8 Breckenridge Ski Area-Related Deaths in One Year, Resort Blames Victims?

Tess Smith died on March 6 after breaking her leg at Breckenridge several days earlier. Additional images below.
Tess Smith died on March 6 after breaking her leg at Breckenridge several days earlier. Additional images below. Family photo via YouTube
Of the nine deaths related to accidents at Colorado ski resorts during the current season, four are tied to Breckenridge. This represents an unfortunate trend: Four skiers also died at Breckenridge last season, out of nine across the entire state, with all of the incidents at Breck taking place during last March or afterward. That adds up to eight Breckenridge-related deaths in approximately one year and nearly half the current official total of eighteen fatalities during the past two seasons combined. No other Colorado resort — and there are over two dozen of them — appears to have suffered more than one casualty. Yet after multiple contacts from Westword in recent weeks about the rising number of recent tragedies, Breckenridge's only response has been a statement that essentially blames the victims for their own deaths.

As we've reported, figuring out exactly how many people died as a result of accidents at Colorado ski areas each year is tricky. The State of Colorado doesn't track such statistics, leaving it to industry groups such as Colorado Ski Country USA to do so. CSCUSA, which represents 22 resorts in the state (but not Breckenridge), confirms that five people have died at ski areas that are part of its association during the 2016-2017 season.

The victims are San Antonio mom Kelly Huber, age forty, who fell to her death from Granby Ranch's Quick Draw Express ski lift on December 29, 2016; Alicyn Mitcham, a seventeen-year-old from Colmesneil, Texas, who died after crashing into a tree while skiing at Winter Park Resort on February 15; Kressyda Ming, a New Mexico mother of five, whose death at Purgatory, in southwestern Colorado not far from Durango, took place on February 25; a still-unidentified Buckley airman, killed while snowboarding at Eldora; and a fifth person, for whom death details are unknown at present.

When asked for specifics about the fifth incident, spokesperson Chris Linsmayer replies that Colorado Ski Country USA's policy is to only divulge the number of fatalities at its affiliated resorts but offer no additional information, because some people don't want the death of their loved ones to be made public. But the approach also has the benefit of minimizing the amount of bad publicity such incidents may generate for resorts.

Catie Abeyta died at Breckenridge on the weekend before closing day in April 2016. - FACEBOOK
Catie Abeyta died at Breckenridge on the weekend before closing day in April 2016.
Additionally, Linsmayer reveals that the current CSCUSA total doesn't include a possible sixth death at a member ski area, involving an unidentified twenty-year-old man who died in Denver from injuries suffered during a February 19 accident at Buttermilk, an Aspen Skiing Co. property, according to the Vail Daily. CSCUSA isn't counting that reported casualty, he notes, because the organization has thus far been unable to confirm it.

As for the recent string of fatalities at Breckenridge, they began on March 1, 2016, with the death of Christopher Dutko, a Pennsylvanian who was actually working at the resort. On April 4, 2016, John Sherwood, a 43-year-old from New Jersey, died skiing on Tiger, a double-black-diamond run at the ski area. Just two days later, on April 6, 2016, snowboarder David Carr perished after crashing into a tree. And on April 27, 2016, Catie Abeyta, a student at Denver's George Washington High School, died on the weekend before closing day.

The first skier death of this season took place at Breckenridge on December 19, 2016. The victim was Kevin Pitts, a 48-year-old Longmont resident who worked in marketing for Oracle.

The next tragedy at Breckenridge began unfolding on Thursday, January 12, when Sean Haberthier, a 47-year-old from Denver, was reported missing. The following day, he was found on Lower Boneyard, an expert run at Breck not far from the Peak 8 lift.

Haberthier was alive when he was located, but he didn't respond to medical treatment and was pronounced dead later on the morning of January 13. He's said to have suffered a severe skull fracture after crashing into trees.

Ricardo Cohen died on Friday, February 10, also at Breckenridge, on Volunteer, an expert run off the resort's renowned Peak 9. Cohen was wearing a helmet, but he didn't crash into trees, as is all too common in such fatalities. Instead, the Summit County coroner's office determined that Cohen, who was from Mexico, simply slammed his head too hard into the snow.

Less than two weeks later, on March 3, Tess Smith, a fifteen-year-old from Wichita, Kansas on her first-ever skiing outing, crashed at Breck, breaking her leg. Afterward, for reasons her autopsy was unable to explain, she became unresponsive, and she died on March 6, after her organs were donated.

Kevin Pitts, seen posing with his family in a photo included on a GoFundMe site, was the first person to die at Breckenridge during the 2016-2017 ski season. - GOFUNDME
Kevin Pitts, seen posing with his family in a photo included on a GoFundMe site, was the first person to die at Breckenridge during the 2016-2017 ski season.
On the 6th, Breckenridge issued the following statement about what it described as a "serious incident" involving Smith; it appears to have been written before her death. It reads:
"Breckenridge Ski Resort, Breckenridge Ski Patrol and the entire Vail Resorts family extend our thoughts and support to our guest and her family,” said John Buhler, vice president and chief operating officer of Breckenridge Ski Resort.

The guest was transported to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center and then to Children’s Hospital Colorado after Breckenridge Ski Patrol responded to a ski incident on an advanced trail, where she’d been skiing at the resort.
After Cohen's passing and continuing for weeks afterward, Westword reached out to Breckenridge representatives with requests for interviews about deaths at the ski area. We had hoped to ask if managers at the resort were concerned about the growing number of casualties and had launched any kind of an inquiry to find out if there was anything staffers were or weren't doing that might have prevented some or all of the accidents. Thus far, however, the only response we've received is another statement, which makes no reference to such concerns and focuses entirely on the actions of skiers and snowboarders.

Here it is, with original links included:
As the safety of guests and employees is Breckenridge Ski Resort’s top priority, we’re always looking for opportunities to increase awareness of mountain safety and etiquette among our guests and employees. Among the many programs and initiatives in place, the Company has dedicated Mountain Safety staff at each mountain resort whose mission it is to educate and enforce Your Responsibility Code on the slopes. It’s important for guests to understand and obey Your Responsibility Code, to ski and snowboard within their ability levels, check their speed and maintain the proper lookout between themselves and other objects.
As you can see, these remarks don't address any possible responsibility for Breckenridge when it comes to by far the worst fatality figures at a ski area in Colorado during the past two seasons.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts