Anatomy of a ski death WHITEOUT: PART 2

The Summit Daily investigates how the Summit County Coroner's Office handles skier fatalities

By Kevin Fixler

Part 2 of a three-part series. Click here for part 1.

Kristine Gustafson wakes up each morning with the same thought: What really happened on Jan. 12, 2017?

Late in the afternoon on a chilly but clear powder day, the Centennial resident, her close friend Sean Haberthier and three other skiers were standing at the top of Breckenridge Ski Resort’s Peak 8 Contest Bowl. They stopped to take a break and appreciate the near-perfect conditions they had marked with fresh tracks the whole day. They all agreed to meet at the bottom of the E Chair before a final run to the base.

Always the first one down, Haberthier was a conspicuous no-show, an instant red flag to the group. Calls to his cellphone went unanswered, and his friends began to worry.

The 47-year-old lived to ski, for years making the 5 a.m. drive up to Summit or Vail from Denver most days during the winter to pursue his passion. It was not out of the ordinary for Haberthier to eclipse well over 100 days each season.

The day before Denver resident Sean Haberthier, right, died after colliding with a tree at Breckenridge Ski Resort, he and close friend Kristine Gustafson skied together for nearly the last time. April 12 marked the three-month anniversary of his death. (Photo courtesy Kristine Gustafson)

“You had to pry him away from it,” said Gustafson. “He approached it almost like a job and never missed a powder day. He’d bring his lunch with him and would get antsy if anyone he was with even had to go to the bathroom because he wanted to get every single moment in on the day.”

When Haberthier collided with a tree on the Lower Boneyard run that Thursday, he became the third skier to die at a resort in Colorado this season — No. 127 overall since the 2006-07 season.

To his friends, though, he wasn’t yet a statistic when they alerted ski patrol of his disappearance that evening. Final evening sweeps of the mountain found nothing, and officials from the resort and the sheriff’s office suggested he might have headed into town to join the annual Ullr Fest revelry. Haberthier’s friends braced for bad news.

Sixteen hours passed in the frigid cold before a search party finally found Haberthier’s remains the next morning in a tucked-away stand of lodgepole pines. A 4-inch gash ran across the back of his head, which the coroner would later assign as the cause of death, despite his friends still having questions.

“It’s been hard on all of us,” said Gustafson. “I just can’t explain the feeling of him being there one second, and then us standing at the bottom waiting, with my gut telling me to go back up and look. They tell me he died on impact, but what if he didn’t? What if he was just unconscious and something could have been done? The thought of him being out there all night by himself, it’s shattered me.”

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.

Front lines

At least 137 people have died skiing at Colorado resorts since the 2006-07 season. More than 40 percent of those deaths occurred at one of Summit County’s four ski areas, among the most heavily trafficked winter sports destinations in the nation. Over the past 10 years, Summit County has seen 58 ski-related fatalities — far more than any other county in the state.

So far this season, Colorado has recorded 13 ski deaths. Five of them, including Sean Haberthier, happened at Breckenridge Ski Resort, one of North America’s most popular ski areas.

By volume, Summit County’s Regan Wood is one of the busiest coroners in the state, if not the country, when it comes to ski death investigations. She’s on the front lines of every fatality in the county, observing firsthand the trends behind the tragedies — the overdoses, the suicides, the altitude-related heart attacks.

Summit County Coroner Regan Wood has been the office's deputy since 2008 and took over as its lead in January 2015 after running unopposed for the elected position. Annually she sees the most ski-related deaths in Colorado and, as a matter of office policy, opts to perform almost no autopsies on those cases. (Photo by Ben Trollinger)

However, Wood holds an elected position that largely flies under the public’s radar. In Colorado, coroners are not required to have a medical background. The only qualifications for making a run at the office are a high school diploma, a clean criminal record and one year of residency in the county. It would seem that politics has little to do with investigating deaths. And, for the most part, that rings true for Wood.

