Last week, there were three deaths on the ski slopes in Vermont. In all three accidents, at Jay Peak, Mount Snow and Sugarbush, the two skiers and one snowboarder were skiing on groomed runs when they fell and slid off the trail into a tree.
While it tremendously sad when someone dies while skiing, it is important to view the overall safety record of skiing. You are far more likely to have an accident on the way to the slopes than on the ski trails.
The National Ski Area Association reports the rate of fatalities is .78 per million skier/snowboarder visits. In the 2010-11 season, there were 60.5 million skier visits, and 47 ski related deaths, less than 1 in per million. On our roads, 160 people die per million drivers, according to the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (there are an average of 92 fatalities on U.S. roads daily). Compared to the sport of skydiving, skiing is ten times safer, there are approximately 30 deaths from skydiving per 3 million jumps annually (10 per million).
Just like driving, there are ways to improve your personal safety on the slopes. Skiing within your ability is a big one. When you are cruising down a ski trail, you need to think “if I were to catch an edge and fall right now, would my momentum carry me into the trees?” If the answer is yes, you need to bring it down a notch, or three. You should always be able to control your speed and stop to avoid an obstacle, another skier, or a tree - which never moves out of your way by the way.
At least two of the three fatalities last week were wearing helmets. Of course, it is hard to argue that helmets do not make you safer when skiing, but helmets have their limitations and are generally rated for impact of about 15 mph. The average skier skis at speeds of 20-35mph so the helmet may not save you in a collision with a solid object, like a tree or lift tower. Among the 47 ski deaths last season, 21 were wearing a helmet. As one ski patroller told me, “People should always ski as if they are not wearing a helmet.”
I hear often from fellow skiers that helmets are a lifesaver, but I worry that skiers perceive their helmet as the ultimate safety device, which it is not; it is merely a layer of protection. As Dr. Jasper Shealy indicates in his 30 years of ski safety research, “There has been no significant reduction in fatalities over the past nine seasons even as the use of helmets overall has increased to 57 percent among skiers and snowboarders. This trend emphasizes the importance of not increasing risk-taking behavior simply because you are wearing a helmet. Skiing and riding in control is essential in improving slope safety and reducing fatalities.”
With today’s perfectly groomed wide boulevard style trails, skiers and snowboarders can ski at very high speeds. You need to be mindful at all times that an unexpected change in surface conditions or a collision, or just losing control of your ski or board, can cause a high speed fall and impact.
So slow it down, ski within your ability level, always be able to stop, look up before entering a trail or pushing off, avoid the skier below you, and don’t ski too close to the side of the trail. Skiing continues to be a relatively safe sport, and you can control a large degree of your safety on the slopes.
Photo by Greg Burke
Eric Wilbur is a lifelong recreational skier who spends most of his winter and spring in the mountains of New England. He does not ski in jeans. You can read more of Eric's work here.
Heather Burke is an award winning ski journalist with over a decade of ski news coverage. As a former ski instructor and a ski parent, she knows the ski biz from the inside out. She and her family visit New England ski resorts, as well as the West and Canada, to report on the latest trends and their best family finds. Her husband Greg takes all the accompanying photos, and their work can be seen at www.familysktitrips.com and www.luxuryskitrips.com.