Death of snowboarder at Alpine Meadows brings heightened safety awareness Death of snowboarder at Alpine Meadows heightens safety awareness

By: Jeffrey Weidel/Special to Gold Country News Service
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Each ski season, tragedy occurs on the slopes nationwide and awakens people to the inherent dangers that can occur.

The latest reminder that skiing and snowboarding can result in tragic consequences occurred last week when emergency search crews discovered the body of snowboarder Shawnte Marie Willis at Alpine Meadows ski resort.

Willis was an experienced snowboarder and instructor. She appeared to have died from head trauma after hitting a tree while snowboarding down the backside of Alpine in an area known as the Granite Chief Wilderness.

Willis was reported lost the afternoon of Dec. 28 and, due to high avalanche danger and blizzard conditions, her body wasn’t found until Thursday in a tree well, a mere 400 feet below the Pacific Crest Trail. Alpine is located off Highway 89 in North Lake Tahoe, six miles west of Tahoe City.

A combination of difficult terrain, harsh weather and becoming separated from her friends reportedly were contributing factors in the death of Willis, 25, who lived with her boyfriend in Tahoma near Lake Tahoe and grew up in Humboldt County.

“She was a good skier and knew what she was doing,” said Roxanne Hall, Willis’ aunt, who spoke to media members last week.

Regardless of ability, the result can end in serious injury or loss of life, according to Jeff Ausnow, a Placer County Sheriff’s department captain who held a news conference following the discovery of Willis’ body.

“I hope what people take out of this is the dangers anywhere in mountain and snow conditions,” Ausnow said. “If you are going to be in those conditions, try to be prepared and try to teach yourself survivor tactics.”

It was unclear if survival tactics like building a snow cave would have helped Willis, who had epilepsy, her family members said. Willis was wearing warm clothing, gloves and a helmet and had an understanding of safety practices.

Willis’ death brings awareness to the dangers of winter sports, but statistics compiled by the National Ski Areas Association indicate skiing and snowboarding aren’t as dangerous as some people might expect.

In a study done in 2004, the number of skiing and snowboarding fatalities was 45 with 12.2 million participants. In 2004, deaths associated with swimming, which excludes boating accidents, were 2,900 with 56.9 million participants.
That same year, 900 deaths were reported from bicycling with the participant number at 2,379,000.

The percentage of fatalities per days of participation (per 1 million people) was .38 for bicycling, .79 for snow sports and 1.26 for swimming.

The average skiing and snowboarding deaths is 41 each season, according to NSAA statistics compiled over 10 years. The number of reported serious injuries, like head trauma, is 43 a year.

The NSAA website shows the overall rate of reported alpine ski injuries was 2.63 per 1,000 skier visits and didn’t change over a 10-year period.

In preliminary studies from a 2009-10 report, the NSAA found 57 percent of skiers and snowboarders were wearing helmets while enjoying the slopes at U.S. ski areas. The highest usage was 87 percent for children ages 9 and under.

The ski industry’s annual Safety Awareness Week is scheduled from Jan. 15-23. Lake Tahoe resorts and ski resorts nationwide participate in the campaign and promote safety among their employees and guests throughout the week.

For many years, the ski industry has promoted the “responsibility code,” which lists the basic safety practices all skiers and riders should follow. Regardless of the level of expertise, the guidelines are designed to make the slopes safer for all participants.

Jeffrey Weidel is a Sacramento-area freelance writer with more than 25 years of skiing experience.

National Ski Patrol Responsibility Code
* Always stay in control and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects.
* People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them.
* You must not stop where you obstruct a trail, or are not visible from above.
* Whenever starting downhill or merging into a trail, look uphill and yield to others.
* Always use devices to help prevent runaway equipment.
* Observe all posted signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas.