Death on the slopes: Across West, number of ski fatalities, injuries uncertain with lack of public data or oversight
Kevin Fixler is a reporter for the Summit Daily, a sister media organization of the Sierra Sun’s based in Frisco, Colo., serving the great Summit County, Colo., area.
FRISCO, Colo. — On the afternoon of Jan. 24, 2015, first-year Air Force cadet John “Jack” Lindsey took off down the hill with a few of his fellow Airmen for another run at Keystone Resort.
The 18-year-old Louisiana native was just into the start of his second semester at the military academy in Colorado Springs and the early stages of his engineering degree.
He was in the middle of some downtime, as part of the SnoFest military ski weekend, when his poles plunged into the snow of the intermediate Elk Run.
Maybe it was testosterone, a touch of teenage one-upmanship, or the thrill of a friend’s dare, but on just his fourth day on skis the certified private pilot and former football defensive back had accepted the challenge of keeping pace with a more experienced member of his foursome.
Others on the slopes and on the lift that Saturday would later say they watched as the two zipped down the run at significant speeds when suddenly one lost control and slammed directly into a lift tower.
Although he was wearing a helmet when he collided into the padded structure, and although area ski patrol quickly rushed him to the on-mountain medical center, Lindsey’s internal injuries proved too severe.
“You can imagine,” said Gail Lindsey, Jack’s mother, “losing Jack was just about back-breaking, especially in the way that we lost him. He was not a daredevil, and he never ever considered flying to be anything but glorious, not risky or dangerous.
“He saw it as an adventure, and I think he saw skiing the same way.”
Each year, snow sport participants die or are seriously hurt at ski resorts across the country, but just how many is difficult to pinpoint.
Unlike the automobile industry, or to a lesser degree theme and water parks, there are no specific requirements for the reporting of injuries and accidents at the nation’s ski areas.
As a result, say critics, this massive, multi-billion-dollar winter industry operates with very little oversight and minimal responsibility to the millions of patrons it serves annually.
“They definitely know how many accidents and injuries they have,” said Dan Gregorie, founder of the SnowSport Safety Foundation. “It exists, but only within the ski resorts. Lawyers advise them to keep incident reports, but not to disclose them and to only have them internally. And there is no documentation of what safety practices they are, or are not, using.
“The reason is you don’t want to know something you don’t want to do something about.”
Because the individuals who die at the resorts aren’t consistently recorded anywhere, they’re not even officially a statistic.
Gregorie, a board-certified internist, established the San Francisco-based nonprofit SnowSport Safety Foundation not long after his 24-year-old daughter Jessica died in a snowboard accident at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort in 2006.
Today, his organization operates under the mission of improving ski area safety through resort disclosure of safety practices and providing the public access to reliable data.
When a negligence lawsuit against the Northern California resort was thrown out by both a state and circuit court of appeals on the basis of the state’s law shielding ski areas from litigation, Gregorie found a state legislator to write and pass a bill mandating more transparency and safety standards in the industry.
The bill passed the state house, twice, but was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010, and then by his successor, Gov. Jerry Brown, the following year.
Gregorie and his foundation have now turned their focus toward public awareness campaigns to create the change he deems so necessary.
His goal is to produce the type of revisions in the industry that might help prevent some of the innumerable severe injuries and fatalities that happen each year by furnishing more statistics to people to make more informed decisions about where they ski. People like Jack Lindsey.
“People who said that they saw him said it looked like he tried to get down to stop or whatever,” said Lindsey’s mother. “But he was going so fast that even when he got down he hit that ski-lift pole. Some people have said, after he hit the pole, people yelled down, and it looked like he tried to get up, then he just kind of crumbled back.”
The National Ski Areas Association, the Lakewood, Colorado-based association for the country’s owners and operators, releases a specific figure every year. Last year, it was 53.9 million, as in the number of skier visits for the 2015-16 ski season.
Colorado Ski Country USA (CSCUSA), the trade group that represents 22 of the state’s resorts, though none of the four Colorado Vail Resorts properties, releases its own figure annually as well. And it estimates that Colorado totaled more than 13 million rider days this past season, accounting for approximately 24 percent of the nation’s visits.
What neither offers, however, are complete stats related to the totals for deaths and critical injuries at their partner resorts. A spokesman said CSCUSA does not tabulate or store ski area injury reports, but does have death counts from trauma-related episodes that occur inbounds. It provides those to the public upon request for the current ski year, but offers no historical data.
