This season has been off to a rocky start in many ways. Many resorts have been dealing with the lack of snow across the nation, as well as an increase in fatal crashes.
Ski resorts all across the country have been in a drought. This winter has been exceptionally dry of late, and on top of it, areas have seen more and more traffic.
So far, there have been at least 14 in-bound ski-related deaths at resorts all across the country. Major areas like Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Jackson Hole, Mt. Hood Meadows, Eldora, Alta, Palisades Tahoe, and even Fernie Resort in Canada, have experienced crashes that ultimately resulted in a loss of life. Most of these accidents have happened on predominantly expert (steeper) runs where the skier lost control and couldn’t stop themselves.
Due to the lack of snow, many resorts are still experiencing early season-like conditions. In many instances, runs have hazards such as rocks, logs, stumps, and baby trees that can catch someone off guard. This can cause an unsuspecting skier to catch an edge, lose control and end up sliding, sprawled out down the hill or into a tree. A skier at Copper Mountain recently passed after impacting with a rock. Another accident at Jackson Hole took place after the skier caught an edge and lost control, causing them to slide down towards a cliff and take a fatal fall.
In a TV interview, Craig Gordon with the Utah Avalanche Center said that in the current conditions, caused by the recent dry spell, a small crash can become catastrophic.
“These are unusual snow surface conditions for us in Utah, particularly going into the second and third week of February. Right now, the snow’s surface conditions are super variable. They’re hard in some places, they’re icy in other places on steep slopes. It’s very hard to stop yourself from falling once your skis, your board, your snowmobile is knocked out from underneath your feet. A small crash can become catastrophic on the icy, unforgiving slopes.
Our snow surface conditions aren’t quite as soft and forgiving as we normally expect this time of year. So maybe it’s time just to temper down our objectives, pump the brakes a little bit, and size up some of the situations that we’re getting in so that we can enjoy a great weekend out in our amazing mountains.”
– Craig Gordon
There have also been multiple collisions between skiers and riders that were fatal. With snow being so limited, some resorts have struggled with opening terrain. Less terrain open can lead to busier runs which can raise the potential for human-to-human collisions.
Another factor that may be adding to this year’s increase in fatal crashes is the texture of modern ski gear. Most jackets and pants are made out of lightweight Gore-Tex material. It works great for repelling water and keeping you dry, but this type of material tends to be more likely to slide than wool or textured fabrics. As a result, if a skier ends up sliding down the hill on their back, their jacket will provide a very slick surface upon which their slide could accelerate.
Skiing is a hazardous sport, and as it has grown in popularity, it’s important to remember to enjoy time spent on the mountain safely. When entering technical terrain, it’s essential to be aware of your surroundings, the conditions, and how the terrain may impact your fall.
Ski Patrol monitors and closes runs, putting hazard signs up to warn skiers of potential dangers. The coverage is not as good as it usually is this time of year. It’s always best to know your limits and stay within them, as well as skiing with a friend or two. Not only should you be aware of conditions, but learning how to safely fall by ‘self-arresting’ is super important. For skiers that will be sending it down steeper terrain, knowing how to regain control even after falling can ultimately be lifesaving.