Shane McConkey. Sarah Burke. JP Auclair. C.R. Johnson. Arne Backstrom. Jamie Pierre. All of these people had two things in common: they were professional skiers who were pushing the sport to new limits, and they all lost their lives doing it.
Each one of these six skiers was extremely talented, and confident in their abilities. You would be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t agree that each one of these athletes was at the forefront of their discipline and contributed greatly to the progression of skiing. Unfortunately, their pursuits ultimately took their lives- each time reminding us all of the consequences that can come from pushing the limits of what’s possible.
In the last handful of years, the sports of skiing and snowboarding have reached ridiculous levels of talent and risk. From triple flips and creative urban features to absolutely ridiculous backcountry lines, the sports have evolved so much in the last decade, that athletes are completing feats that literally seemed impossible just a few years ago. The progression has been driven by both amateur and professional athletes who are competing not only against their own will power, but also against their peers as they try to scramble to the top of an industry where only a handful of athletes turn their passion into lifelong careers. Whether it’s filming for next year’s ski flick, competing for podium finishes, or even grabbing a quick shot for their social media accounts to please sponsors, the skiers who are chasing the dream in 2015 are pushing the limits of the sport far beyond what we once imagined was possible.
It’s amazing to watch, really. To see someone get dropped off by a helicopter on top of a razor thin ridge where their first challenge is to simply click into their skis. Moments later, that skier is charging down a near vertical pitch, not just avoiding obstacles along the way, but actually using them as opportunities to mix tricks and cliff drops into their lines- creating the most visually compelling footage possible.
Of course it’s not just backcountry skiers either. All over the mountain skiers are looking at obstacles in a new light. Whether it’s throwing double flips onto rails, boosting off natural features, or even weaving through the line of a T-bar, skiers everywhere are pushing themselves to find the edge that defines what’s safe and what’s beyond their limits.
How Did We Get Here?
How we got to this point in skiing is a bit of a long story. Some would say you could trace the roots of modern skiing all the way back to 1928 when the first steel edge was added to a ski. Others would say the shift came later during the “Hot Dog” years, or even more recently with Jason Levinthal’s invention of the twin tip ski board- a concept that would trickle into alpine skiing and give rise to the free skiing movement. Sound arguments could be made for any of these developments, but none of these instances could be labeled as the exact moment that our sport went from risky to downright unbelievable.
It could be argued that the “tipping point” for both sports came when Jon Olson landed a “Kangaroo Flip” at his Jon Olson Invitational event back in 2006. A year prior, some were beginning to think that skiing was reaching it’s maximum potential as the Switch 1080 was the trick to beat in competitions- and seemingly everyone could do it. When Jon decided push the limits of possibility with his Kangaroo Flip, it was the first time a freestyle skier or snowboarder had thrown a double flip in competition that wasn’t out of the aerialist playbook. (Editor’s Note: There were a couple of double flips in existence at the time, but they were few and far between. Early freeskiers might remember this clip of the “Risky Flip.”) To prove that double flips were the future of free skiing and not relegated to specialty jumps, Olson would need to land it again, somewhere else. He decided that the 2008 X Games Big Air event would be the right venue, and he promptly won a gold medal, inevitably setting the standard for what the sport would become. By 2009, the trend was solidified by multiple athletes throwing double flips at the X Games Big Air. Jon continued his competitive ways by bringing new double flips to the event, along with other athletes like Simon Dumont, Jacob Wester, and PK Hunder all throwing their own variation of double flips. This was the beginning of an explosion of new tricks that ultimately changed the level of talent required to become a professional freestyle skier or snowboarder. Today, having a double flip in your bag of tricks is an unofficial prerequisite to becoming a paid athlete.
