The Steamboat Ski Area's first on-mountain death in nearly two years is bringing increased attention to skier safety and awareness.
Coincidentally, National Skier Safety Awareness Week begins today, and the ski area is offering a number of free programs for skiers and riders of all abilities.
Mark Joseph Stout, a 45-year-old man from Pennsylvania, died Tuesday after falling headfirst into a tree well. According to autopsy reports released Friday, Stout died of asphyxiation caused by suffocation, Routt County Coroner Rob Ryg said.
"It appeared to be just an accident," Ryg said. "He didn't have any other trauma - he didn't run into the tree."
Stout was skiing with his 15-year-old daughter and friends Tuesday morning when he fell behind the group in Morningside Park on the upper mountain. Ski patrollers found Stout about 1 p.m. near the Cowboy Coffee trail and administered CPR at the scene. He was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
Ski and snowboarding deaths caused by suffocation are referred to as Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Death, or NARSIDs.
Of the five deaths at the ski area since 2000, three can be classified as NARSIDs. According to research conducted by Northwest Avalanche Institute Director Paul Baugher, NARSIDs account for 15 percent of all snowboarding fatalities and 5 percent of skier fatalities. During the 2005-06 season, four of the 10 snowboarding fatalities at U.S. ski resorts were NARSIDs.
Tuesday's tragic accident was on the heels of weekend storms that brought between 36 and 60 inches of new snow to the ski area. Such conditions, although considered ideal for many skiers and riders, also can be the most dangerous.
"When we're in the big snow cycle, people have to look out for each other," Steamboat Ski Patrol supervisor Duncan Draper said Thursday.
Tree wells such as the one Stout encountered in an area laden with conifers are one of the dangers that skiers can encounter after periods of significant snow accumulation.
"Remember that the evergreen trees are not your friends," Draper said. "They're your enemies. The aspens are your friends."
Aspens are safer to ski in because they typically don't have low-lying branches, which can hide tree wells and help them form.
Avalanches in the in-bounds area at the ski area are not as much of a concern because they are mitigated with explosives.
If skiers are venturing into deep snow, Draper advises they carry a whistle to signal for help. Having the ski patrol dispatch phone number programmed into cell phones also is advised. The number is 871-5911.
Draper said skiers need to be aware of their surroundings and be cautious when venturing into unfamiliar areas.
"If you don't know where you're going, don't go there," Draper said.
Skiing with a partner and keeping one another in sight at all times is always advised.
"It's always nice to have someone there in case something does happen," Draper said.
Having a plan in case something does happen or someone gets separated from a group also is important. Draper said people should designate a meeting spot.
"In case you get separated, give your kids a piece of paper with your cell phone number," he said.
Draper said educating visitors and locals about ski safety and dangers that exist in deep snow conditions is an ongoing effort.
"Do I think we need to increase the education?" Draper asked. "We always need to increase the education."
Skiers and snowboarders who want to learn more about slope safety have plenty of resources this week; National Skier Safety Awareness Week begins today.
Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. is using the week to launch its new Park Wise safety initiative, an arm of its overall Slope Wise Safety Program. At 1 p.m. every day through Friday, Park Wise ambassadors will lead guided tours of Steamboat's terrain parks and provide safety information.
Ski patrollers also will join Billy Kidd on his daily run with interested skiers and riders. Meet at 1 p.m. at the top of the gondola.
For backcountry skiers, Ski Patrol will host a backcountry awareness course at the yurt at the top of the Pony Express Lift at 1 p.m. today through Monday. The class is free, but participants need to sign up with Ski Patrol dispatch at 871-5911.
Ski Patrol will screen safety awareness videos and conduct helmet checks alongside autograph signings today through Monday. Ski patrollers also will make visits to local schools and the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.