Mountain News: Lack of transparency cited in ski-area deaths 

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BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — In the last decade, 137 people died in accidents at Colorado's ski resorts, the Summit Daily News reports. But having sifted through many records, the newspaper finds a "lack of transparency" by ski area operators and those who purportedly regulate them.

"As a rule, ski resorts do not furnish statistics on injuries or fatalities, and the trade associations that represent them aren't much more forthcoming," the newspaper said in the opening of a three-part series.

"News outlets scramble to report on ski deaths as soon as they catch word, but those stories are often incomplete and without context... The public is largely kept in the dark on the safety records of the state's resorts."

Summit County, home turf for the newspaper, has four ski areas that collectively host 4.3 million skier visits, about a third of Colorado's annual business. The county's 58 deaths at ski areas represent 40 per cent of Colorado's totals.

Nearly all ski areas in Colorado operate on federal land, but the Forest Service does not track information about fatalities or injuries.

Colorado Ski Country USA, the dominant state trade group (Vail Resorts does not belong), offers little help beyond the current year's fatalities.

The National Ski Areas Association, which is headquartered in Colorado, tracks fatalities and catastrophic injuries for the prior decade for across the United States, but does not break the data down by resort, state, or region and offers no other details on individual incidents.

The Summit Daily contrasts this with backcountry-avalanche deaths. A state-funded group, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, tracks numbers and studies closely and describes the circumstances of each death with reports on its website.

"There's a lot of power in the personal narratives," said Ethan Greene, director of the organization. "If you describe a story of the problems someone encountered, someone else may see elements of what they do, and that may resonate more and help others avoid that situation."

Randy White, a part-time ski instructor in southwestern Colorado, called it a "massive culture of concealment."

Dr. Dan Gregorie, a specialist in internal medicine and founder of the SnowSport Safety Foundation, said the ski industry needs to be pressured as the American automobile industry was in the 1960s.

In Colorado, county coroners are responsible for ruling on the cause of death. But some county coroners see little need for autopsies. In Summit County, only five autopsies were performed in the 58 ski-related fatalities during the last decade.

Why did Air Force pilot fly into side of Gold Dust Peak?

AVON, Colo. — Twenty years ago this month, Air Force Capt. Craig Button and the A-10 Thunderbolt attack jet he was flying crashed into the face of 4,070-metre Gold Dust Peak on a day of softly-falling snow.

Why he flew into the peak, we may never know. The Air Force interviewed 200 people but had to end the report with a question mark.

Button and other pilots had flown from Tucson that day, but Button's plane soon broke from formation. Radar and witnesses saw him near Telluride less than an hour later. Across western Colorado, he zig-zagged toward Aspen, then flew around for awhile more before slamming into the peak at 300 mph. The peak is in the Holy Cross Wilderness, southwest of the Beaver Creek ski area.

The plane's location was unknown for 20 days after Button disappeared. A metre of snow fell at the site after the crash, concealing the wreckage. Conspiracy theories abounded.

What happened? There was much speculation, and conspiracy theorists had a field day, with all manner of plots and interior intrigue. His father — a combat pilot in the Second World War, Korea, and Vietnam — insisted that his son must have suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning. Too little flesh was found to confirm or deny that as the cause.

Instead, the Air Force report suggested unrequited love. And also this: conflicting emotions between learning to kill as a member of the military and the pacifist philosophy of his mother, a Jehovah's Witness.

And what happened to the four 500-pound bombs the plane was carrying at take-off? The Vail Daily said that 58 witnesses told the Air Force that they heard loud explosions in northern Arizona and near Telluride and Aspen, indicating Button may have dropped the bombs in those places.

It took crews most of the summer to pick up wreckage from a square kilometre of Gold Dust Peak. "Most of that (square kilometre) was vertical, not horizontal," said Scott Sutton, of Vail Mountain Rescue Group.

House band going strong

JACKSON, Wyo. — One patron of the Stagecoach Bar has a simple formula for knowing who the locals are on the dance floor. "You can tell when the people on the floor are locals: Nobody bumps into each other," said Horton Spitzer, a long-time rancher in the valley called Jackson Hole.

The bar is located in Wilson, a hamlet about 16 kilometres from Jackson near the turnoff to Teton Village and the world-known Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. The bar opened in 1948 and since 1969 has had a house band — conveniently called the Stagecoach Band — performing on Sunday nights.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide reported that the band now has 2,500 performances under its belt. Only one member of the band, banjo player Bill Briggs, remains from the original ensemble.

For some locals, going dancing at the Stagecoach amounts to religion. "I go to church in the morning and church in the evening," Barb Conitz said of her Sunday rituals.

Snow nothing short of amazing

JACKSON, Wyo. — Meteorologist Jim Woodmencey reports that by almost any snowfall metric, ski season was nothing short of amazing at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

One metric is total snowfall from Oct. 1 to April 1: 1,422 centimetres, second best in the historical record (there are some gaps, though). But in terms of settled snow depth in the ski area's Rendezvous Bowl, this would go down as a record winter, he says.

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