Outdoors

Inside Tragic Death of Skier Stephen Piche at Breckenridge

Stephen Piche died on February 7 while skiing Breckenridge's Inferno run.
Stephen Piche died on February 7 while skiing Breckenridge's Inferno run. YouTube
The Summit County Sheriff's Office and the Breckenridge Ski Resort say that a man died at the latter attraction on Friday, February 7 — a tragedy not confirmed until this morning, more than two days later. The ski area identifies the victim only as a 56-year-old male from Austin, Texas, but Westword has learned that he was Stephen Piche. His brother, Eric Piche, calls Stephen an extremely experienced and talented skier who split his time between Austin and Breckenridge.

Because Stephen wound up in a creek, Eric speculated that he may have tumbled over ropes that may have been buried under a thick layer of new snow that fell throughout the day. However, a just-completed autopsy reveals that the cause of death was a heart attack.

A member of the Breckenridge communications staff notes that the skier suffered a "serious incident" on "an expert trail on Peak 9"; Eric Piche, who is very familiar with Breckenridge (he skied there earlier last week), identifies the run as Inferno. Afterward, the spokesperson goes on, he was transported to the Breckenridge Medical Center, where he did not respond to emergency treatment and was subsequently pronounced deceased.

John Buhler, vice president and chief operating officer at Breckenridge, offered the following statement:  "Breckenridge Ski Resort, Ski Patrol and the entire Vail Resorts family extend our deepest sympathy and support to our guest’s family and friends."

The holdup in reporting about Piche's death stands in contrast to promptness with which the public was informed about a fatal accident at Steamboat involving Frank Maimone, a 53-year-old from Philadelphia; Maimone died on the afternoon of Saturday, February 8, and media outlets were informed the following day. But delays are hardly unprecedented. Because state and/or federal agencies don't officially gather information about resort casualties, the task is left to the ski areas themselves or industry groups such as Colorado Ski Country USA or the Lakewood-based National Ski Areas Association, resulting in wide reporting variations. Note that 21-year-old Nathan Enright's death at Keystone in late 2017 wasn't divulged for nearly a week, and an analysis of the deadly 2011-2012 ski season found three more casualties than had previously been known.

When asked about Stephen, Eric, corresponding via email, writes: "My brother owned a home in Breck and his primary residence is in Austin, Texas. He received a bachelors degree from the University of Colorado in Boulder and for a time was president of the student government. He received a PhD from Stanford in electrical engineering and was working for GE in Austin. He has a wife, Cathy Echols, who teaches at the University of Texas in Austin and two daughters, ages 16 and 20."

Eric calls Stephen "an avid skier" who "probably spent six weeks skiing in Breckenridge during the last couple winters and has been skiing since he was eight-years-old. I've been skiing since the early '70s and I would consider him an expert skier capable of skiing any run at Breck, including the extreme runs like the lake chutes on Peak 9."

Last week, Stephen "was in Breckenridge with friends," Eric goes on, "and during the late afternoon of February 7, they became concerned when he didn't return home. Around 9 p.m., they called the police and about twenty minutes later, they received a call from the authorities...and they were told he had died around 4:30.

Breckenridge received nineteen inches of snow over a 24 hour period that included the 7th — so much that the resort reportedly announced the closure of high-alpine terrain that same day — a common avalanche-mitigation tactic. This area, which did not include Inferno, remained off-limits throughout the weekend.

Nonetheless, neither the ropes nor the creek appears to have figured prominently in Stephen's death.

Stephen was skiing alone at the time of his death.

This post has been updated to include autopsy information showing that Stephen Piche died of a heart attack.
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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