Ski season is upon us!
Seven weeks have passed since Mt. Hood Skibowl was the scene of two serious accidents on New Year’s Eve, and large questions remain.
Both accidents happened near the intersection of Reynolds Run and the cat track that connects Lower Bowl with Multorpor.
At around 8:30 pm Dec. 31, 37-year-old former racer Brian Fletcher lost control at high speed, crashed hard and suffered traumatic injuries to his head and chest. He was declared dead on the mountain.
Just two hours after Fletcher's accident, another expert skier, 19-year-old Maya Barnard-Davidson, crashed at almost the exact same place on Reynolds and had to be life-flighted in a coma to OHSU in Portland. She suffered traumatic brain injury and is gradually recuperating through an intense rehabilitation program.
No news of the two accidents emerged until Fletcher’s father Andrew contacted the Oregonian more than a week after they took place. A reader comment on the Jan. 11 OregonLive article about Brian Fletcher’s death mentioned a second accident the same night involving a girl from The Dalles who turned out to be Maya Barnard-Davidson.
Both skiers were riding without helmets at the time of their accidents.
All of which raises some large questions worth considering:
The Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office sends out frequent press releases about everything from shooting deaths to “Shop with a Cop” fundraisers, and they are quick to alert the media about missing hikers and climbers on Mount Hood and traffic accident fatalities.
On January 7, for example a Clackamas County news release about a rescued climber on Mount Hood resulted in multiple nearly identical news stories. But no press release was sent about Brian Fletcher’s death at Skibowl on New Year's Eve, or about the accident involving Maya Barnard-Davidson the same night.
Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Sergeant Nathan Thompson, said ski accidents do not generally trigger press releases because “there’s no criminal element to a ski accident.”
“A lot of accidental deaths in Clackamas County don’t get press releases,” Thompson said.
The New Year's Eve accidents occurred on National Forest land (leased by Skibowl), and the Forest Service was contacted aboiut the fatality. But Mt. Hood National Forest rarely issues press releases, and did not send out a news release on this topic. Its most recent release went out Nov. 18, 2014, titled “Snow Makes Many Forest Roads Difficult to Travel.”
Skibowl and other Mount Hood resorts also send out plenty of news releases, promoting upcoming events, snow conditions and resort developments. On Jan. 9, for example, Skibowl sent out a news release titled, “Ratskeller Bar & Pizzeria Wins Best Apres Ski Bar in Oregon!”
But Skibowl did not inform the media or the public of the two serious accidents at the resort on New Year’s Eve, and did not make a public statement until Jan. 12, after the first news articles were published.
In response to a written request for comment, Skibowl spokesman Hans Wipper wrote, "Ski areas are required to report any fatality to the Forest Service within 24 hours. We are not qualified to comment on what other public agency's responsibilities are in this regard." As for the resort's responsibilities, Wipper wrote, "We defer to the wishes of the family, law enforcement, and other agencies."
When I contacted the Clackamas County Medical Examiner’s Office to learn the official cause of death for Brian Fletcher, I was told the information was not public. Eugene Gray, Forensic Administrator at the Oregon State Medical Examiner's Office, later informed me that “Medical Examiner records are not for public disclosure” under ORS 192.501 (36).
After reading through the statute, however, I saw that Medical Examiner records actually are available for disclosure — but only when “the public interest requires disclosure in the particular instance.”
Based on the wide public interest in accidents on public land on Mount Hood, I would argue that these records are clearly newsworthy and should be made available. What do you think?
Reynolds is an excellent giant slalom run with steep pitches in its upper regions and several rollers including one near the beginner's cat track used to traverse from the Lower Bowl to Multorpor. That intersection can get sketchy where the fast downhill traffic meets the slow cross-hill traverse.
The families of Brian Fletcher and Maya Barnard-Davidson have both criticized Skibowl’s decision to leave Reynolds open after Fletcher's death. They also have contacted Skibowl to ask the resort to add safety warnings and/or barriers to the portion of Reynolds where the accidents occurred.
Brian Fletcher’s mother Sandra told Shred Hood, “There should be signs there warning people to slow down. We just want to make sure they fix it so no one else gets hurt there.”
Skibowl disagrees with the families about the safety of Reynolds Run. What do you think?
This is bound to be an unpopular question, but the fact is, helmets are designed to lessen the harm from precisely these sorts of accidents.
Helmet use has doubled since 2003 to about 70 percent of skiers and snowboarders, and helmets are sometimes required for competitions and lessons. They have become a standard part of the ski/snowboard rental package. But resorts don't require them. Should they?
Given the seriousness of these two accidents and many others like them, is it time to consider requiring helmets?
Or is personal responsibility the best policy?