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Why Some Skiing Deaths Don't Make the Official Tally

There’s a grim certainty that comes with the start of a fresh U.S. ski season: Inevitably, for a tiny number of those who take the slopes, winter fun will end in deadly tragedy. Counting just how many perish in accidents is a job that falls to the skiing industry itself, and the tally stops short of trying to reflect each and every death on skis.

The statistics compiled by the National Ski Areas Association exclude a range of deaths, including those that happen outside commercial ski slope boundaries, those who ski after normal operating hours, victims of heart attacks on the slopes, participants in competitions, and ski area employees who die on the job. This means that Ian Lamphere, 35, who died while skiing in Colorado this April, didn’t make the count. Nor did the four snowboarders who died with him.

The group was out of ski area boundaries when an avalanche claimed their lives at Loveland Pass. Dave Byrd, the NSAA’s director of risk and regulatory affairs, contends it was the sort of activity that doesn’t represent risks assumed by the typical consumer. “Those were backcountry hot-rodders who were pushing the envelope,” he says.

Over the past decade the NSAA’s count has averaged 39.6 annual snowboard and skiing deaths in the U.S., or 0.69 deaths per million skier visits. Even with steadily increasing helmet use, the number has jumped around—25 deaths in the 2012-2013 season; 46 the season before; as few as 22 seven years ago—with an unknown number of ski-related fatalities left out. The Lakewood (Colo.)-based trade group for ski area operators and owners believes that excluding certain deaths better reflects the average recreational experience.

“It depends how you want to define skiing,” says Byrd. “We’re trying to provide the public the truest sense of the risk of skiing at a ski area.”

In addition to the deaths the NSAA knowingly excludes, an unknown number aren’t quite noticed. Someone might hit his head in Utah, think nothing of it, and then die of a blood clot a week later, back home in Boston. “I can’t imagine that happens more than one time every three or four years,” Byrd says. A death such as that of actress Natasha Richardson—who in 2009 fell skiing in Quebec and then died in a New York hospital—would count if such an accident occurred in the U.S. because rescue crews were involved; they track outcomes.

The self-policing of the ski business has drawn closer scrutiny this year. It follows a series in the Denver Post that showed how ski patrolers at resorts—and not law enforcement—are the ones responsible for documenting accidents, including the circumstances of skier deaths, despite potential conflicts of interest.

As they hit the slopes this winter, recreational skiers can at least be aware that the industry is behind the statistics. “That’s who is keeping the records,” says Evan Banker, a partner at Chalat Hatten Koupal and Banker, a Denver-based law firm that specializes in ski law. “Consumers are not well represented in the public debate when it comes to ski safety.”

For its part, the NSAA will be taking steps to make better sense of its own safety numbers: Byrd says the trade group is planning to hire a statistician.

Silver is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Rome, and author of The Lost Chalice: The Real-Life Chase for One of the World's Rarest Masterpieces (HarperCollins). Follow him on Twitter @vtsilver.

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