The deaths of two skiers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in less than 10 days have drawn renewed attention to the sport’s safety, just as some New England ski areas begin to shut down for the spring.
Skiing and snowboarding fatalities hit a 10-year high during the 2021-2022 season, with 57 deaths reported nationwide by the National Ski Areas Association, a trade organization that represents the ski industry. Experts emphasize that ski and snowboard deaths remain a rarity, and last year’s numbers translate to .93 fatalities for every 1 million skier visits.
Taken together, however, numbers over the past decade show a small but marked increase in the rate of skier fatalities. There were 27 deaths in 2012-2013 (a rate of .47 fatalities per million skier visits), rising to 39 deaths in 2015-2016 (.74 fatalities per million visits), 42 in 2018-2019 (a rate of .71 per million), up to 57 deaths last year.
Nearly 95 percent of the fatalities in 2021-2022 were men, and the majority of fatal accidents took place on “intermediate” or “more difficult” terrain — routes marked with a blue square, the NSAA reported.
Dr. Jasper Shealy, who has studied ski injuries for more than four decades, said men have always made up the “overwhelming majority” of ski fatalities, as have accidents on blue square routes.
But Kelly Pawlak, president of the NSAA, said “there really is no rhyme or reason” behind when a ski accident occurs or turns fatal.
“Speed definitely plays a factor,” she said, “especially if it’s an impact with something like a tree.”
On March 20, John Lapato, a 67-year-old from Shrewsbury, collided with a tree at the Wachusett Mountain Ski Area in Princeton and was found unresponsive by another skier. Lapato had been skiing a black diamond, or advanced, trail shortly before 9:30 a.m., authorities told the Globe.
Days later, on March 25, 15-year-old Christopher DiPrima died in a ski accident at Pats Peak, in Henniker, NH, after hitting a bump and going airborne, then skidding down the slope. DiPrima, a student at Excel Academy East Boston, crashed on the mountain’s Duster trail, an intermediate run his family said he’d completed several times.
In January, a pair of skiers were killed on intermediate trails in New Hampshire. Sydnie Quimby, 15, was skiing at Gunstock Mountain Resort in Gilford when she reportedly slipped off the Derringer trail and collided with rocks and trees Jan. 16. Two days later, Ben Bennett, 21, died after crashing into the woods off Cannon Mountain’s Upper Ravine trail.
Shealy said that in addition to attracting relative novices looking for more challenging courses, blue square slopes tend to be where experienced skiers are able to build the most speed.
“People go faster on the intermediate trails than they do anything else,” Shealy said. “It’s tough to go very fast on a black diamond. [For] the people who like to go fast, a groomed, blue square trail is a cruiser.”
Shealy said experienced skiers often hug the edges of a trail, where the snow is typically better than the carved-up center. But one wrong move can send them hurtling into the nearby tree line at more than 25 miles per hour.
Dave Byrd, director of risks and regulatory affairs at NSAA, said skiing accidents are “fairly consistent throughout the season” and not focused in a single period.
The agency does not analyze accidents by region or by month, he and Pawlak said. But Byrd said there may be more accidents reported over the December holidays and spring break, when more new skiers hit the slopes for the first time.
Most accidents happen toward the end of the day, when riders are tired, Byrd said. He said collisions with trees and man-made structures like snow-guns and light posts are the most common cause of skier deaths.
Byrd said the Northeast’s relatively small mountains mean there’s “less opportunity in New England to ski out of bounds,” and the “aggressiveness of the terrain” tends to be lower than out west.
Still, Josh Thompson, risk management advisor for the Maine region of the National Ski Patrol, said terrain tends to make less of a difference in ski accidents than “speed and situational awareness.”
The NSAA reported that “catastrophic injuries” — those resulting in neurological trauma, spinal cord injuries that can lead to paralysis, and the loss of limbs — occurred across all types of terrain and difficulty levels during the 2021-2022 season. That season, there were 54 such injuries, or .89 injuries per 1 million visits, an eight-year high.
During the 2013-2014 season, 52 “catastrophic injuries” were reported — .92 per 1 million visits. Over the last 10 seasons for which data are available, there were, on average, 44 such injuries annually.
In that same time, the NSAA reported an average of 40 deaths per year, although the rate per million visits has increased steadily. Reported fatalities were .47 per million visits in the 2012-2013 season, a relative low.
“On your blue-square trails you tend to have maybe a lower average ability level, but I still think it really comes down to that personal choice of how fast you go,” Thompson said. He added that he has not seen any trends in terms of when during the season accidents tend to occur.
Thompson said there was “a bubble of new skiers” during the early days of COVID-19, which may have meant fewer experienced riders on the slopes, but that trend did not last as the pandemic waned.
He said ski resorts should, and do, make an effort to inform new skiers of the risks and best practices, but such warnings can only go so far.
“You can have a buyer-beware,” Thompson said. “But it all comes down to personal choice.”
Daniel Kool can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dekool01.