Experts say some fatalities can be prevented

March 29, 1992|By Royal Ford | Royal Ford,Boston Globe

CONCORD, N.H. -- Last week, an 11-year-old boy was killed when he went off a ski trail and hit a tree -- the fifth person to die while skiing Vermont's slopes this season. Last month, a 16-year-old boy was killed in virtually the same way in New Hampshire, the season's first fatality in that state.

fTC The equipment is better, the trails wider and better groomed -- so why, people ask, do skiers continue to die on the slopes? The experts' answer: While skiing's inherent danger means there will always be fatalities, a little more caution could prevent some of them.

In the 1990-91 season, 28 people were killed in skiing accidents in the United States, according to Ski Industries of America of Fairfax, Va. Yet while not minimizing each death, officials point out that they occurred during about 50 million "skier days" -- a day spent by one skier on the slopes.

Occasionally, skiers are killed in accidents that defy cause or blame. That was the case with 11-year-old Todd Saker of Brookline, Mass., and with 16-year-old Martin Lafoley of Acton, Mass., both of whom were described as good skiers, traveling at moderate speeds on open trails, who fell and slid into the woods.

They were the type of accidents that happen "with no real hazard or collision or fault of anybody," according to Dev Jennings, executive director of Ski New England, a New Hampshire-based organization that promotes the industry.

"We know that there's an inherent risk in skiing," Jennings said this week.

Occasionally, skiers are killed when they venture onto trails far too demanding for their skills. There is no universal system of grading difficulty. Green circles for the easiest slopes, blue squares for intermediate slopes, and black diamonds -- sometimes doubled -- for the expert trails are used on virtually all mountains, but an "intermediate" or even "expert" designation at one resort might rate an "easy" at another.

"A trail in Massachusetts at, say, Wachusett, that's got a black diamond on it might barely be a blue square up in Vermont," said Ford Hubbard, construction supervisor for Sno-engineering Inc. of Littleton, N.H., a worldwide designer and builder of ski areas.

Skip King, a spokesman for Sunday River Ski Area in Emery, Maine, said skiers should note that trail maps warn that designations "are relative to each mountain."

"It's critically important that people understand that what's a black diamond at one ski area might be a green circle at some other place," he said.

But what leads to about 75 percent of the catastrophic accidents, according to Stephen Over, head of the National Ski Patrol in Lakewood, Colo., is people skiing too fast for their abilities and too close to trees to leave room for error.

"Part of the reason people go skiing is for the thrill, the personal thrill that skiing offers, which is speed," Over said, "but the speed that attracts adds an inherent danger."

Indeed, speed and "pushing the edge" are part of the patter when it comes to selling the sport and its equipment.

Trails bear names like Outer Limits and Avalanche. Boots are named "Heat" and "Extreme." Salomon's Force 91S ski is advertised as "not exactly the thinking man's ski" with the promise that "there's a fine line between brilliance and insanity." And Lisa Feinberg, a former U.S. Ski Team member, touts the Head CX6 ski as one that "lets me ski on the edge."

Yet it is on the edge, physically and psychically, that the most danger lies.

"If you don't give yourself enough margin for error, everybody -- gold-medal winner to beginner -- can catch an edge and hit a tree," said Over, who draws parallels between driving a car and ** skiing.

"You can get up to 35 miles per hour real fast on a pair of skis," he said. "And think about what it would be like if you fell out of a car at 35. You wouldn't stop very fast."

And that leads to another parallel, he said, pointing out that the people who are killed skiing tend to be "the same kind of people that drive automobiles too fast -- young males."

Indeed, national statistics show that nearly three-quarters of skiing fatalities occur among males between the ages of 18 and 35.

"These are the people you see looking for room to go fast," Over said, "out where there aren't as many people and where the good snow has been pushed to edges," which is where they will ski, and which brings them that much closer to the trees.

King, at Sunday River, said that catastrophe hits among those who "tend to be skiers who are skiing fairly fast and who don't leave sufficient margin for error."

Many are advanced intermediate skiers. In Maine, for instance, while there have been no fatalities this season, there were a total of four in the past three seasons, "and all of those were advanced intermediate skiers and involving skier error," according to Michael Reynolds, executive director of the Ski Maine Association.

One reason for speed, promoters of the sport acknowledge, is better equipment and wider, better-groomed slopes.

"The equipment makes it easier to turn," said Alice Pearce, executive director of Ski the White Mountains, which promotes the sport at nine New Hampshire ski areas. But she also noted that it allows people to "ski at a higher level of ability than they were able to before."

What that can mean, according to King, is that the equipment "may in fact be allowing you to get away with stuff that you technically don't have the ability to do." He said that skiing lessons are critical for people in understanding and controlling their equipment.

"What it boils down to is that each skier has got to take responsibility for his actions," said Hubbard. "It's just like you and I going out and driving a vehicle."

Ski fatalities "are not always preventable," Pearce noted. "Sometimes it's a very ordinary fall and you can slide too far."

But according to King, the fatalities that are preventable will end only when "skiers recognize their limitations and don't try to push the outside of the envelope."

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