Non-avalanche snow deaths on the rise

Paul Baugher and Bob Zider have never met. But they are connected by an understanding of the dangers of deep snow. And in a season when a record number of skiers and snowboarders have suffocated in accidents that did not involve avalanches, they have taken different approaches -- from improving equipment to advocating prevention and preparation -- to address a risk they say receives scant attention.

For Zider, the perils of deep snow were suddenly apparent when, in 1992, his 15-year-old son, Chris, fell head first into a tree well and suffocated while snowboarding alone at Homewood Mountain Resort on the west shore of Lake Tahoe, Calif.

For Baugher, the realization took a little longer. Baugher is an owner of International Mountain Guides, ski patrol director at Crystal Mountain Resort in Washington State, and director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute. He first learned of a snow immersion death at a resort in Alaska in 1991 when he defended the ski area in a resulting legal case. Five years later a skier died in a similar manner at Crystal Mountain.

When in 2003 another skier died in deep snow at Crystal Mountain, Baugher began aggregating data on incidences at resorts of so-called Non Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Deaths, or NARSIDs.

"Nobody was even realizing there was more of this happening," said Baugher. "People saw them as random dots that weren't connectable."

Baugher's research revealed that over the past 20 years resorts in the United States have averaged about 3.5 NARSID deaths each winter. He has compiled a database, and this season there have been six confirmed. Baugher believes that a skier who disappeared at Crystal Mountain and so far hasn't been found will be the seventh. Seven people have died in immersion deaths during a season only one other time, in 2007-08.

The National Ski Areas Association, a trade group for ski resorts in the U.S., does not correlate data on immersion deaths. But according to Baugher's data, NARSID deaths this season have accounted for about 15 percent of the roughly 40 fatalities that occur annually at ski areas in the U.S. "The risk of immersion is much greater than the risk of in-bounds avalanche fatalities," Baugher said.

Yet NARSID risks are not well-known.

Deep snow accidents occur off groomed runs at resorts. Tree wells, where a hole forms in the snow around the base of a tree, are particularly deadly. Baugher said two-thirds of snow immersion deaths involve a tree well where the victim has fallen in head-first. "The inverted position is lethal," he said.

Perhaps one reason the risks are not widely known is that snow immersion fatalities tend to be regional. Baugher said none in his database occurred east of the Mississippi River. And although they can occur almost every year, more tend to occur during seasons of heavy snowfall like the current La NiƱa winter.

"Obviously skiing off groomed runs in deep powder is an attractive part of the sport," said Geraldine Link, a spokeswoman for the ski areas association.

Link said the NSAA has focused on increasing awareness through education and signs warning of the dangers of deep snow. "Ultimately it is the skier's or rider's responsibility to be aware of the risks," she said.

Despite being a longtime skier and owning a home in the Lake Tahoe area, Zider said he knew little about the potential dangers posed by deep snow and tree wells.

Today he stresses better education. But he also believes an improved step-in snowboard binding system for easy release in deep snow would increase the chances for some shreds to extricate themselves. Most snowboard bindings require the rider to reach down and manually unfasten the straps.

"I'm an engineer," said Zider, who has invented several products, including Flexon bendable eyeglass frames. "I want to solve it through technology. The simpler, the better."

Zider watched with dismay as the snowboard industry flirted with step-ins during the mid-1990s before consumers rejected them as too expensive, unpredictable and uncomfortable.

So he has sponsored a competition to design a binding that releases easily in deep snow, with $20,000 in prizes. Contest details can be found at a website created for scholarships in Chris Zider's name.

Baugher doesn't oppose a new releasable snowboard binding. "If it was me, I would want to get out of my bindings as quickly as possible," he said.

Still, he stressed that they would not be a panacea for deep snow fatalities. In the last five seasons, only seven of the immersion fatalities involved snowboarders, and 14 involved skiers, all of whom had releasable bindings.

Baugher noted that the best way to avoid deep snow immersion would be to remain on groomed trails. But he acknowledged that it's unrealistic to expect skiers and snowboarders to stay away from powder stashes in trees.

So he suggested bringing a beacon, cell phone, an Avalung and a friend that keeps you in sight at all times to render quick assistance if you go under the snow.

"Most of all, you would want a partner to help," he said, "preferably with a shovel."