per season and one fatality in every 545,000 skier days. Eldora Mountain Resort in Boulder County, which had a death earlier this season, and Snowmass round out the state’s top five, at one death for every 550,000 and 575,000 skier days, respectively.
Although these mortality rates may seem low for a sport known for its inherent risks, they are significantly higher than the industry’s estimates. Six of Colorado’s other ski areas break that one-in-a-million threshold, too.
However, none of the resorts with the state’s highest fatality rates claim knowledge of No. 130, and emails to the state’s other ski areas have revealed no additional clues on the unknown skier, who is thought to be the sixth death of the current season.
“What we have right now is very bad public policy,” said Gregorie. “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.”
To find that data, you have to turn to the state’s county coroners, elected officials whose only requirement for holding the position are a high-school diploma and clean criminal record.
In the next installment of this series, we will examine why Summit County, the state’s deadliest ski destination, has called for only five autopsies relating to ski deaths over the past 10 years, when it is considered the standard among coroners across the state to conduct such exams on most accidental fatalities.
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