Skiers realize the worst can happen to anyone

Most travelers don’t think about it when they get on an airplane, but once in a while they crash. Most skiers and riders don’t think about a fatal accident. That would kill the buzz.

Fortunately, it doesn’t happen often. But flying is safer than skiing. The chances of being in a plane crash are about one in 11 million.

According to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), during the 2007-08 season, 53 fatalities occurred out of the 60.5 million skier/snowboarder days reported, which pencils out to .88 per million visits.

Justin Cottrell, 33, a skier from White Swan, Wash., died last Saturday after hitting a tree at Silver Mountain Resort. A scan of this newspaper’s archives shows it to be the first fatal accident reported at a local ski area since December 2001, when a skier hit a light pole at Mt. Spokane traveling an estimated 30 mph.

Three other men have died at local ski areas in 10 years – one at Silver in March 2001 and two at Schweitzer in February and December 2000. Like Cottrell, these skiers lost control on groomed runs then collided with trees.

Fatalities around here are few and far between compared to a region with heavy traffic like Colorado, which had a record 17 fatalities out of 5.5 million visits last season.

“No one in the industry likes to talk about that stuff, but skiing is a high-velocity, high-impact sport,” said Dan Edwards, director of the Mt. Spokane Ski Patrol. “You can catch an edge, get off balance. It only takes a blink of an eye.”

Nationally, men 18-35 make up the majority of deaths. Most are caused by a high-speed collision with a tree. Contrary to what one may assume, most fatalities happen on green or blue runs. In winter, accidents typically happen after lunch, when snow is scraped and icy. In spring the pattern may reverse as snow is hard and fast in the morning, then softens in the sun.

Industry officials say skiing remains statistically safer than many other outdoor sports, including cycling and swimming. Every resort operates safety programs and enforces slow zones.

Given the patterns, what more can ski areas do to minimize deaths? Not much, short of cutting down all the trees. Guests are personally accountable. It says so on the back of the lift ticket.

“Trees are a big part of skiing,” said Pat Stimpson, a patroller at Mt. Spokane. “If mountains were bald, it would be boring for everybody. Speed is the issue. I don’t know if even wearing a helmet is going to save you if you impact a frozen tree at speed.”

Another factor may be gear. Improvements that have made equipment easier to use may have some people skiing or riding beyond their ability. Beat-up gear is also risky.

“You want to make sure your gear is appropriate to your ability and in good condition,” Edwards said. “And it’s so important that people take lessons and learn the safety issues before they cut themselves loose on the slopes.”

Veteran glade skiers know that the skinniest tree can hit you like a sledgehammer. Stimpson once came to the aid of a man who broke his femur hitting a tree. It could have been worse.

“If that guy hadn’t been with a buddy who had seen him crash and gone for help, he probably would have died,” Stimpson said. “You should always ski with a buddy and pay attention to each other. Anywhere on the mountain you can be one turn away from really hurting yourself.”

Bill Jennings can be reached at snoscene@comcast.net

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