Of course it’s not only the professional athletes who are pushing the sport forward. Working in parallel are the ski companies and brands that provide the athletes with cutting edge equipment that’s making skiing easier than ever. Take for instance the biggest buzzword in skiing over the past few years: rocker technology. Before rocker became commonplace, skis would typically have camber that ran the length of the ski. This was great for holding an edge and carving, but it caused skis to be less nimble- a quality that’s blown the doors open for powder and park skiers alike. Now, ski manufacturers have advanced rocker technology to the point where it can be found to some degree in just about every ski, whether it’s 120mm under foot or a frontside carving ski for beginners. The result is that skis are becoming even easier to use than ever, making difficult feats seem more reasonable. Now, professional skiers don't feel restricted by their equipment; they feel empowered by it.
Another advancement that’s come around in recent years, is the increase availability and quality of Alpine Touring bindings. Combined with better skis that are geared towards backcountry excursions, Alpine Touring bindings have blown open the doors for skiers to be able to access terrain that had previously been beyond their reach. Now skiers who are interested in finding private lines and escaping the chaos of the resorts are able to head out on their own into the backcountry where untouched lines exist all Winter long.
With competitive athletes using better equipment than ever, there’s only one more component needed to complete the trifecta that’s driving progression. Also behind the wheel are social media and mobile technologies. It’s no secret- the advent of social media has given rise to a culture of constant comparisons. Whether you’re 15 or 50, it’s probably impossible for you to say that you’ve never compared your life to a peer who’s publicized their success across Facebook or Instagram. One of the most common measures of comparison? How much fun someone is having. That’s why, it could be argued, smart phones and POV cameras such as the GoPro are equally responsible for progressing the sport. You’ve heard the phrase, “Do something cool for the camera,” before right? Well now the phrase is often followed by, “so I can post it on Instagram,” if only assumed.
So the landscape of skiing’s progression really looks like this: Ski manufacturers are making better, easier to use products every year. They need to market these new products, so they pay professional athletes to represent their brand. Of course, there are a relatively small number of skiers who end up becoming paid professionals, which means there’s a lot of competition on the way up. This competition leads to a culture of one-upping each other- a feat that’s easier to accomplish with better ski equipment, and easier to promote through POV cameras, smart phones, and social media. On the other end of the spectrum, kids see their favorite professional athletes landing new, amazing tricks and skiing absurd lines. They’re inspired to do it too, so they buy a pair of the latest, easy to ski skis, strap on their GoPros, and take photos of themselves and their friends to post on social media. The problem though, is that it’s not that cool to just ski down a hill anymore. Now to be cool and stand out, you have to be throwing crazier tricks in the terrain park, dropping taller cliffs, skiing bigger lines, finding deeper snow, or exposing yourself to riskier terrain than ever before. All the while, this cocktail of idolization, peer pressure, and ski technology push the danger meter ever closer to the red.
It’s this notion that begs the question, “Are we pushing the sport too far?”
Have We Found the Proverbial Limit?
Back a dozen or so years when I was a kid in my early teens, I used to watch ski movies like “Happy Dayz,” "Forward,” or “Focused.” Coming from Central New York, I was skiing a lot, but mostly restricted to feeder hills with a 700’ vertical. This meant I had limited access to cliffs or big lines of any type, so much of my time was spent trying to emulate the park tricks I was seeing in the movies. Back in the mid 2000’s, this meant that I could stay just a few steps behind my idols by throwing some small tricks like a 720 or a 270 off a rail. While they seemed more difficult at the time, it’s all but obvious that these tricks were of a much lower consequence than what we’re seeing today. Now, we see kids like 13 year old Nico Porteous who’s already throwing double flips off huge terrain park jumps.
So, have we reached the limit yet? Have we pushed things too far when our world of peer pressure and competition have resulted in 12 year old kids hurling themselves off huge jumps, flipping twice in the air, and hoping to land? I mean, to give this some perspective, a person of this age can only see G and PG movies at a theater, may still need to ride in a booster seat, are two years away from being able to legally work, and roughly 4 years away from being able to drive. At 12 years old, a kid is still just that- a kid. Some would argue that this is proof enough that our sport is ultimately too dangerous, especially when it comes to the welfare of children.
