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Fort Lewis College suddenly pulls plug on rare skiing injury database

Ski resort managers rarely discuss injuries and limited injury data is shared only through industry-supported researchers
Skiers descend among the aspen trees at Steamboat ski area, Dec., 29, 2022, in Steamboat Springs. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Fort Lewis College last month suddenly pulled the plug on a year-old program that had business and marketing students surveying skiers to assemble a first-of-its-kind database exploring collisions and injuries on ski slopes.

In early August, Fort Lewis professor Tomasz Miaskiewicz sent out emails to mentors shepherding the 17 students in the fall Slide with Respect class sharing some budget and staffing concerns but detailing specific plans about the ongoing research effort. Two weeks later he sent out an email saying his research class would not be continuing work on the Slide with Respect program, which gathered more than 4,300 survey responses last year, creating a rare database on ski slope injuries including 2,600 skiers and snowboarders who had been involved in collisions at ski areas.

Miaskiewicz said the program is not dead, only suspended. With four classes this semester and a planned sabbatical in the spring, the professor said he didn’t have the bandwidth to handle the complicated balance of mentors, students and surveys required for the Slide with Respect project. With the departure of key supporters at the college and budget reductions that posed challenges to the program, Miaskiewicz said launching more surveys and assembling more data was just too much.

But it could be at least a year if he chooses to revive the program that was exploring a topic that is rarely discussed openly in the insular ski industry.

“This was never intended to be in my classes forever,” he said. “I felt like we needed a pause because I’m not sure how to carry this forward.”

Mentors who were working with students said they were surprised at the sudden change. Two weeks ago Miaskiewicz pulled the plug on the project’s website. He revived it last week to allow access to data his students had compiled.

The Slide with Respect research project was created inside the business school at Fort Lewis College following the death of beloved ski coach Ron LeMaster, who was struck by a snowboarder at Eldora ski area on Nov. 30, 2021. A Boulder County jury in January found the 29-year-old snowboarder who collided with the 72-year-old McMaster guilty of leaving the scene of an accident, a petty offense. He was sentenced to a $500 fine and 40 hours of community service.

The Slide with Respect program had nine students in the first class in the fall of 2022. There were 27 students in the spring class.

The survey yielded 4,320 responses, creating a rare database exploring injuries and collisions on the slopes. Ski resort managers rarely discuss injuries and limited injury data collected by resorts and ski patrollers is shared only through industry-supported researchers.

In April 2021, Colorado lawmakers killed legislation that would have required ski resorts to publish injuries statistics and safety plans. Resort representatives told lawmakers that annual reports of injuries would be an administrative burden and a “self-imposed black eye” for an important economic engine in mountain communities.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment statistics from 2018 and 2019 show as many as 55 skiers a day arrive at mountain town emergency departments in the winter. A review of that data shows about one-third of the 1,426 skiers admitted to Colorado trauma centers in the 2017-18 season required immediate surgery.

Survey says perception of reckless behavior has changed

In November and December 2022, Fort Lewis students distributed thousands of surveys to skiers and snowboarders. The program enlisted mentors from inside and outside the ski resort industry to help guide the students.

“We tried to involve anyone who wanted to be involved,” Miaskiewicz said. “My students and I had lots of conversations about how neat it was to have people with such diverse views having civil conversations. At the end of the day we all supported the students by having people with different views state their opinion.”

Half of the respondents said they were expert skiers and 32% said they were advanced. Almost three-quarters said they skied more than 15 days a season and 82% said they have been skiing for more than 15 years.

About 39% were Baby Boomers, and 30% were Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980. The largest share of respondents were from Colorado.

The survey showed the top factors when choosing where to go skiing were a lack of crowds, prioritized safety at the resort, availability of parking and proximity to home.

More than 2,600 survey respondents said they are likely to ski fast and they are confident in their abilities.

More than 2,400 agreed that ski areas should have more enforcement of rules to improve safety. More than 800 disagreed with an assertion that management at ski areas “has safety as a top priority.”

When asked if they had ever been in a collision with another skier, 61% said yes. Of those more than 2,600 skiers involved in a collision, 34% said they were involved in only one collision, 36% said two, 14% said three and 15% said four or more. More than 80% said the collisions did not require medical attention and 1.3% of respondents said the collisions required “legal involvement.”

When asked if their perception of reckless behavior on ski slopes has changed, 50% said it was “more of an issue” and 40% said it’s as much of an issue as it has been in the past.

And surprisingly, 26% of respondents said they had engaged in reckless behavior on the ski slopes, with 13% saying they were unsure and 59% saying they had not.

The students crafted messaging and possible safety campaigns to help ski areas better promote safety. The students created stickers and scannable ads to promote responsible skiing with the hashtag #SlideWithRespect.

They also built a guide for resorts to use to build safety messaging and draw attention to the Skier Safety Code.

The students filmed a short video of Telluride’s Annie Savath, who directed the Telluride Ski School for 33 years, sharing details of a December 2020 collision that broke her ribs, pelvis and left her hospitalized for five days.

“Respect other people’s needs and their enjoyment of the sport at their speed. Give them space,” Savath said. “Just respect each other and be aware. Just like when you are driving.”

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