By Jeffrey Weidel
Mother Lode News correspondent
Each ski season tragedy occurs on the slopes nationwide and awakens people to the inherent dangers that can occur in this winter sport.
The latest reminder that skiing and snowboarding can result in tragic consequences occurred last week when emergency search crews discovered the body of snowboarder Shawnte Marie Willis at Alpine Meadows ski resort.
Willis was an experienced snowboarder who was an instructor at one of Lake Tahoe’s ski resort. She apparently hit a tree while heading down the back side of Alpine in an area known as the Granite Chief Wilderness.
Willis was reported lost on Tuesday afternoon (Dec. 28) and due to high avalanche danger and blizzard conditions her body wasn’t found until two days later in a tree well, a mere 400 feet below the Pacific Crest Trail. Alpine is located off Highway 89 in North Lake Tahoe, six miles west of Tahoe City.
A combination of difficult terrain, harsh weather, and getting separated from her friends, were reportedly contributing factors in the death of the 25-year-old Willis, who was living with her boyfriend in Tahoma near Lake Tahoe and had grown up in Humboldt County.
“She was a good skier and knew what she was doing,” said Roxanne Hall, Willis’ aunt, who spoke to media members last week.
But regardless of a person’s ability the result can end in a serious injury or loss of life according to Jeff Ausnow, a Placer County Sheriff’s department captain who held a press conference following the discovery of Willis’ body.
“I hope what people take out of this is the dangers anywhere in mountain and snow conditions,” Ausnow said. “If you are going to be in those conditions try to be prepared and try to teach yourself survivor tactics.”
Pending further investigation it’s unclear if survival tactics like building a snow cave would have helped Willis, whose family members said she had epilepsy. She appeared to have died from head trauma after snowboarding into a tree. Willis was wearing warm clothing, gloves, a helmet, and had an understanding of safety practices.
The death of Willis brings awareness to the dangers of winter sports. But statistics compiled by the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) indicate that skiing and snowboarding are not as dangerous as some people might expect.
In a NSAA study that was done in 2004, the number of fatalities in skiing and snowboarding were 45 with 12.2 million participants. In 2004, deaths associated with swimming, which excludes boating accidents, were 2,900 with 56.9 million participants. In that same year, 900 deaths were reported from bicycling with the participant number at 2,379 million people.
The percentage of fatalities per days of participation (per 1 million people) was .38 for bicycling, .79 percent for snow sports, and 1.26 for swimming.
The average skier and snowboarding deaths is 41 each season, according to NSAA statistics compiled over the last 10 years. The number of reported serious injuries, like head trauma, are 43 a year.
Although based on statistics from a 10-year-old study, the NSAA website shows that the overall rate of reported alpine ski injuries was 2.63 reported injuries per 1,000 skier visits and didn’t change over a 10-year period.
In preliminary studies from a 2009-10 report, NSAA found that 57 percent of skiers and snowboarders were wearing helmets while enjoying the slopes at U.S. ski areas. The highest usage is 87 percent for children age 9 or younger.
The ski industry will address safety this year during its annual Safety Awareness Week, which takes place Jan. 15-23. Lake Tahoe resorts and ski resorts nationwide participate in the campaign and promote safety among both their employees and guests throughout the week.
For many years the ski industry has promoted the “responsibility code,” which lists the basic safety practices that all skiers and riders should follow. Regardless of the level of expertise, the guidelines are designed to make the slopes safer for all participants.
National Ski Patrol Responsibility Code
• 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
Jeffrey Weidel is a Sacramento-area free-lance writer with more than 25 years of skiing experience.