I’m not so quick to close the case though. To me, the only way to confirm that we’ve pushed the sport too far is to look at the rate of injuries over the last dozen or so years to see if things have changed. I mean after all, it’s not the fear of the tricks themselves or even falling that concerns people- it’s the injuries (both serious and non-severe) that cause people to question how far we’re taking the sport. So with that notion in mind, I set out to find as much information as I could regarding injury rates in skiing and snowboarding. What I discovered might surprise you.
The first question I asked in my research was, “How many people get injured skiing, and has this rate changed over the last 30 years?”
Well, what I found was that since 1978, the rate of injuries has actually decreased. According to a study called, "Comparison of Downhill Ski Injury Patterns— 1978 - 81 vs. 1988 - 90,” the rate of ski injuries between 1978 - 81 was 3.3 injuries per 1,000 skier visits. In an updated version of that study, released in 2011, the number’s dropped to just about 2 injuries per 1,000 skier visits. That’s about a 40% decrease in skier injuries in the last 30 or so years. In reading these studies, it’s clear that the reduction is attributed to improved ski equipment, particularly in terms of releasable bindings and plastic molded ski boots. By 1978, both releasable ski bindings and molded ski boots had been invented, but they were still in their early years. As a result, ankle and knee injuries became less common over the next decade or so as the technology was dialed in to optimize safety.
So the answer to the first question is definitive: over the last 30 years, there’s been an approximate 40% decrease in ski injuries. The issue I have with this conclusion though, is that it may actually be hiding the bottom line here. Even if ski injuries have decreased overall, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the severity of the injuries has also decreased. That is, if the decrease is attributed to less lower body injuries, then couldn’t there still be an increase in severe injuries?
Consider this: If you have 10 injured skiers from 1978, the injury rates tell us that we’d have 6 injured skiers in 2011. While the 4 less injuries are attributed to better equipment, isn’t it possible that 7/10 skiers in 1978 suffered injuries from their bad equipment, while only 2/6 had similar injuries in 2011? If that was the case, then in 1978 about 3/10 injured skiers could have some other type of injury, while 4/6 injured skiers in 2011 would have a different injury. In this scenario, the rate for other types of injury actually would’ve increased. Not knowing if this was the case, I found myself asking another question.
Are injuries more severe now than they used to be?
Well as it turns out, the short and simple answer is, “yes.” In the last decade or so, there has been an increase in the number of catastrophic injuries (defined as including comas, paraplegia, serious head injuries, or spinal injuries). In fact, in one particular comparison, the number was just about doubled. In 2012-2013, there were 73 serious injuries while 1999-2000 saw just 44. Pretty alarming right? Well, here’s the thing. In the 1999 - 2000 winter season, the grand total of 44 catastrophic injuries was slightly above the average of 38 per year at that point. That number, 44, is representative of how many people in the entire United States were seriously injured while skiing or snowboarding during that season. It’s also estimated that there were 52.2 million total ski area visits that winter, meaning that the rate of catastrophic injury in 1999 - 2000 was about .84 per million skier/snowboarder visits. Looked at another way, it’s estimated that there were 10.4 million total snow sport participants that season. Of the 10.4 million, only 44 were catastrophically injured.
Knowing that, let’s take a quick look at the numbers from the 2013-2014 season (the most current numbers available). During this season, there was a grand total of 52 catastrophic injuries. In terms of rate of injury, there were approximately .92 catastrophic injuries per million skier visits. That’s up about .08 from the 1999 - 2000 winter season. So the simple answer to this question is yes, the rate of catastrophic injuries has increased over the past decade, but the overall rates remained staggeringly low. Feeling good about what I learned about catastrophic injury rates, I had just one question left to ask.
Are skiing deaths more common than they used to be?
