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On Monday, January 2, a ski patroller was fatally ejected from a chair lift at Park City Mountain Resort in Utah. The 29-year-old man was on the Short Cut lift in the Canyons section of the Park City ski area when a spruce tree fell onto the cable behind his chair. The unexpected and violent oscillation of the chair caused him to fall at least 25 feet into a ravine of deep snow. Ski patrol reached the victim within twenty minutes and he was declared dead on the scene. It is unclear if he passed away from traumatic injury or asphyxiation from snow burial. Ten other people sitting on the Short Cut chair lift were safely evacuated by Park City ski patrol following the incident. 

This tragic and surprising fatality may raise questions about the risks of working in ski patrol. Dr. Carl Heine, member of the National Ski Patrol, medical director of Mt Spokane Ski Patrol, and experienced ski patroller explains that “skiing puts people at risk of injuries and ski patrollers spend more time skiing so there is potential for more injuries.” He elaborates that ski patrollers are likely to experience different patterns of injuries because they are experienced skiers, such as ACL tears, shoulder dislocations, and broken bones from falls. However, ski patrollers may also be exposed to different risks depending on the terrain they work in, notably during avalanche mitigation. Patrollers have been harmed by explosives, such as in 2017 when a ski patroller in California died when an explosive detonated while performing avalanche control duties. Ski patrollers working in avalanche terrain are also at risk of becoming caught in an avalanche - a 45 year retrospective study showed that out of 440 victims killed by avalanches, 3.6% were ski patrol. Unique geologic characteristics of mountains may also pose distinct threats: in 2006 three Mammoth Mountain ski patrollers died after falling into a geothermal vent they were working to fence off.  

The chair lift fatality in Utah also raises questions about chair lift safety. The National Ski Area Association reports that thirty people have died from chair lift incidents between 1973 and 2001. Several organizations oversee chair lift safety, such as the American National Standards Institute and some state’s department of transportation. Ski patrol groups receive annual chair lift evacuation training in preparation for people becoming stranded on lifts that break down. Chairs may also detach from the lift, as occurred at Breckenridge in December 2022, or the rare, yet dreaded, occurrence of a free-running chair lift.

Dr. Lindsey Fell, an experienced ski patroller and emergency medicine resident at the University of Utah conducting research on ski patrol, states that as a ski patroller there is “risk in your environment but the risks are generally well managed.” There is a risk management and risk assessment component to the National Ski Patrol protocol system as well as each mountain’s own safety protocols for their patrollers.