Can You Die Skiing? (Serious Facts)

by Simon Knott | Updated On: April 13th, 2022
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We’ve all heard of occasional skiing deaths by avalanches, freak accidents on the runs, and backcountry treks gone wrong. Luckily these are all extremely rare, but their dramatic nature means they often attract plenty of publicity. So, just how many people do actually die skiing? And how do they die?

Yes, you can die of skiing, just as you can die from riding a bike or driving a car, both of which are more dangerous than skiing. Most of the skiers who died on groomed runs are male, reasonably experienced, and who lose control and collide with an obstacle. Skiers and snowshoers who venture into the backcountry are most likely to get killed in avalanches. Helmets offer some protection against but only up to 12 mph.

For the most part skiing and snowboarding, statistics reflect more minor injuries, such as sprains, dislocations, and bruising, occurring on the slopes. More serious injuries and catastrophic head injuries are much more likely to occur off-piste, where a skier has collided with a tree, rock, or another skier.

However, some of the worst numbers of fatalities associated with skiing are not associated with terrain but have more to do with infrastructure and the natural environment.

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Some of the worst Skiing related Deaths

1. Cavalese Cable Car Accident, Italy

In March 1976 in the ski resort of Cavalese in the Italian Dolomites, a cable car was descending from Mt Cermis fully packed with 44 passengers on board. As the cable car approached the first pylon the vibration caused the support cable to overlap the carrier cable.

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With the weight of a full load of passengers, the carrier cable sheared through the support cable, causing the entire cable car to plunge 200 ft (60 m) to the ground. The three-ton overhead carriage assembly also broke away at the same time and crashed down onto the stricken cable car. 42 passengers were killed, mostly by suffocation afterward, rather than the fall itself.

The only survivor was a 14-year-old girl from Milan, who was in the front part of the cable car, which received the least damage. Extensive safety investigations and court cases were conducted against the cable car operators, which eventually resulted in numerous safety improvements.

2. Galtur Avalanche, Austria

Towards the end of February 1999, a huge avalanche broke away and hurtled towards the small ski resort of Galtur in the Austrian Tyrol.

The cause of the avalanche was a freak series of weather events, where three Atlantic storms followed each other, dumping a total of 13 ft (4 m) of snow. Subsequent freeze-thaw conditions destabilized the underlying snowpack so that when high winds followed, the avalanche released from its weak base, sending an estimated 170,000 tons of snow down the valley.

The avalanche was 160 ft (50 m) high and traveled at 180 mph (290 kph) before the powder slammed into the village, overturning cars, and destroying buildings. 57 people were buried, and the sheer volume of snow was so large that rescue was severely hampered, resulting in 31 deaths.

3. Backcountry Skiing and Snowshoeing

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Photo by Jarrod Doll licensed under CC BY 2.0

For the organizations that compile winter ski statistics any activities such as backcountry skiing or snowshoeing increase the risk considerably. Groomed runs are carefully prepared to minimize obstacles both on the run and beside it.

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The surrounding area is risk assessed for avalanches and any potential danger areas are detonated safely. Overseeing groomed runs in this way reduces the risk to skiers considerably, often only leaving collisions between skiers as the main cause of accidents.

Even with its higher associated risk, backcountry skiing and snowshoeing appeal to a growing number of skiers every year. It’s partly the authentic experience of a calm environment, away from the crowds, where you can enjoy the fresh powder that skiers like.

Also, improvements to ski gear have also helped to make the sport more accessible, so that easy-to-use skins, smaller snowshoes, and better heel-release bindings reduce the complexity of the equipment.

When backcountry deaths and accidents are investigated, the causes are often related to human error, even if the skier involved is experienced. Familiarity with the terrain is a frequent cause of the error, where a skier knows the route well, but his familiarity stops him from making an objective assessment of the danger on that day.

Similarly, there is a kind of cabin fever mentality where a skier can’t resist trying out the new powder after weeks of waiting, even if in the back of his mind he knows it isn’t safe to do so.

Most backcountry deaths are caused by avalanches, where the skier, snowboarder, or snowshoer are either killed by their physical injuries in the avalanche or suffocated afterward.

4. Groomed Run Deaths

Despite careful design and rigorous risk assessments to reduce hazards on groomed runs they still claim a steady stream of mortalities each year.

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When seen in comparison to the total number of skiers and snowboarders who enjoy their time on the runs unscathed the likelihood of death is tiny, but you must remember even one death will leave a profound effect on the remaining family.

The NSAA recorded 54 deaths of skiers and snowboarders in the season of 20/21, which were part of 51 million skiers who took part. The numbers of deaths and skiers were inflated for this season, as many more people had more free time during Covid.

Most of the deaths occurred on groomed red runs, where the typical skier was 37 years old, male, experienced, and wearing a helmet. The cause of the accident is most frequently losing control on the run and then colliding with a tree. 31% of skiers had a similar profile but were skiing on expert runs.

Although many more skiers wear helmets the protection offered is limited. The design of the helmet works well up to 12 mph, but the protection for a skier who collides with a tree at 25-40 mph is severely compromised.

5. Chairlift Deaths

Winter Landscape

With their frequent minor incidents, it would be easy to imagine the chairlift is a particularly dangerous part of the skiing day.

However, the opposite is true, as logged by the US National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), which started collecting accident statistics in 1973. To date, the NSAA attributes only 13 deaths to ski lift malfunctions and falls, out of a total of 14.68 bn ski lift rides. This equates to one death for every 1.1 bn rides.

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Fatality Statistics

Season

Fatalities

Skier Days (Million)

Rate (Per Million)

2020 – 2021

48 

59.1 

0.81

2019 – 2020

42

51.3 

0.81

2018 – 2019

42

59.3

0.71

2017 – 2018

37 

53.3  

0.69

2016 – 2017

43

 54.8

0.78

2015 – 2016

39

52.8

0.74

2014 – 2015

35

53.6

0.65

In the latest season, 93% of the fatalities were males, who collided with an unspecified object after skiing on intermediate terrain.

In 2017 the NSAA launched a safety campaign called ‘Ride Another Day’, which aims to educate skiers and snowboarders about the dangers of reckless skiing, speed, and collisions.

Working in conjunction with the NSAA each ski resort should have a seven-point Responsibility Code and a Snow Immersion Safety, which alerts skiers and snowboarders to deep snow immersion and tree wells.

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