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Ski area death of Patsy Hileman shouldn't count toward resort fatalities, industry group says

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Update: In a post yesterday about ski area deaths thus far in the 2012-13 season (see it below), we noted that resorts have established rules to determine whether or not fatal accidents count toward the total. As evidence, note that Colorado Ski Country USA disagrees with the claim that three people have died on the slopes thus far, arguing the accident that killed longtime ski patrol member Patricia "Patsy" Hileman shouldn't be included.

On December 30, as we've reported, Hileman was swept under by a small avalanche at Snowmass. One report said she was skiing "inbounds" at the ski area, while another said the section was "not explicitly open to the skiing public due to its inherent dangers."

Does the accident that took Hileman's life qualify as inbounds? No, according to Colorado Ski Country USA. When it comes to total deaths at resorts, the organization excludes those that are outside boundaries where the public is allowed to ski, even if they're otherwise on the ski area's property.

By CSCUSA's standards, then, Hileman's death should not count as a ski-resort death.

Hileman's "particular incident was on terrain that is closed to the public, so it does not qualify as a ski-resort-related skier fatality," explains spokeswoman Jennifer Rudolph.

This designation is not meant to diminish the loss felt by Hileman's friends and loved ones, Rudolph emphasizes.

"We never like to see fatalities happen in the ski industry," she says. "Sometimes, it does come down to splitting hairs, and any loss of life is important. But it's also important to distinguish these nuances."

Regarding the other two deaths noted in our original item -- Tristan Bartlett, thirteen, who died at Copper Mountain on January 4, and Doae Oh, twenty, killed in a January 9 accident at Keystone -- Rudolph can speak definitively only about the former. That's because Keystone is not part of Colorado Ski Country USA. But from reports she's read about Oh's death, she believes it, as well as Bartlett's, "meet all the qualifications" to be considered official ski-area deaths.

By her count, then, two people have died on the Colorado slopes so far this year, not three.

"Obviously, the ski industry doesn't want to portray an inflated number of fatalities," she says. "But we do want to give the public a sense of the relevant risk."

Continue to read our previous post about ski deaths so far in the 2012-13 ski season. Original post, 6:54 a.m. January 10: Last ski season was arguably the most lethal in the state's history.

Now, with a death yesterday at Keystone, a third casualty has been marked in the current ski season, following a death last week at Copper Mountain and the tragic, avalanche-related passing of Patricia Hileman, known by friends as Patsy -- a 26 year veteran of the Aspen Ski Patrol.

Ski-Patrol.net provides the following explanation for what happened to Hileman on December 30:

Hileman appears to have inadvertently triggered a portion of the "crown" from a previous avalanche that pushed her off the edge. She was skiing in a section of the Snowmass backcountry that is not explicitly open to the skiing public due to its inherent dangers. A previous avalanche at that location had been triggered with explosives by the patrol on 27 December 2012, three days before Hileman's incident. While the avalanche was very small, it appears to have been of sufficient size to sweep Hileman, an expert skier familiar with that area, off the cliff's edge.

A Denver Post item about Hileman's death contrasts with the passage above, maintaining that she was "skiing alone inbounds" -- and this distinction is important when it comes to record-keeping.

As we reported last March, at the time of what, by our count, was the record-setting nineteenth skiing death of the season (Garrett Spencer of Hesston, Kansas), our William Breathes began tracking ski area deaths in Colorado earlier in 2012, when he noticed the high number of reported casualties -- one that seemed on track to go beyond the 2007-2008 mark, when seventeen people died.

By Breathes's count, Matthew Bowers, a 36 year old from Texas who died at Crested Butte, was the season's eighteenth death, setting the record. At the time we published our piece about Bowers, the Denver Post agreed with this total. However, Jennifer Rudolph, communications director for Colorado Ski Country, argued that Bowers's death was the seventeenth of the season -- and the Post subsequently back-tracked even further. In a March 24, 2012 item, the paper described Spencer's death, which took place on a beginner's run after he crashed into a tree (it was only his second day skiing), as the seventeenth "inbounds fatality" this season. The explanation read like so:

Two other deaths in January -- a 13-year-old skier who died in an avalanche in closed terrain at Vail and a 43-year-old skier who died in an avalanche just outside the boundary of Snowmass ski area -- are not listed among the Colorado's inbounds fatalities according to longstanding resort industry criteria that separates fatalities inside resort boundaries from those beyond the boundary ropes or in closed areas, where terrain is not patrolled or managed for safety.

Too soon to know if such data-parsing will take place again this season. But the two skiing deaths that followed Hileman's don't appear to be in dispute.

On January 4, the Summit County Coroner's office was paged to the St. Anthony's Copper Mountain Medical Clinic after Tristan Bartlett, a thirteen year old from Houston, Texas, skied into a tree; he was not wearing a helmet. Bartlett was pronounced dead at about 1:30 p.m. that day.

Five days later, on January 9, the coroner was called to to a different St. Anthony's-related clinic, this one at Keystone. Doae Oh, a twenty-year-old college student from Austin, Texas, was the injured party; she's said to have struck a tree on the intermediate Frenchman run -- and she wasn't wearing a helmet, either. When the coroner's phone rang, at about 7:05 p.m. that day, Oh had already died.

Our condolences to the families, friends and loved ones of Hileman, Bartlett and Oh -- and our hope that no other skiers suffer their fate.

More from our News archive: "Garrett Spencer, record-setting 19th Colorado ski area death, being laid to rest."

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