More than 4,100 skiers and snowboarders were transported to Colorado emergency rooms in ambulances or helicopters across 2018, 2019 and the first part of 2020, which is about 10 patients every day of the season.
Chris Arnis was with his crew, carving spring snow on his home hill. It was a good Sunday for the lifelong skier.
It was a little shy of 4 p.m., March 15, 2015, when it happened. Arnis, a ski coach in Steamboat Springs, hit some deep ruts where a speed-controlling fence had just been pulled to prepare for snow grooming that evening. He lost a ski and flew face first into the flats on a run called Rainbow.
He’s been in a motorized wheelchair ever since.
“They pulled the fencing and left these trenches. If they had left those up, I would not be sitting here in this chair playing computer games right now,” the quadriplegic husband and father of two said from his home in Steamboat. “It could have easily been avoided.”
There are many stories like Arnis’ — the tragic recounting of falls and crashes that changed lives in an instant. But they provide little insight into the severity and frequency of injuries at the nation’s 460 ski areas.
Skier safety laws that require skiers to recognize inherent risks in the sport and be responsible for their own behavior have for decades protected the resort industry from large legal settlements and kept the public from understanding how often people are seriously hurt on the slopes.
But new statistics provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment offer a peek behind the resort industry’s curtain. A study of ski-season hospital admissions in 20 mountain ZIP codes shows as many as 55 skiers and snowboarders a day arriving at emergency departments.
Another report shows 4,151 skiers and snowboarders transported to emergency rooms in ambulances or helicopters in 2018, 2019 and the first part of 2020, which is about 10 patients every day of the season.
And a review of CDPHE statistics showed more than a third of the 1,426 skiers and snowboarders admitted to Colorado’s trauma centers in the 2017-18 season required immediate surgery.
“These numbers indicate a significant public health and safety risk that is not being addressed at all in Colorado,” said Dan Gregorie, a retired physician whose Snowsports Safety Foundation has spent 14 years working with lawmakers to push ski resorts to provide more detailed information about safety plans, accidents and injuries. “I can’t think of another recreational activity that generates these kinds of numbers.”
National stats show one major injury per million skier visits
The National Ski Areas Association gathers reports from the country’s ski areas and tracks “catastrophic injuries,” which it defines as “significant neurological trauma, major head injuries, spinal cord injuries resulting in full or partial paralysis and injuries resulting in the loss of a limb.”
Over the past decade, the association has counted an average of 45 catastrophic injuries a season nationwide. The U.S. sees about 55 million to 60 million skier visits a year, so the rate of catastrophic injury is less than one for every 1 million skier visits. That does not include skiers suffering from underlying health issues or resort employee injuries.
Dave Byrd, the director of risk and regulatory affairs for the National Ski Areas Association, declined to comment about the statistics, which he said he was unable to review in depth. Many in the ski industry are reluctant to discuss injuries and steer clear of studies that are not peer-reviewed. But many of the peer-reviewed studies involve injury data available to only a select few researchers.
At least one Colorado lawmaker would like resorts to share injury statistics publicly. Only ski resorts can share numbers that differentiate between injuries resulting from a fall or collision and emergency room trips involving skiers and snowboarders suffering from underlying health issues associated with exercise at altitude.
“I think resorts stand to gain more out of a transparent process than keeping data hidden and out of sight,” said state Sen. Tammy Story, a Democrat from Conifer. “If the industry was more clear about all the things they do to ensure the safety of the public, that could assure the public that when they are on the mountain, that resort is doing everything to protect them. But if resorts are not doing all the things that can be done and it’s jeopardizing public safety, I think that also needs to be known.”
Colorado’s public health data on emergency room visits, emergency transport and admissions to trauma centers show a much higher rate of injury than the industry’s “less-than-one-in-a-million” reports. But those trauma center admissions do not necessarily fall under the resort industry’s definition of “catastrophic.”
Source: Colorado Sun