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As media screams ‘Death on the Slopes,’ numbers target the story

Ski patrollers at Crystal Mountain in Washington are speculating that a skier who has been missing on the mountain for more than a week may be the season's latest tree well tragedy. Is this part of a scary new trend, or have the real numbers been under-reported for years?

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Ski patrollers at Crystal Mountain, Washington are speculating that the skier who has been missing for more than a week on their mountain could be North America’s latest NARSID, or Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Death. In layman’s terms, that means that local skier Paul Melby, 40, could be the sixth snowsport enthusiast this winter to die by suffocating in a tree well.

“That’s just what I am assuming right now,” Crystal Mountain ski patrol director Paul Baugher told SNEWS® about his theory that Melby is presently buried somewhere in the glades of the mountain’s High Campbell area. “It’s one of the only ways I can explain how a pretty big guy could go missing for so long when so many people are out there trying to find him.”

With more than five feet of fresh snow falling on the mountain since Melby disappeared, the search for him was suspended at the end of the day on March 6th, 2011. It won’t be resumed until the spring, when the snow melts. That means that if Melby is actually dead, and if and when his body is found, the cause of death could still remain a mystery.

What is no mystery is that across the West and Pacific Northwest, there have already been five confirmed tree well deaths this year. The media began to take notice when two of the victims died at Whitefish Mountain Resort within almost a week of each other, between Dec. 29, 2010 and Jan. 8, 2011. Even more publicized was the fact that four of the confirmed victims were snowboarders — part of a spate of 15 off-piste snowboard deaths that have occurred on North America’s slopes since Christmas day.

In an op-ed titled ‘Death on the Slopes,’ the San Francisco Chronicle’s Tom Stienstra writes that “This outbreak of snowboard deaths and accidents has made safety the leading story this winter at mountain resorts,” and later that “watchdog groups,” are looking at ways to “perhaps, close freelance runs off course that are created by young boarders.” Stienstra went on to say that the accidents had left “A trail of death” in “the Western United States and Canada.”

He wasn’t alone either, as several mountain and mainstream media outlets picked up on the story. But as snowsports professionals such as Baugher tried to make sense of why so many deaths — in particular deaths of young men, as all but two of the victims were males between the ages of 15 and 29 — occurred in such a short span of time, in the big picture it is not clear if the deaths are all that out of the ordinary.

“It is tragic, and it is something of an anomaly,” Dave Byrd, the National Ski Areas Association’s (NSAA) director of education and risk said of the deaths. “But the numbers do change from year to year, and there are fluctuations where we may see a blip or a cluster.”

So far this season there have been 41 deaths recorded in-bounds on North America’s slopes. The industry averages 39 deaths a year, and on any given season has seen fatalities drop to 22, and soar into the 50s. As Byrd points out in regards to the snowboard accidents, most of the deaths occurred during the holiday break, when almost all of the victims would have been on vacation from college or high school. Add in variables such as an unusually deep snowpack across the West, a potentially record number of riders on the slopes, and the fact that most snowboarders are young men known for taking more risks than the general population, and you can remove at least some of the mystery.

But Byrd cautions that NSAA won’t draw any conclusions until the season is over. He said, “It’s obviously important for us to collect data on this as an industry, and have outside academics look at that data, for us to really understand what the issues are.”

According to recreation law attorney James Moss, better reporting on the cause of on-slope fatalities could be rapidly changing how the issues are perceived as well. Said Moss, “It used to be that everybody died of a head injury. But now everybody is getting autopsies, and the result is that we are getting a lot better information now.”

Specifically, that means that more head injuries are being reported as “blunt force trauma,” encompassing injuries to the entire body. And more people who in the past would have been reported as “hitting a tree,” might now be found to have actually suffocated in a tree well.

Baugher, who has become the industry’s expert on tree well deaths through exhaustive research on the topic, said the number of fatalities has stayed consistent, averaging about 3.5 per season over the past 30 years. But he adds that the new levels of accuracy in reporting could drastically change how the danger is mitigated in coming years. Said Baugher, “It’s hard to tell just how much attention this got in previous years. A lot of times it was reported as a kid hitting a tree, because trees account for 65 percent of snow immersion fatalities. The rest are in terrain trap situations, or when someone falls face first into deep, unconsolidated snow.”

Baugher keeps working to increase the knowledge of the risk, with posters, signage at ticket windows, a website at, and the encouragement of a regular buddy system for riders hitting the glades. But he thinks his most effective tool for preventing future deaths might very well be how the present accidents are reported in the media.

“When the media picks up the story it really raises everyone awareness all over the mountain, especially when they show the footage of people out searching for somebody,” Baugher said. “On the last day of our search this week, the owner’s son saw a little kid ski into the trees and go upside down, and he and another guy were right there to pull him out. I think if they hadn’t known what to be looking for, instead of one person, we might have been looking for two.”

–Peter Kray

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