Another tragic death on the slopes

Every season it happens: skiers and snowboarders die on the slopes. Unless it’s a celebrity like Sonny Bono, Michael Kennedy or Natasha Richardson, most people rarely hear about these deaths.

Yet on average, according to the National Ski Areas Association, about 39.8 people die skiing/snowboarding each year in the United States. That’s not a high fatality rate considering 57.4 million skiers and snowboarders visited the slopes last year. Statistically, it comes down to .68 deaths per million skier visits.

During the 2008/09 season, there were 39 deaths. Thirty of the fatalities were skiers (19 male, 11 female) and nine of the fatalities were snowboarders, (8 male, 1 female). 

In New England this season, at least four skiers and snowboarders have died. Last week, two skiers were killed (both wearing helmets) at Sunday River in Maine after hitting trees.

Two of the people killed this season were from Connecticut. On Christmas Eve, Alex Westphal, 20, left, of Cheshire, died of massive internal injuries when he collided with an immovable object at Killington resort in Vermont. Westphal hit an object like a pole or a sign post. Minutes before he died, Westphal e-mailed his parents a photo he took from Killington’s summit.

The most recent was Saturday when Edd Hendee, a 33-year-old private equity dealmaker from Greenwich, right, died at Stratton Mountain in southern Vermont. Like many other deaths Hendee, a 2006 Harvard MBA grad, with Starwood Capital Group, skied off a trail and struck a tree.

According to the Bennington Banner, at about 11:10 a.m., Stratton Mountain Rescue and the Ski Patrol responded to a report of a man down on the expert North American trail. The Ski Patrol arrived within two minutes to find Hendee on the groomed trail in cardiac arrest, police said. Resuscitation efforts on the mountainside and at the resort’s Carlos Otis Medical Clinic continued for more than 50 minutes, but were unsuccessful. Hendee was the father of three small children.

Winhall, Vt. police said that Hendee had been skiing with a friend and they had been together at 11 a.m., just before skiing down North American. Hendee was considered by family and friends to be an expert skier and was last seen alive at the top of the trail.

The day after Hendee’s death, the Rev. Fred McLachland of Chapel of the Snows, across the street from Stratton, led a moment of silence in memory of the Greenwich skier. It was the first time the stunned congregation heard about the death.

According to friends who spoke with the Greenwich Time, Hendee had separated from his buddies around 11 a.m. after they got off the lift and they were not able to see the accident.  Authorities are doing an autopsy to discover what else could have led to the tragic sudden death.

Local police said he was not wearing a helmet.

But would have wearing a helmet helped? In Hendee’s case it’s questionable because he received chest injuries. Westphal, the Cheshire snowboarder, was wearing a helmet, but died of internal injuries.

Helmets do provide some protection, but won’t help you if you strike an object at high speeds. Among the 39 fatalities last season, eight of those who died were wearing a helmet.

According to Jasper Shealy, professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., who has studied ski related injuries for more than 30 years,  helmets help prevent minor concusions and scalp lacerations.

But one problem, Shealy said, is that skiers and snowboarders travel at high speeds, typically faster than bicyclists or football players who also wear helmets. A high-speed impact with a tree is “such a massive event from an energy point of view that it would take more than a helmet to save lives,” Shealy said.

Another issue with helmets is providing a false sense of security. Shealy’s study clocked the speed of 650 skiers and snowboarders on a Vermont slope. It showed on average that skiers and snowboarders wearing helmets go 3 mph faster than people without helmets, Shealy said.

Dr. Stewart Levy, a Denver-based neurosurgeon and father of two, helped launch a successful helmet-loaner program in Colorado called “It Ain’t Brain Surgery.” In an interview with CNN, Levy said he’s done a study that looked at cases from 1998 through 2005. He says helmets reduced the risk of brain injury by 75 percent.

“A helmet does not prevent all brain injuries and other types of injuries,” Levy cautions. “So you still have to ski responsibly. A helmet is not a license to ski recklessly.”

Helmet use, however is rising, up 12 percent the previous season according to  the 2008/09 NSAA National Demographic Study.

The study found:

77 percent of children 9 years old or younger wear ski helmets;

66 percent of children between 10 and 14 wear ski helmets;

63 percent of adults over the age of 65 wear ski helmets;

Helmet usage by skiers and boarders aged 18 to 24 is currently 32 percent, representing a 78 percent increase in usage for this age group since the 2002/03 season, when only 18 percent wore helmets.

In Hendee’s and others’ deaths, few know what circumstances lead to these tragic accidents. Skiing too fast? Skiing of control? Poor snow conditions?

If anything these deaths can gives us pause to think about safety and pushing our limits. Using good sense, good judgment and respect for others can go long way to make ski trails safer and help protect us from injuires … or death.

With this in mind, it’s a good time to review the Skiers Responsibility Code. Follow it and you’re chances of staying safe on the slopes improves dramatically.

Always stay in control, and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects.

People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them.

You must not stop where you obstruct a trail, or are not visible from above.

Whenever starting downhill or merging into a trail, look uphill and yield to others.

Always use devices to help prevent runaway equipment.

Observe all posted signs and warnings.

Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas.

Jim Shay