This is the big one. After establishing that overall injuries rates have decreased, and catastrophic injuries have seen a slight increase in the last 15 years, it was time to bring my research full circle. The question of whether we’re pushing the sport too far surfaced after realizing how many professional athletes we’ve lost to the sport in recent years. With that in mind, the only way to answer the question, is to examine whether or not fatality rates have risen amongst skiers in recent years.
Using the same two pieces of research that described catastrophic injury rates, I was able to compare snowsport fatalities from the 1999 - 2000 season, with every season from 2004 - 2013. According to the Wilderness Medical Society’s 2000 report, there were 30 fatalities in the 1999 - 2000 ski season, a slight dip from the 34 per year average. Comparatively, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), says that there were 32 fatalities in the 2013 - 2014 ski season, which was slightly below the 10 year average of 38.7 deaths a year. What we can draw from this, is that much like catastrophic injuries, skiing fatalities have increased in the last 15 years, but only by a very small percentage. To further illustrate the point, the rate of skier deaths in the 1999 - 2000 ski season was 0.57 deaths per million skier/snowboarder visits, while in 2013 - 2014, the rate was 0.67 deaths per million visits. Again, there has been an increase, but the difference is all but negligible. In fact, the study from the Wilderness Medical Society tells us that during that time, the fatality rate for bicycling was over 7x that of winter sports (21.2 deaths per million compared to just 2.88).
So what does it all mean? Well, for starters it’s worth mentioning that skiing and snowboarding are actually very safe sports. In my research, I found all kinds of comparisons, but the underlying fact remained the same: when compared to other sports and activities, skiing and snowboarding were amongst the safest. Tennis, a sport that most people would assume to be safe, has a typical injury rate of 30/1,000 players. Comparatively, skiing has an injury rate of between 2-3/1,000 visits. That’s nearly 10 times safer than playing tennis.
Ultimately, the final move is yours to make. When it comes time to try that new trick, ski that new line, or drop off that cliff, you have to remember who’s in control of those two skis. Despite the notion that somehow “we” are pushing the sport too far, it’s crucial to realize that the idea of “pushing it too far” is a very personal question to ask. When it comes down to it, you’d be hard pressed to convince me that the sport of skiing made you do it, and that the final thoughts you have before dropping in aren’t centered around your own set of goals and ambitions. Sure, you can suggest there is an element of peer pressure involved, but that’s life. On a basic level, peer pressure is what drives the world we live in. Healthy competition is a crucial element throughout life, regardless of whether there’s two skis on your feet and three cameras pointed at you.
So oddly enough, after all of this research, there’s really only one way to answer the question, “Are we pushing the sport of skiing too far?” The only appropriate response has to be, “Only if you’re pushing yourself too far.”
(Editor’s Note: While we were researching and writing this article, another one of skiing’s legends passed away doing what he loved. Erik Roner, a close friend of Shance McConkey’s, passed away from a sky diving incident. By all accounts Erik’s accident was a complete fluke. Erik was an accomplished sky diver and his jump that day was not unlike any of his other average sky dives. Still, as fate would have it, tragedy defied Erik’s carefully calculated odds, resulting in the outcome that everyone fears the most. So while we’ve answered the question by turning the focus not on the sport of skiing itself, but on the individual skier who is making their own decisions, it is important to realize that like everything in life, taking risks is really a game of odds. Unfortunately, it only takes one miscalculation to bring things to an end. Rest in peace Erik Roner, by all accounts you were a great man and you’ve certainly left your mark on the sports of skiing, base jumping, and sky diving.)
1969 - 2009
Before leaving us, Shane changed the way we think about ski shapes. Inspired by water skis, Shane convinced Volant to create the Spatula, the world’s first rockered ski for snow. Beyond revolutionizing ski design, Shane was also an incredible skier and comedian- giving ski culture landmark moments like “Saucerboy”. Shane passed away in 2009 as the result of a ski base jump accident. You can learn more about Shane’s legacy and donate in his name by visiting the Shane McConkey Foundation’s official website.
