Defining our terms
We define ski-related deaths in much the same way the industry does: Any accidental, on-mountain fatality while participating in the sport. Naturally caused deaths stemming from heart- or health-related issues due to poor diet, family histories or possible overexertion at altitude were not counted toward our total because they’re not specifically associated with each resort’s operations. Backcountry skiing deaths, in many cases related to unanticipated snow slides, are left out of our tabulation as well, not due to their insignificance nor unimportance, but because almost all of these incidents are already well-documented by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and largely unrelated to the supervision of managed resorts. We did, however, include those fatalities in out-of-bounds or so-called “sidecountry” areas very near ski areas when it seemed clear the individuals used the resort to get to the designated location that ultimately contributed to their deaths.
Altitude-related, on-mountain cardiac deaths
Colorado has had 137 accidental skier fatalities since the 2006-07 season. At least another 25 on-mountain deaths resulted from altitude-related cardiac episodes. While the link between elevation and heart disease is not well-understood, cardiologists say that thinner air puts more strain on the circulatory system.
“It probably is the case that for anyone coming from low altitude with some underlying degree of heart problems, the stress of the new hypoxia is considerably higher,” said Dr. Erik Swenson, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington. “It’s a big step up for people adapted to lower altitude, and it might be enough of a cardiac stress to trigger a heart attack.”
Combined with aerobic activities such as skiing, that stress can be fatal. Last year, at least two people — both men visiting from lower elevations — suffered heart attacks in Summit County while they were skiing or immediately after, according to coroner’s reports.
“It’s an interesting problem,” said Dr. Warren Johnson, a Summit County cardiologist. “It probably is more stressful because of the altitude when these lowlanders come up to exercise and ski.”
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 died after a collision with another skier and then 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 collided with a tree while skiing; No. 127, Sean Haberthier, 47, after skiing into a tree without 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.