- Associated Press - Monday, February 27, 2017

BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) - Six people have died on Vermont’s ski slopes this season, an increase over previous years.

Three of the deaths involved resort visitors who were killed in accidents: two in crashes into trees, and one after falling into deep snow, according to a review of public records by the Burlington Free Press.

Two other skiers died of natural causes on the mountain, and a resort employee was killed in a workplace accident.

Ski industry trade associations exclude employee deaths and those involving natural causes from official tallies of fatalities at resorts. Still, the three incidents in Vermont of resort guests killed in accidents represents the highest toll since five people died in the 2013-14 season, according to the Vermont Ski Areas Association. Two people a year were killed in each of the past two seasons.

The small numbers, experts caution, make it difficult to draw statistical conclusions. And skiing and riding remain safe, though risks are inherent in adventure sports.

Most other outdoor recreational activities, such as canoeing, bicycling, swimming and snowmobiling, are more dangerous than skiing. “From the standpoint of fatalities, skiing and snowboarding is far, far more safe than these other activities,” said Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs at the National Ski Areas Association in Colorado.

The most recent Vermont incident occurred Feb. 14 when a 22-year-old University of Vermont student died a day after becoming trapped in deep powder in a section of in-bounds woods at Stowe Mountain Resort. Brett Cohen of Needham, Massachusetts, was missing for hours before rescuers found him. He died later at a hospital.

Cohen’s death brought renewed attention to the issue of safety on the slopes and prompted resorts to offer tips for skiers and snowboarders.

“The deaths are incredibly sad,” said Chloe Elliott, spokeswoman for the Vermont Ski Areas Association in Montpelier.

The association advises resort-goers to wear helmets, never ski or ride alone and to know their limits on the mountain.

Cohen was the second person to die in an accident at a resort in February. Two days earlier, James Meyers, 26, of Toms River, New Jersey, was snowboarding at Killington Resort when he went off the trail and struck a tree, according to the Vermont State Police. He was not wearing a helmet.

In January, Jeffrey O’Connor, 39, of Hampden, Massachusetts, was skiing with his family at Sugarbush Resort when he went off a groomed trail and struck a tree, the police said. He was not wearing a helmet and suffered significant head injuries, according to investigators.

The state police noted in announcing O’Connor’s death that he was survived by his wife and three young children.

The other three deaths - the ones the ski associations exclude from their tallies - occurred in early January and in December, all at Killington.

Resort staff member Jeffrey Chalk of Pittsford was working on the gondola inside the terminal building Jan. 7 when he fell about 13 feet from a catwalk to the cement floor, according to the state police. The 53-year-old longtime employee suffered a serious head injury.

“All of us here at Killington Resort are deeply saddened by the loss of our friend and co-worker,” Killington’s president and general manager, Mike Solimano, said in a statement at the time. “Jeff worked tirelessly throughout his 28 year career to ensure lifts operated safely and reliably. He will be missed by coworkers and guests alike.”

Almost a month earlier, Walter Gorgas, 80, of Wappingers Falls, New York, collapsed on a trail and was pronounced dead. The police said Gorgas’ death Dec. 12 “appears to be a natural event.”

The season’s first fatality occurred Dec. 10, when William Cusano, 65, of Lagrangeville, New York, collapsed and died on a trail, also apparently of natural causes, according to the police.

A spokesman did not return a message seeking comment Feb. 17.

The National Ski Areas Association says it reports only accident-related deaths involving resort visitors because the goal is to characterize the risk of skiing and snowboarding as accurately as possible.

“Putting those risks into perspective and context is critical, especially from a fatality context, because our numbers tend to be low compared to the number of skier visits in the industry,” said Byrd, the association’s risk and regulatory affairs director.

The three deaths in Vermont accidents this year are in keeping with the national rate from last winter of 0.74 deaths per 1 million visits, Byrd said. The National Ski Areas Association defines a visit as one person spending any part of a day or night skiing or snowboarding at a resort. Vermont records about 4 million visits annually.

Nationwide, 39 people were killed in accidents at resorts in the 2015-16 season, according to the National Ski Areas Association. The Lakewood, Colorado-based group compiles the numbers at the end of each ski season.

At Stowe, Cohen’s death was the first on the mountain in several years, said Karen Wagner, the resort’s risk manager and a member of the ski patrol.

“Our hearts are just broken for his family, his friends,” she said.

The death was particularly tragic because Cohen, a senior at UVM, was following the rules and best safety practices, Wagner said. He was snowboarding in bounds. He had a friend with him. He was familiar with the area. But he died anyway.

Cohen was found head-down, buried in snow, in a drainage dip in the woods about eight hours after the friend reported him missing.

His death appears related to what’s known as snow immersion, which occurs when a person falls into loosely packed powder and is unable to move.

“They can suffocate that way,” Wagner said. “People can’t extricate themselves. It’s almost like a mini avalanche.”

Cohen’s death certificate, which the Vermont Health Department released Feb. 22, showed that he died of hypothermia.

The risk of snow immersion is greater this winter, Wagner said, because the snow is deeper than it’s been for a few years.

“In some ways I like woods skiing because it slows people down, but in other ways, there are more hazards in there,” she said. “Anytime you leave the maintained trail, you encounter risks that are obvious and other risks that you can’t see.”

Experts counsel patience and always keeping safety in mind.

Helmet use is key for children and adults, resort associations and workers agree. “Wear a helmet, but ski and ride as if you’re not,” said Dave Byrd of the National Ski Areas Association. The Northeast boasts the highest rate of helmet usage in the country, with 86 percent of skiers and snowboarders wearing them on the slopes during the 2015-16 winter. That compares with a national rate of 80 percent, up from 25 percent in 2002, according to association research.

Wagner offers a host of other safety suggestions:

-Know where you’re going.

-Never go into the woods alone. Going with two or more companions is better, “because if someone is injured, one person can stay with them, and the other can go for help.”

-Carry a cellphone, even though not every location on the mountain has coverage.

-Jot down the number of the ski patrol at the resort you’re visiting.

-Be prepared for an emergency. Carry an emergency whistle, an extra layer, “anything to get you through a period of time where people might be searching for you.”

-Plan ahead: “If you are separated, you know where to meet up, and if the other person doesn’t show up, you know there’s a problem.”

She also recommended always keeping a ski buddy in sight, even if that means going slower or stopping and starting. “It takes patience,” she said.

Still, sometimes all the precautions aren’t enough. Cohen, who was studying nutrition and food sciences at UVM and was active in the ski and snowboard club, was remembered at a recent memorial service this weekend in Needham, Massachusetts. In an obituary, Cohen’s family asked people to donate to charity in his memory.

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Information from: The Burlington Free Press, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com

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