“I’m the least political elected official you’ll ever meet,” she said. “I do not like politics, I like death investigation. My passion lies with my families. Politics is a sideline of the job.”

Not unlike other mountain town residents, Wood has worn many hats since she moved to Summit County 25 years ago to ski. She slung lift tickets at Copper Mountain Resort; volunteered for the Advocates for Victims of Assault, a group she eventually ran; and, in 2008, started on a new career path as a deputy coroner.

Coroners and their deputies are charged with determining the cause and manner of death. They do this by reading the signs on the body, studying the environment where the deceased met his or her end, obtaining toxicology tests, taking scans, securing medical records and interviewing family members. Often, the coroner calls for an autopsy, a procedure conducted by a medically trained pathologist. It is the gold standard for death investigations, according to experts.

It’s a job for someone with a strong stomach, and Wood dove into it headfirst. The position became her life’s calling.

Although state law requires only minimal training, Wood binged on internships, courses and certifications. Eventually, when her mentor left office, she put her name in the hat to take his place. Running unopposed as a Republican, she took the oath of office in January 2015.

Still a devout skier, she prides herself on getting out on the mountain at least three times a week. But, given a swelling county population and increasing popularity of Summit’s resorts, there’s been a rising tide of ski fatalities, and Wood has had to make even more trips to the resorts each winter.

Wood is confident that she investigates each case thoroughly.

However, of the 58 ski-related fatalities recorded in Summit County over the past 10 years, only five autopsies have been performed. That’s a stark contrast to coroners in most other counties with ski areas. And in deaths where an autopsy was not called, Colorado’s open records law significantly narrows the amount of available public information.

‘A LONE RANGER’

By the time Sean Haberthier was found at approximately 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 13, his body was so hardened from the overnight freeze that he’d have to thaw out so a physical exam could be completed.

For a skier or snowboarder at a resort to have a serious accident and not be immediately attended to is abnormal. In a typical case, ski patrollers, certified in emergency medical care, are alerted, arrive quickly and attempt to save the person’s life.

When Wood responds to the scene of a fatality, she tries to understand the circumstances of the death by interviewing witnesses. For Haberthier’s accident, there were none.

After concluding the manner of death as accidental, the body is moved to the morgue and a series of tests, including X-rays and CT scans, is conducted. In this case, each assisted with understanding just how serious a blow to the head Haberthier suffered when he slammed into a tree.

To help determine someone’s cause of death, the county coroner has at her disposal forensic pathologists to perform autopsies. From board-certified medical examiners to researchers for the National Institutes of Health, the postmortem exam is considered a hallmark of diagnosis. It is used to definitively come to scientific conclusions by closely analyzing a decedent’s body and internal organs.

However, state statute grants considerable freedom to coroners for whether to call for the procedure. According to National Association of Medical Examiners standards, autopsies are required in particular types of deaths, including car crashes, aircraft accidents, drownings, electrocutions and fatalities associated with police activity. Ski accidents don’t make the cut, but many coroner’s offices still order autopsies in those cases.

“They should all undergo an autopsy with rare exception,” Dr. Jim Caruso, Denver County coroner, said of ski deaths. “Most accidental deaths of any sort should be autopsied.”

Caruso is an uncommon breed in Colorado. He is the only coroner required to be a forensic pathologist. Denver, along with Pitkin and Weld, are Colorado’s only three counties to do away with the elected system for coroner in favor of appointing an individual with an established medical background.

“I wouldn’t have taken the job otherwise,” said Caruso, adding that because he’s neither elected nor deals in politics, “I have no reason to make decisions based on non-medical factors.”

Meanwhile, in the state’s other counties with ski resorts, the data shows an autopsy is conducted on those who died in a ski-related accident between 70 percent and 100 percent of the time.

But taking a page out of the book of her two predecessors, Wood calls autopsies on a very small number of ski deaths. Instead she relies heavily on her instincts and instruction as a certified death investigator, rather than conforming to the norms followed by the majority of her peers across the state.

