Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy both were good skiers who had spent years swooshing safely down the slopes where, within the last week, both slammed into trees and died. Surely, the deaths must be a freak of fate.
In fact, both men fit the profile of those most likely to die or be injured seriously on the slopes: experienced male skiers flying down easy runs. The weather usually is fine. Snow conditions are good. No snowboarder or out-of-control skier has cut them off. Then they smash into a tree or a chairlift tower.
“Unfortunately, a lot of it has to do with stupidity,” said Dr. Jeffrey Hadley, a former ski instructor who researches ski injuries at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Johns Hopkins University.
“When you look at fatalities, it’s almost always on easier terrain than the person, usually male, is used to skiing. It’s not so much that they’re even hot-dogging. They’re just bombing down the mountain, thinking, ‘I’m not even trying to ski because this is a boring, easy run. I just want to get down.”’
During the past 13 years, about 34 people have died skiing each year, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Most are men and most are in their teens and 20s. While some have been lost in avalanches, suffered chairlift accidents or had heart attacks, a significant number have hit trees.
There are many reasons why, ranging from fatigue and visibility problems to speed, overconfidence and plain inattention, researchers say.
Both Bono, 62, the former pop star turned congressman, and Kennedy, 39, son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, were killed on what they’d planned as their last run of the day.
Kennedy and about 30 family members hung back at the top of the Copper Bowl intermediate run at Aspen, Colo., after the last lift had closed so they could have the slopes to themselves for their ritual football game.
Bono raced ahead of his family on the Upper Orion intermediate trail at Heavenly Ski Resort in Nevada.
In the late afternoon, after a long day of skiing, Hadley said, fatigued muscles are burning and don’t respond as quickly. As dusk approaches, the light turns flat and hides bumps, dips and ice patches.
“In flat light, a bump can come up, or a slight change in pitch, and you don’t even see it and you lose your balance,” Hadley said. “You may be trying to recover, but if you’re still moving down the hill and not in control, it may be too late. You may face-plant on a tree.”
At the end of the day, mental fatigue sets in as well. “Maybe you’re thinking too much about that first beer,” he said, “and not paying enough attention.”
With the publicity of these two high-profile skiing deaths turning a spotlight on ski injuries, the ski industry has been quick to point out that in 1995, 716 people died in boating accidents, 800 bicyclists were killed and 89 people were hit by lightning.