Spike in Skier Deaths Raises Safety Issues

Seventeen people have died in skiing accidents in Colorado alone this year. Kirk Siegler of member station KUNC hears that improvements in equipment may have some on the slopes skiing above their level of ability, raising safety issues.

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The ski season in Colorado has been a deadly one. Seventeen people were killed while skiing in that state alone. For comparison, look back to last season, only slightly more people died on ski accidents in the entire United States.

Kirk Siegler of member station KUNC hit the slopes to find out what's behind the increase.

KIRK SIEGLER: I'm skiing down the Mozart run here at the Keystone Resort. And Keystone really exemplifies, well, your typical Colorado destination resort. It's a pretty gentle and well-groomed mountain, this run being no exception. And for that, though, the bulk of ski accidents occur every year on runs just like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKIING)

Unidentified Man: Gentlemen, I'm going to head down the front first?

SIEGLER: Skiers line up and have their tickets scanned before getting on a high speed lift to the top. Keystone's smooth, well-groomed slopes can get crowded with people skiing fast. Many of this year's accidents in Colorado involved skiers hitting trees on the edges of groomed slopes, others just crashed on them after losing control.

Skier Annette Baylog(ph) says the spike in deaths has definitely caused her to reflect on the dangers of the sport.

ANNETTE BAYLOG: So, yeah, I think it's sad, but I'm not so sure that - you know, I've not given the sport up, I'm skiing the way I've always skied.

SIEGLER: Baylog is skiing with a friend from out of town and both are wearing helmets. These days, a lot of skiers and boarders do, but that hasn't resulted in the drop in injuries or fatalities. Some of the skiers who died this season were wearing them, some weren't. And further complicating things, some skiers were young, others were old, some experienced, and some not. This has experts scratching their heads.

GREG DITRINCO: You know, skiing and boarding are inherently risky sports. And that's part of the buzz and that's part of its appeal.

SIEGLER: Greg Ditrinco is editor at Ski Magazine in Boulder. He points to a number of factors: snow conditions, crowds, and perhaps most importantly, the evolution of equipment in the last few years.

DITRINCO: The improvements in ski gear, essentially, shorter, wider skis make people better sooner. And that, probably, I would say, is one component of people perhaps skiing faster than they formerly did.

SIEGLER: The ski industry has downplayed this season's rise in fatalities, calling them tragedies, but anomalies.

Geraldine Link, public policy director for the National Ski Areas Association, says skier deaths fluctuate drastically from one year to the next.

GERALDINE LINK: They've increased in one state in one season. And so, actually, the answer of why have it - the fatalities increased? They haven't. They've actually stayed incredibly stable over, say, the last decade.

SIEGLER: Here are the statistics. Last year, only 22 people died on the slopes in the U.S. In 2001, 47 people died. And back in 1997, 26 people died. The industry is quick to note that there were millions of skiers in each of those years. That's why Link doesn't expect resorts will act in a knee-jerk manner after a year like this one and start enforcing mandatory helmet laws, or limiting the number of skiers allowed on the slopes.

LINK: And we've heard some suggestions from people that you enforce speed limits at ski areas. And I'm picturing, you know, having ski patrollers out there every 50 yards with radar guns or something. I don't think that's the answer. Skiing is a sport of freedom.

SIEGLER: The industry says there's only so much a resort can do anyway to make the slopes safer.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAIRLIFT MOVING)

SIEGLER: Back at Keystone, at the top of the summit express chairlift, Joshua Burgess(ph) of Fort Collins, Colorado is adjusting the bindings on his snowboard.

JOSHUA BURGESS: It is a dangerous sport, you know, I mean it's right on your lift ticket. It's what you got, you know, it's at your own - ski at your own risk, you know.

SIEGLER: Skiers and boarders like Burgess are glad to hear that resorts won't be turning into police zones. But resorts in Colorado say they will take a second look at safety and speed enforcement after such a tough season like this one.

For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler in Denver.

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