Crossed wooden skis are part of a memorial that hang from a tree at the intersection of the Lower Boneyard run and Frosty's Freeway at Breckenridge Ski Resort in tribute to skier Sean Haberthier, who died at the location on Jan. 12, 2017. (Courtesy Kristine Gustafson)

“I feel we do a good job investigating accidental deaths and doing a comprehensive investigation, taking it all in and asking all the questions,” said Wood. “We’re not here to do autopsies for medical curiosity.”

For many of the state’s coroners, though, the autopsy isn’t about intrigue. It’s about ensuring a higher level of certainty.

“Even though a death may look obvious due to trauma, I always want to know if that may have been induced by outside influences,” said Emil Santos, coroner of San Miguel County where Telluride Ski Resort resides. “We almost always find something that could be considered a contributing factor in someone’s death. (We) don’t want any surprises.”

Routt County Coroner Rob Ryg, a 15-year vet of the area Steamboat Ski Resort calls home, agreed. He cited the example of a 40-year-old San Antonio woman who plummeted 25 feet to her death from a chairlift in December at Ski Granby Ranch — where the cause and manner both appeared obvious — and yet neighboring Grand County still opted for the postmortem procedure.

“Often I know what happened, but … I’m just going to do an autopsy,” said Ryg. “It’s better to have a pathologist to say he did not have a heart attack, he died of this. It’s just a lot cleaner and a lot simpler that way.

“I don’t know what the response would be for not doing more autopsies,” he added of Summit. “They’re kind of a lone ranger.”

Wood said she often doesn’t see the need.

“I can’t speak to what their thoughts are,” Wood said of her fellow state coroners. “It’s their office policy. I’m comfortable with ours. And why are we spending taxpayers’ money when we have obvious cause of death? That’s why we’re trained as death investigators.”

An autopsy costs the county roughly $1500.

‘Clear cause of death’

During the weeks following her best friend’s death, Gustafson could hardly eat or sleep. She had too many unanswered questions about Haberthier’s death. Three months later, she still seeks closure.

“It’s haunted me, because I was 100 feet from him and I could have hiked back up,” she said. “These are the questions as friends that we just don’t understand. He was such a good skier, and I’ve seen the guy get out of some hairy situations, so can’t imagine him hitting a tree. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Harry and Lynda Taylor, who lost their 27-year-old son, Jay, in a ski accident at Keystone Resort almost exactly a year before Haberthier died, said the experience with those who handled his body, including the county coroner’s office, couldn’t have been worse. They said they received few answers to inquiries about his death, were actively discouraged by Wood’s then-deputy coroner from having an autopsy, and Jay’s preference of organ donation was overlooked. They assumed they were dealing with personnel with medical backgrounds.

“Because how often do you deal with a coroner?” asked Lynda. “And that’s the sham of it all, with a skeleton in their office, and all the posters and other photos. You ask medical questions, and come to realize they never even referred them up the chain as they might have.”

Having taken the advice not to obtain an autopsy, but with so many questions about how their expert skier son may have died, the Taylors regret not getting a second opinion before having his body cremated, forever eliminating the option. The pain of not knowing doesn’t go away.

Because she was not next of kin to Haberthier, Gustafson was unable to petition for an autopsy to better understand what may have ultimately killed her friend that day. When she pressed Wood after the fact because of conflicting reports she received from ski patrollers over the nature of Haberthier’s injures, she was repeatedly told that blunt-force trauma had already been determined the cause.

“I want to know if he was still alive after he hit,” she said. “They said for sure he died instantly, but I can tell you the following two weeks after wouldn’t have been as hard if it wasn’t for that unknown. Why not do an autopsy? I don’t get it.”

Wood explained it this way: “When I have a decedent with a crushed skull, I have a pretty clear cause of death.”

In the third and final installment of this series, we’ll detail what a family goes through when they lose a loved one on the slopes. We’ll also explore the extremely limited legal options that exist for families seeking redress against an industry that is largely exempt from liability.

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