The death of a seven-year-old Florida girl on Monday who skied into a tree at the Aspen Highlands ski area brought Colorado skier fatalities in the 2001-2002 winter to 11, just one shy of the most deaths recorded in the state.
"Sadly, they are tragic accidents and they seem to happen in clusters, but I can't give any reason or trends behind the accidents," said Kristin Rust, spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country USA, which represents 23 of 25 ski resorts in Colorado.
This season there have been four deaths at Aspen Highlands, two at Keystone, one at Snowmass, one at Breckenridge, one at Telluride, one at Copper Mountain and one at Monarch, according to Rust. If another fatality occurs it would tie this winter with the winter of 1997-98 when 12 people died at Colorado ski areas.
Though two skier deaths occurred last winter in Steamboat, none have happened in the 2001-02 winter at the ski area.
"My sense is that Steamboat ski area has a lower fatality rate than other ski areas in the state," Routt County Coroner Doug Allen said.
He said he believes the operations are safer than other resorts in the state.
"I think ski patrol does a good job to keep things in check," Allen said.
More skiers on patrol means the number of skier-to-skier collisions goes down, he said. In Allen's 20-plus years in Steamboat Springs, he said he doesn't recall such an incident causing a death here.
Most of the deaths at the Steamboat ski area, which is five in the past eight years, were head injuries and cardiac arrests, said local paramedic Brian Schively.
"Hitting a tree is probably the biggest one," he said.
Statewide stats draw a similar conclusion. "It's all speed," Schively said. "The more faster and out of control you are, the more damage you do."
But that does not make skiing a dangerous sport, said Pete Wither, who spent more than 30 years on ski patrol in Steamboat and was former head of ski patrol for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.
"In reality, skiing really is a safe sport," he said.
Fatalities will occur, he said. In general, most people on ski vacations ski one week out of the year. The rest of the time they are fairly inactive. That can cause some people to be unprepared when hitting the slopes, increasing the chances of a life-threatening crash.
"But it's really very, very (rare) considering the number of people who participate in the sport," Wither said.
Last year, the rate of fatality was .82 for every million skier visits in the United States, according to the National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood. Those stats showed that ski resorts in America logged 57.3 million skier visits and 47 of those visits resulted in a death.
Twenty-eight of those deaths were men on skis, seven were women on skis, 11 were men on snowboards and one was a woman on a snowboard.
Jim Chalat, a lawyer in Denver who specializes in skier injury cases, said ski fatalities occur mostly to men 18 to 35 years old. That's the same demographic that has the highest injury and fatality rate when driving and when at work.
What's troublesome, Chalat said, is when deaths occur out of those norms.
"A seven-year-old hitting a tree is a very rare occurrence," he said.
Skier deaths this year are about 20 percent higher than the average, Chalet said, and they spread across different age groups.
However, he said the bulk numbers show no conclusions, adding that there probably isn't a singular reason for this season's increase.
Steamboat Ski and Resort spokeswoman Cathy Wiedemer said officials obviously want to prevent skier deaths, "but people are going to get into situations."
"Skiing is a fun, safe, family activity," Wiedemer said. "But there also are inherent risks."
The only way to solve that problem is to educate skiers and riders about safety, such as staying in control and within their ability levels. Officials make sure signs indicating technical terrain are always in place and encourage guests to know a seven-point code on safety.
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