1982 - 2012
Sarah was the definition of a pioneer when it comes to Women’s free skiing. In her time as a professional skier, she successfully lobbied to have Women’s skiing events included in both the X-Games and the Olympics- opining the doors for female skiers everywhere. She was a talented skier too- having won five X-Games gold medals amongst numerous other podium finishes. Sarah passed away in January 2012 while training at the Superpipe in Park City, Utah.
1977 - 2014
JP wasn’t just a skier. He was also an innovator and major influencer in the realm of free skiing. Back in 1998, before twin tip skis were even available for purchase, JP helped convince Salomon to release the 1080- arguably the first freestyle specific ski. Four years later in 2002, JP founded Armada Skis alongside Tanner Hall- one of the only companies dedicated to making twin tip skis at the time. JP remained a successful and prominent free skier until an avalanche took his life in Chile in September 2014.
1983 - 2010
In his time, CR Johnson defined what it meant to push the limits of skiing. Well before the switch 1080 threatened to cap skiing’s progression in the mid 2000’s, CR had already landed a 1440 back in 1999. As a professional Superpipe skier, CR raised expectations for amplitude in the 2003 X-Games when he boosted as much as 20 feet out of the half pipe. Unfortunately, a life threatening accident at Brighton resort put an end to his competition career as he was unable to recapture his pre-injury performances. Still, CR managed to charge back from his injury and over the next few years put together some incredible backcountry skiing segments for numerous films. Ultimately though, it was CR’s hard charging ways that lead to his death at Squaw Valley in 2010.
1980 - 2010
Arne may be one of the biggest unsung heroes in skiing. If you’ve ever skied on a par of Blizzard skis with Flipcore, then you’ve skied on the brainchild of Arne. One day back in the late 2000’s, Arne (a sponsored Blizzard skier) was skiing with his area’s Blizzard rep, Clem Smith. As they talked, Arne mentioned the idea of flipping the way that rocker skis were built to give them a more natural tendency to hold their rocker shape. The result of that conversation was Flipcore- a technology that put Blizzard skis on the map and made other ski manufacturers strongly consider the implications and possibility of rocker technology on more than just powder skis. Unfortunately, Arne passed away in 2010 in Peru following a skiing accident.
1973 - 2011
In the history of free skiing, few names stand out as being as fearless as Jamie Pierre. Not only was Jamie an ultra talented big mountain skier, but he also loved to push the limits of what was physically possible. Specifically, Jamie got a thrill out of dropping gigantic cliffs. In 2006, Jamie set a world record when he survived a 255 foot cliff drop in the Grand Targhee backcountry. In the end though, it wasn’t an enormous cliff that got the best of him. Rather, Jamie passed away at Snowbird Resort in Utah after getting caught in an avalanche while skiing some preseason powder.
1: Shealy, Jasper E. Skiing Trauma and Safety: Ninth International Symposium, Issue 1182. Baltimore: ASTM, 1993. Skiing Trauma and Safety: Ninth International Symposium, Issue 1182. Google Books. Web. Oct.-Nov. 2015.
2: Langran, Mike. "Latest Research News from ISSS 2011 Conference." Ski Injury. Ski-Injury.com, May 2011. Web. Oct.-Nov. 2015.
3: Byrd, Dave. "Facts About Skiing / Snowboarding Safety." NSAA Fact Sheet. National Ski Areas Association, 10 Apr. 2013. Web. Oct.-Nov. 2015.
4: Heneved, Edward, MD. "Skiing and Snowboarding Injuries in the Year 2000." Skiing and Snowboarding Injuries in the Year 2000. Wilderness Medical Society. Web. Oct.-Nov. 2015.
5: Byrd, Dave. "Skier/Snowboarder Catastrophic Injuries from 2013-14 Season." National Ski Areas Association, 1 Oct. 2014. Web. Oct.-Nov. 2015.