Two weekends ago, twin fatalities rocked the Vermont ski community. The two deaths are the latest in a tragic series of winter sports-related fatalities that have occurred across Vermont this winter season, reminding winter sport enthusiasts across the state and the country of the inherent risk of snow sports.
Kendra Bowers, a sophomore at the University of Vermont (UVM), died in a ski accident in Warren, Vt. on Saturday, Feb. 1st and Torin Tucker, a junior on the Dartmouth College ski team, passed away that same day during a race in Craftsbury, Vt.
According to authorities, Bowers was skiing with friends and family on Saturday morning at Sugarbush ski resort when she lost control at an intersection of two merging trails and struck a trail sign.
Bowers was transported to the bottom of the mountain by ski patrollers and the rushed to the Central Vermont Hospital, where she died roughly an hour after she sustained the injury. According to the medical examiner who performed the autopsy, Bowers suffered a broken neck. The state medical examiner’s office reported that Bowers was wearing a helmet when she sustained the injury.
Bowers, a nineteen-year-old Newport, R.I. native, was a student of environmental studies at UVM, an a cappella singer, and a prominent student who was admired by her peers at UVM and beyond.
Tucker, a 20 year-old ski racer from Sun Valley, I.D., was competing in a cross-country ski-racing event called the Craftsbury Marathon in Craftsbury, Vt. when he collapsed in the middle of the race. Despite immediate resuscitation attempts, Tucker passed away just minutes after he hit the snow.
Later medical reports revealed that Tucker had an undiagnosed heart condition affecting his left coronary artery that induced cardiac arrest during the strenuous 50 kilometer race.
The respective schools of the two skiers have both held memorial services to commemorate the passing of these two accomplished students.
Unfortunately, Bowers and Tucker are not the only ski fatalities this winter in Vermont.
Skylar Ormond, a 23 year-old native of Canandaigua, N.Y., died roughly two weeks before Bower and Tucker on Jan. 17 in a snowboarding accident at Killington Resort in Killington, Vt.
Ormond, who was snowboarding with two friends when the accident occurred, turned sharply to avoid a collision with one of his friends, and careened into the woods, where suffered a significant impact with a tree.
Ormond was transported to the Rutland Regional Medical Center, where he died of internal injuries shortly after his arrival at the hospital.
Regrettably, Ormond was actually the second person involved in a fatal crash at Killington this season. Jennifer Strohl, a 21 year-old from Jim Thorpe, P.A., went missing at the resort on Thursday, December 12th. Her body was found a few feet off of a Killington trail approximately six hours after she was reported missing. Reports indicate that she sustained substantial head trauma and that she was not wearing a helmet.
A 45 year-old New Jersey man named Lawrence Walck also died on Saturday, Jan. 11 at Stratton ski resort after a fatal sledding crash.
This tragic winter season in Vermont is understandably upsetting to skiers and riders across the country. The incidence of winter sport-related fatalities is nothing new in Vermont, however. Skiing, snowboarding and other winter sports like sledding and skating typically involve high speeds and are inherently dangerous.
At mountain resorts that offer winter sporting activities such as skiing and riding, staff members take great care to ensure the safety all visitors. All major ski resorts in Vermont operate ski patrols units that are trained to respond to injuries, crashes and any other crisis situations that may arise on the mountain.
The Middlebury College Snow Bowl operates its own ski patrol unit. Founded in 1946, the Middlebury College ski patrol is headed by director Steve Paquette and assistant director Sean Grzyb and is comprised of highly-trained Middlebury students who have received National Ski Patrol Certification.
At the end of the day, however, there are some situations that cannot be ameliorated by even the most diligent ski patrollers and the most comprehensive safety mechanisms.
A number of factors, including the conditions of the snow, visability, temperature and human eroror contribute to the thousands of ski accidents that occur in Vermont every year.
Despite the improvement of safety technology, the number of winter sport-related fatalities has increased steadily in recent years. A report published by the University of Washington in the spring of 2013 reported that the number of head injuries in young people caused by snow sports increased 250 percent from 1996 to 2010.
A recent article published in The New York Times asserted that an increased use of ski helmets has not curtailed the incidence of brain injuries and death. According to the National Ski Areas Association in a recent report, 70 percent of skiers and riders currently wear helmets — this represents a nearly threefold increase from 2003 — but fatalities caused by snow sports have not decreased.
While some people believe that the failure of increased helmet coverage to curb brain injuries and death on the slopes is attributable to the limitations of even the most advanced helmets to mitigate massive head trauma, others believe that helmets give skiers and riders an artificially inflated perception of their safety, encouraging them to engage in risky behaviors.
Whatever the underlying reason for the continued prevalence of brain injuries and deaths on the slopes, recent events in Vermont provide a harrowing reminder of the importance of safety when participating in snow sports.
The National Ski Areas Association recommends that all skiers and riders adhere to the principles enumerated in a campaign called “Heads Up” that began in the winter of 1999-2000 as an effort to reduce accident frequency by means of education. Their guidelines, applicable to all snow sports activities, are listed in the table above.
According to Steve Paquette, the director of the ski patrol at the Middlebury College Snow Bowl, the single most important step that skiers and snowboarders can take to ensure the safety of themselves and others is to take the time to “know the mountain” and to “find trails that accommodate their abilities.”
As Middlebury students and other snow sport enthusiasts head to the slopes for the remainder of this winter season, please make sure to follow the safety outlines posted, be aware of all conditions that may affect performance and control and take a moment to grab a trail map and review the layout of the mountain.