Sierra Ski Accident Deaths Dampen Spirits

Ski Accidents

Following last year’s epic, and extended, ski season, many winter sport enthusiasts in northern Nevada had high hopes for the 2019-2020 season. As any experienced skier – or savvy investment broker, for that matter – knows, past performance is no guarantee of future results. So far this year has been something of a let-down, with decent dumps of fresh powder followed closely by unseasonably warm temperatures. This hot-and-cold weather turns the powder into chunky, icy coverage that makes for mediocre skiing conditions. Worse still is the increase of Sierra ski accident deaths.

The Lay of the Land

When we talk to outsiders, they often show their lack of familiarity with Nevada. Many people have an image of Nevada as a big desert with Las Vegas somewhere in the middle. “Nevada, huh? You must be used to the heat!” Have you heard that one? How about this: “You’re from Reno? So you must go to Las Vegas a lot, yeah?”

Yes, Nevada can be hot. And yes, Vegas is a great place to visit and a wonderful place to live. But bromides like these show how little understood the Silver State is.

While it cannot claim the highest peaks, [1] Nevada is the most mountainous state in the United States. Nevada is home to 150 named mountain ranges, [2] a unique bequest from its geological history as the main portion of the bed of a massive lake. [3] More than 30 of Nevada’s mountain peaks are 11,000 feet tall or higher, [4] and two of its peaks exceed 13,000 feet. [5] Ask anyone who has reached the top of one of these peaks, and they will tell you that Nevada is not always hot.

People also misapprehend the spread of Nevada’s geography. Las Vegas is located near the southernmost tip of the state, close to the boundaries of the states of California and Arizona. The other end of the state is about 500 miles due north. That is about one-third of the entire north-south distance of the contiguous United States, and it is about one-sixth of the way from coast to coast. Nevada is more than 300 miles wide, too; [6] the state is the seventh-largest U.S. state at more than 110,000 square miles of area. At an estimated drive time of six hours, it’s unlikely a Reno resident would jaunt down to Las Vegas on a whim.

Room to Ski

With such massive and diverse geography, Nevada has a little of almost everything. No oceans, but one of the world’s largest lakes (Tahoe) and the country’s largest reservoir (Lake Mead). Deserts, yes, but also some world-class skiing. Las Vegas plays home to Lee Canyon (known locally as Mt. Charleston), a small ski resort with more than 20 runs. [7] Farther north, there are a couple of skiing options where the city of Elko plays the natural jumping-off point. For the occasional skier, the community-operated Elko SnoBowl offers a low-key experience. [8] And on the other end of the spectrum, the Ruby Mountains are home to some of the best heli-skiing around. [9]

But the core of Nevada’s ski offerings is in the Lake Tahoe area. There are several ski areas, large and small, surrounding the lake:

  • Alpine Meadows
  • Boreal Mountain Resort
  • Donner Ski Ranch
  • Homewood Mountain Resort
  • Kirkwood
  • Northstar California
  • Sierra at Tahoe
  • Soda Springs
  • Squaw Valley
  • Tahoe Donner [10]

In addition to these, Nevada can boast of Diamond Peak, the Reno-Sparks area favorite Mount Rose, Sky Tavern training facility, and world-class resort Heavenly Ski Resort.

Beyond a Bummer

Snowsport enthusiasts are sometimes mocked for their happy-go-lucky attitudes and blasé turns of phrase. But a recent surge in Sierra ski accident deaths has left the region’s ski community devastated.

In late December, the captain of a local group of “hotshot” firefighters died – not in a forest fire, as his wife had long steeled herself to accept – but in a ski accident. The man, a Reno native, was skiing at Mount Rose when he apparently had a ski accident striking a tree. The impact alone did not kill him, but it apparently rendered him unconscious and he fell face-down in the snow. He was not noticed until sometime later, when a fellow skier on a chair lift reported the scene. He was recovered alive but had suffered extended deprivation of oxygen to his brain. [11] His was just the first of several Sierra ski accident deaths to come.

Late last month a ski patrol employee at Heavenly Ski Resort was found unconscious while working. He was transported by medical helicopter to an area hospital, but he later died. [12] Media reports indicate that his cause of death is still under investigation, but some people familiar with the facts have stated that he was asphyxiated by a backpack strap when the bag became caught in a tree or other obstacle.

That Sierra ski accident death followed closely the death of another skier, this time at Alpine Meadows, who lost his life in an avalanche. Avalanches may seem like the stuff of movies or freak events, but the reality is that backcountry skiers often must balance their ambitions for fresh powder and thrilling ski runs against the vagaries of weather and wind in the blustery mountains. The survivor of one Sierra ski accident told his story to Backcountry magazine. [13]

The thrills of skiing are immense, but so too can be the risks of the Sierra, with not only ski injuries but road accidents  often associated with the dangerous driving conditions that go along with winter in Northern Nevada..

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_the_highest_major_summits_of_the_United_States

[2] https://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/namerica/usstates/nvland.htm

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Basin

[4] https://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/namerica/usstates/nvland.htm

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mountain_peaks_of_Nevada

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nevada

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_and_territories_by_area

[8] https://www.onthesnow.com/nevada/elko-snobowl/ski-resort.html

[9] https://www.denverpost.com/2010/01/04/nevadas-ruby-mountains-a-heli-skiing-paradise

[10] https://www.onthesnow.com/lake-tahoe/ski-resorts.html

[11] https://mynews4.com/news/local/reno-native-local-hotshot-firefighter-captain-dies-after-skiing-accident-at-mt-rose

[12] https://www.rgj.com/story/news/2020/01/20/heavenly-ski-patroller-who-died-saturday-identified-authorities/4525694002

[13] https://backcountrymagazine.com/stories/in-the-sierra-nevada-mountains-an-incoming-storm-turns-a-good-day-into-an-escalating-accident

Image Credit by acebal from La Felguera, Spain

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