Danger on the Mountain—Many factors, from human choices to climate change, make snow sports more risky

The recent blizzard in the mountains dumped a record amount of snow at all the state’s ski resorts.

From north to south, Mt. Shasta to Mt. Baldy – with dozens of dreamy, snowy destinations and world-class slopes in between – California is a winter sports lover’s paradise.

Palisades Tahoe, Heavenly, Mammoth, Big Bear…. Mountain resorts throughout the Golden State offer spectacular scenery, diverse terrain, and big, fluffy powder dumps. Conditions are generally warmer than in Colorado or Utah, with gorgeous year-round sunshine.

Outdoor enthusiasts enjoy skiing (downhill and cross-country), snowboarding, snowmobiling, sledding, tubing, snowshoeing, climbing, and more. There’s a pristine piste, adventurous backcountry, dramatic drops, and easy-going bunny hills—cold weather fun for everyone.

In the northern Sierra Nevadas, the Tahoe area is the historic crown jewel of California ski country, home to the 1960 Winter Olympics and some of the most exciting slopes in the U.S.

Tragedy in Tahoe

But tragedy struck earlier this year, only half an hour after the Palisades Tahoe resort opened for the season. One Bay Area man was killed, and another person injured when an avalanche 50 yards wide and 10 feet deep ripped down the mountain for 450 feet beneath the KT-22 chairlift. The legendary lift ascends into the most advanced terrain—described on the resort’s website as its “greatest testing grounds.” Intrepid skiers can access nearly 2000 vertical feet of “world-class steeps, chutes and wide-open bowls.”

According to officials, two additional skiers survived unharmed in the avalanche.

Patrollers had been monitoring the area for several days, doing avalanche control, but conditions were still rough, windy, and low-visibility following a significant snowstorm. The day before the avalanche, a gust of 110 mph was recorded on the mountain. The day after the deadly slide, another avalanche struck at nearby Alpine Meadows resort but caused no injuries.

What are the most common ski injuries?

Snow sports have always carried significant risks and exhilarating fun and exciting challenges. Accidents are caused by falls (85%), collisions (6%), terrain hazards, lift mishaps, faulty gear or insufficient protection, inattention, exhaustion or dehydration, inadequate physical preparation, attempting to ski above one’s skill/experience level, failure to follow posted warnings and rules of the slope and venturing into dangerous off-limits areas.

There are well over half a million ski- and snowboard-related injuries every year in the U.S. Some of the most common are:

  • Head injuries make up approximately 20% of all ski and snowboard injuries (22% in children), including concussion and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), which is more severe and is the leading cause of disability and death from ski and snowboard accidents. TBI is the most common severe injury suffered by skiers/snowboarders and plays a role in nearly 90% of ski slope fatalities. Most head injuries are caused by falls, but the most dangerous and deadly TBIs are due to collisions with stationary objects or other individuals.
  • Fractures – commonly wrist, shoulder, elbow, or lower limbs/extremities. Also, facial and dental.
  • Spinal injury
  • Soft tissue injuries (sprains; ligament damage – especially ACL or MCL in the knee)
  • Dislocations
  • Lacerations

How many skiers die in avalanches?

In addition to the most common ski injuries, as the recent Tahoe incident illustrates, the thrill of taking on Mother Nature brings its inherent dangers.

Statistics from 1990-2023 reveal that in the U.S., an average of 25 people are killed in avalanches yearly, 150 worldwide. A 1999 study published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) evaluated over 45 years of data, covering 440 victims of 324 deadly avalanches, and found that climbers (25.5%) and backcountry skiers (22.7%) accounted for by far the most avalanche fatalities, followed by out-of-bounds skiers (10%), snowmobilers (6.8%), in-bounds skiers (5.2%), ski patrollers (3.6%).

It’s important to note that the study concluded that fatalities were increasing “among out-of-bounds skiers, snowmobilers, ski patrollers, and backcountry skiers.”

What causes an avalanche?

Many factors contribute to avalanche risk—the steepness of the terrain, stability of the snowpack, and triggers that include environmental events (e.g., earthquake, temperature, wind, rain) and human activities, such as sports and construction.

And now, researchers say, climate change may increase risks for skiers further in ways that are hard to predict. Especially regarding avalanches, findings have been mixed and complex.

Is climate change making the slopes more dangerous?

Snow patterns are changing. Some experts suggest warmer temperatures mean less snow and fewer avalanches at lower elevations. But this effect is uncertain, as higher elevations are seeing more severe storms.

Rain in higher elevations, where there is usually snow, can seep beneath the snowpack and refreeze, causing an elevated risk of a dangerous slide, Wired reported. On the other hand, less snow in clear, cold conditions could also cause dangerously weak layers in the snowpack and “a major threat to recreationists,” according to a Swiss team of researchers.

Warmer temps could mean an increase in wet snow avalanches, which can be deadlier as heavy, dense snow increases a trapped skier’s risk of suffocation. Then again, scant powder over icy snowpack may increase blunt trauma injuries.

Wildfires are wiping out forests. The landscape winter athletes face is changing dramatically, and they’re venturing into more extreme conditions.

Explosion in snow sports

Amidst this uncertainty, snow sports are gaining popularity—more people than ever are hitting the slopes. Pandemic cabin fever, especially, caused an explosion in winter sports. According to Forbes, after the 2019-20 season was cut short by lockdowns, winter 2020-21 brought more than a million first-time skiers and snowboarders to U.S. ski areas. The 2022-23 season was a banner year for ski resorts, which racked up a record-shattering 64.7 million visits, according to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA).

Stay safe out there

While the unexpected can always happen—and the impacts of climate change on slope conditions are still elusive—skiers have control over their choices. It’s not just how many people but who is on the mountain that affects all these safety issues, says Wired: their ability and experience level, behavior, and choices.

According to the National Weather Service, “In 90 percent of avalanche incidents, the snow slides are triggered by the victim or someone in the victim’s party.”

While skiers find it hard to resist the allure of fresh powder and thinner crowds in the backcountry— “The frequency of human-triggered avalanches in the future will continue to depend in large part on how many skiers and snowboarders recreate in risky backcountry areas,” CalMatters reported following the recent tragedy.

Aitken * Aitken * Cohn has an established reputation in the Orange County legal community for successfully representing victims of spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries for the past 5 decades.

AAC’s personal injury lawyers obtained an $11 million settlement on behalf of a young man who suffered a permanent spinal cord injury after diving into a deceptively shallow pool. Our trial attorneys also obtained a $23 million jury verdict on behalf of a 13-year-old boy who sustained severe brain damage in a car collision as well as a $20 million settlement for an 8-year-old boy who suffered a brain injury after falling from a soft-contained playground at a prominent fast-food chain.

At Aitken * Aitken * Cohn, we are dedicated to getting our clients the financial help they need after a serious accident. Whether that help comes from a fair insurance settlement or if we take the matter to court, our lawyers stop at nothing to get injured victims the maximum compensation they deserve.

Written on behalf of Aitken Aitken Cohn