Resort fatalities increased in December

The winter season has gotten off to a fast start -- ski resorts around the West already are reporting more than 100 percent of their annual average snowfall, and it's only January.

But the season also has gotten off to a deadly start: Ten people have died inbounds at ski areas since Dec. 18.

The majority of the victims were young, male snowboarders.

On Jan. 8, a 29-year-old male snowboarder was found dead in a tree well at Montana's Whitefish Mountain Resort. That is the second death at Whitefish recently: On Dec. 29, a 16-year-old skier was found alive but unresponsive in a tree well at Montana's Whitefish Mountain Resort; he was taken off life support at the hospital several days later.

Last Thursday, a 25-year-old female snowboarder was found dead just outside the boundaries at California's Alpine Meadows Ski Area. She had been missing since last Tuesday.

On Dec. 18, a 35-year-old male snowboarder died after dropping off a 40-foot cliff at Colorado's Wolf Creek ski area.

Two days later, a 31-year-old male snowboarder died at New Hampshire's Cannon Mountain.

At Oregon's Mt. Hood Meadows, a 15-year-old male snowboarder died Dec. 22. On Christmas Eve, a 23-year-old male snowboarder collided with a 5-year-old girl and her mother at Hogadon Ski Area, south of Casper, Wyo. The snowboarder and the young girl both died from chest injuries sustained during the collision.

In Whistler on Dec. 25, a 20-year-old male snowboarder, who was reported missing on Dec. 24, was found dead in a creek that had been covered by a snow bridge.

On Dec. 27, a 24-year-old male snowboarder perished after hitting a tree at Southern California's Mountain High ski resort.

The high rate of snowboarder deaths is actually less common than that of skiers, according to Jasper Shealy, professor emeritus at New York's Rochester Institute of Technology who has been studying fatalities in winter sports since the late 1970s. According to the National Ski Areas Association, the death rate for snowboarders is about one-third lower than for skiers. The injury rate for snowboarders, however, is about twice as high as the rate for skiers.

"I expected, along with everyone else, that the death rate in snowboarding would be higher than skiing if for no other reason than the demographic of risk -- snowboarders tend to be young, aggressive males," Shealy said. "So we looked into this. The primary way you die [in snowsports] is that you slide into something -- a tree, for example. Snowboards act like a huge sea anchor, so they don't have the opportunity to slide into objects as easily. Whereas skiers release from their bindings."

In the past few decades, the number of annual ski- and snowboard-related injuries has decreased but the number of yearly ski and snowboard inbounds deaths has remained steady at about 40.

In the winter of 2009-2010, out of the nearly 60 million snowsports participants, 25 skiers and 13 snowboarders died, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Of the 38 people who died skiing or snowboarding at a resort last season, 30 were males. A majority of them were under the age of 40.