Helmets: Not safe at any speed
Skiers and snowboarders who have died at Colorado’s resorts over the last decade are wearing helmets at a ratio of about 2-to-1. The statistic speaks to the limitations of this now ubiquitous safety device. Ski helmets are built and tested to withstand blows of between 12 and 15 miles per hour. Meanwhile, studies show the majority of snowsport fatalities from impacts to the skull with objects like trees occur at about twice that pace. As usage has risen by about 5 percent annually over the last two decades, so too has the debate over whether those wearing a helmet are also willing to take on additional risk based on a false sense of their head gear’s ability to protect them from injury. Research continues to present proven advantages to donning a lid out on the slopes, lessening the severity of knocks to the brain, just not at any speed.
The risks of tree wells
After a major snowfall, frequently early into a ski season, loose, unstable snow can form at the base of trees and present a danger for those who take to traversing the glades. Unlucky individuals who fall headfirst into one of these tree wells can be instantly and fully immersed, suffocating in a matter of minutes. Inverted and with their airway blocked, it’s as if a person who gets caught drowns.
With an abundance of lodgepole pine, Colorado has fewer of these incidents than other locations where the broad canopies of evergreens more often create the makings of these deep-snow hazards. But they do happen, and the data shows five people died from these circumstances — three of them at Steamboat Ski Resort — since the 2006-07 season.
Once you fall in, the snow acts like quicksand, trapping a person even more as they panic and struggle to get free. The National Ski Patrol reports that studies show nine in 10 people who were voluntarily buried in these depressions could not dig themselves out without assistance. Add being fastened to a snowboard or clicked into skis without full use of your legs, and the odds of survival are even slimmer.
To reduce the risk, experts recommend always skiing with a partner when entering the trees so each of you can immediately help dislodge the other if someone falls in. And, if buried, fight the urge to move around violently for fear of sinking deeper. Attempt to remain calm and create breathing space around your face, especially when engulfed headfirst. To prevent the potential pitfall almost entirely, avoid the trees until after December or January when wells are more common due to the unconsolidated snowpack.
Compiling skier-death data fraught with challenges
Ski resorts and industry trade groups have declined to release data on ski-related deaths. That’s why the Summit Daily went to the state coroner’s offices in the 16 counties where ski areas operate to make document requests through the Colorado Open Records Act.
Eventually, that information was compiled into a comprehensive database of accidental ski fatalities over the past 10 years. In the beginning, however, obtaining information from coroners came with its own set of challenges.
The list of impediments for securing these public records, including autopsy reports, ran the gamut from technological hang-ups and exorbitant fees to intimidation tactics. Delays several weeks long weren’t unusual, despite state statute requiring documents be provided within three business days, or 10 total when there are justifiable extenuating circumstances. As the collection process continued over two-and-a-half months, it became clear just how differently each county operates when it comes to release of public records.
In southwestern Colorado’s Mineral County, documents were stored in the home of the coroner, who was away on a three-month vacation when a request was made.
The coroner in Lake County, location of Ski Cooper in Leadville, noted a policy of informing each and every family member of a person whose file was inspected by the public. No other county had such a stance. In Grand County, which includes Winter Park Resort and Ski Granby Ranch, the attorney’s office argued no records existed to meet the request, and if they did, they would include details that could not be released. Eventually, the office met the request.
A quirk in state law that hampers the release of any records kept on a decedent if an autopsy was not performed complicated matters further. Some counties gave that information anyway, while others did not. In the end, however, all known skier death cases were documented.