“It’s not something we do,” said CSCUSA’s Chris Linsmayer, noting no deaths have occurred at partner resorts so far this season. “We don’t provide a historical look back, it’s not something we release publicly. When incidents happen, it’s very sad, and they’re pretty well reported by the media generally at the time.”
Gregorie’s bigger gripe is that no numbers are made public for the injuries, nor evidence of each resort’s particular safety management plan. If no proof is ever given of such a strategy, consumers are simply left to believe they exist and are being followed.
“The ski industry is not engaged in systematic safety management,” said Gregorie. “In fact it’s avoided it, quite frankly. Management decisions are basically driven by their lawyers and the liability concerns their lawyers have. They tell them don’t document it so there are no standards they can be held to. And, as I know from my time in the medical industry, if you don’t have a good process, you can’t get good outcomes.”
Keystone Resort, owned by Vail Resorts and the location of Lindsey’s death, did not respond to a request for information about its safety protocols or what kinds of records it keeps pertaining to on-mountain incidents.
But the Summit Daily obtained a copy of a Keystone incident card, on a 3-by-5 notecard, and the information recorded is succinct.
Both Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and Copper Mountain Resort responded with internet links to safety precautions and tips for guests, but nothing of their own duties, and said incident reports were internal documents not released publicly. Loveland Ski Resort and Arapahoe Basin directed follow-up questions to CSCUSA.
NOT FADE AWAY
Even if organizations like the trade associations released injury and fatality stats, often those data sets rely heavily on what each resort is willing to share.
And, as Dick Penniman, a Lake Tahoe-based ski safety and avalanche expert, argues, they’d still be incomplete, because they don’t account for deaths that occur off-site, or injuries that go unreported because someone judges it doesn’t necessitate immediate care — only those that require an emergency room visit or in-patient hospital admission.
“Those stats don’t count deaths that occur off premises, or that occur days later,” said Penniman, who worked at California resorts for decades before joining Gregorie’s foundation. “And accident report forms are very nontechnical — they don’t identify mechanisms of injury, patrollers aren’t trained to diagnose, and they often don’t actually say what the injury is, just the symptoms.
“So the data resorts keep, it would actually be difficult to ascertain all the necessary details.”
The skier advocacy group may still pursue legislative measures to force ski areas to be more forthcoming with data related to injuries, but believes it must occur at the state level rather than in Washington, D.C., or with an agency like the U.S. Consumer Products Commission, which monitors temporary amusement parks like carnivals and county fairs, but not fixed sites like Disneyland and Busch Gardens.
The thought is the process is difficult enough in state assemblies, and the lobby groups that represent the resorts are even stronger at the national level. Eventually it’s also the hope a resort will go rogue and recognize the value of divulging its safety record.
“It’s much more likely state by state,” said Gregorie, “and hopefully there’s a local legislator in Colorado who would love to make a reputation with the public that they’re looking out for public safety. And at some point, one of these resorts is going to break rank, and they’ll see safety as a potential competitive advantage. A good executive who’s thinking will go that direction, because we aren’t going away.”
Similar to California, Colorado has a law, the Ski Safety Act, that insulates resorts from liability in most cases, and lends immunities to them in the case of a death or serious injury.
That doesn’t prevent the incidents from happening every year — however many there are. During the 2015-16 season, the state saw six die at Summit County resorts, and nine overall, according to Westword. One of those was 27-year-old Jay Taylor, who died on the same run at Keystone as Jack Lindsey nearly a year to the day.
“I tried to call Jack (that day), but he didn’t answer,” said his mother. “Then later I tried to text Jack, and he didn’t answer. So when the doorbell rang at 10:30 at night, I thought that was kind of strange. The minute I saw those two Air Force guys walk in, I knew. I knew because I was so close to Jack, and I knew that he wouldn’t not respond to my text or phone calls.
“I have nightmares about two things,” she added failing to hold back tears, “those two guys showing up at my door at 10:30 on a Saturday night, and thinking about Jack hitting that pole and trying to get up. I think to myself, ‘Did he know he was dying, was he afraid?’ Those things make it hard to sleep, but … my nightmare is did he know, in those last moments of consciousness, did he think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m dying’?”
There is such a thing as loving a place to death, and with the growing masses visiting Lake Tahoe every year, overtourism is a top issue.