Newly released data sheds light on rate of traumatic injuries at Colorado ski resorts |

Newly released data sheds light on rate of traumatic injuries at Colorado ski resorts

An estimated 0.01% of skiers sustained injuries that sent them to the hospital in winter 2017-18

Keystone Resort mountain safety employees watch as skiers and riders descend Dercum Mountain on opening day Nov. 6 at Keystone Resort.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

It is widely understood that there are risks associated with skiing and snowboarding. But quantifying those risks is notoriously difficult because there are no specific requirements for reporting injuries or accidents at U.S. ski areas.

Safe Slopes Colorado, a coalition with the goal of increasing safety and transparency at ski areas, recently released a report detailing the number of traumatic snowsports injuries over the course of the 2017-18 ski season. The report includes data from the Colorado Trauma Registry and was compiled by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The report tallies 1,426 injuries that took place at Colorado ski areas and were treated at Level I-III trauma centers from Nov. 14, 2017, to April 15, 2018. A hospital’s designation equates to the level of care it can provide, with a Level I center capable of providing total care for every aspect of injury, from prevention through rehabilitation, while a Level III trauma center, like St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco, can provide assessment, surgery and stabilization of injured patients, among other services.

More than 1,400 traumatic injuries averages about nine for each day of the ski season.

Trade association Colorado Ski Country USA reported 7.1 million skier visits in winter 2017-18 across its 24 member resorts, which do not include Vail-owned mountains. Although Vail Resorts did not release skier visit data for the 2017-18 season, it estimated 5.6 million skier visits at its four Colorado resorts — including Beaver Creek, Breckenridge Ski Resort, Keystone Resort and Vail Mountain — for winter 2018-19. Vail later told investors that skier visits were up 6.8% across its North American resorts that season compared with 2017-18.

So with an estimated 12.3 million skier visits in Colorado during the 2017-18 season, the traumatic injury rate would be 0.01%.

Of the 1,426 traumatic injuries reported, 35% of patients were taken directly to the operating room, and 8% received injuries serious enough for the intensive care unit. Nearly three-quarters of injuries were fractures while about one-fifth were internal organ injuries. As for the cause of injury, 99.4% of accidents occurred due to a fall or crash and 0.6% involved a ski lift.

Ski patrollers hang rope along High Noon trail at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area prior to opening Nov. 9.
Photo from Arapahoe Basin Ski Area

Russ Rizzo, statewide coordinator of Safe Slopes Colorado, called the number of accidents “unacceptable” for Colorado’s ski areas.

Rizzo said the coalition hopes to find more information, such as the nature of the accidents, where on the mountain they happened, the experience level of the skier and whether alcohol or drugs were involved. He said additional information about the accidents could help identify how they could have been prevented and help focus safety efforts at resorts.

Rizzo pointed to the whitewater rafting industry, where accidents are compiled in the American Whitewater Accident Database. He said the coalition hopes for a similar database to be created for ski area accidents.

“That’s what we see as Step 1 is just transparency around the accidents that happen that can help then tailor education efforts,” Rizzo said. “Skiers can be educated which resorts are seeing the most accidents, for example, (which) we think is really helpful information for consumers.”

As a lifetime skier, Rizzo said he wasn’t particularly concerned about safety on the slopes until he started bringing his children to ski areas. He said the coalition is hearing from others who understand the inherent risks of skiing but want to see industry leadership further address safety and to make data-informed decisions.

Based on information the coalition has gathered from polls and community meetings, Rizzo said senior skiers in particular are concerned about safety and what is being done to prevent accidents.

Chris Linsmayer, spokesperson for Ski Country USA, wrote in an email that the trade association works to “centralize and spread a consistent safety message for skiers and riders across the state.”

Linsmayer provided the Your Responsibility Code as an example of industry efforts to promote safety. The code outlines seven safety standards, including staying in control and being able to stop at all times, giving people ahead the right of way, observing posted signs and warnings, and knowing how to load, ride and unload a chairlift prior to using one.

Linsmayer also highlighted some of the association’s recent safety initiatives, including a focus on chairlift safety for children. The association launched its Penny the Lift Safety Penguin campaign last season. The animated video series explains how to safely load, ride and unload a chairlift.

When asked about safety protocols and goals, Breckenridge spokesperson Sara Lococo wrote in an email that Breckenridge and Keystone have staff members that enforce safety on the slopes and educate guests about the skier responsibility code. Lococo added that the resorts “are always looking for opportunities to increase awareness and education of mountain safety and etiquette.”

At Copper Mountain Resort, crews also enforce the skier responsibility code and offer safety classes for violators, Copper spokesperson Taylor Prather wrote in an email.

Prather added that the resort evaluates terrain, signage and the presence of safety support staff on an ongoing basis. She noted that Copper has been recognized by the National Ski Areas Association for its safety campaigns in the past.

In addition to information about the responsibility code, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area’s mountain safety page includes warnings and recommended precautions for extreme terrain. The ski resort asks people not to ski alone in hike-to areas and warns that rescue from these areas is difficult and time consuming.

“Prioritizing the health and safety of our guests is good business,” A-Basin spokesperson Katherine Fuller wrote in an email.

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