Hitting the slopes with a heavy heart

Within the last week I was sadly reminded how tenuous and fragile is the tether that holds us here on earth. Every death that occurs in the world of winter snow sports seems tragic, but when it happens to a friend of yours, it is even more so. Like so many others on Mercer Island, I was honored to call David Pettigrew my friend.

David and I are a generation apart in age, and when we first met, it was in a player/coach relationship. As we both grew up, that relationship changed, until we were both adults who could share a beer together. I think it speaks volumes about David's heart that he accepted me in his circle of friends, and whenever I saw him, I was always met by that sly grin of his and a warm hello. His brother Kevin says it best: ``David was one of a kind.''

Every snow sport accident causes some introspection into the wisdom of participating in a sport which has such inherent risks and dangers. Yet isn't it because there is some risk and danger that many of us are attracted to these sports in the first place? I know for a fact that David looked forward to overcoming such risks whenever he was in the mountains; it was part of what motivated him.

Whenever there is a thrill involved in sports, there is some associated risk. When searching for that thrill and exhilaration, there is always a fine line beyond which the risk will outweigh the sought-after thrill. As I mentioned in this column just last month, I think the prevalence of movies, stories, and even advertisements that glamorize the extreme aspect of skiing create an unbalanced risk/reward expectation and ignore the reality that these are very difficult stunts to perform.

Nevertheless, these types of accidents do force a useful focus on the safety of winter snow sports. Let's face it: participating in sports will expose you to risk, and operating in a snowy environment is not always easy. But does that make skiing and snowboarding unsafe? If you use statistics to formulate your answer, then that answer is no.

For every million skier/snowboarder visits, there is less than one death. Compare this to other recreational pursuits. In boating, swimming and other water activities, there are approximately 17 deaths per million participants, according to data compiled by the National Safety Council. In bicycling there are about 7.1 deaths per million riders, which is almost ten times more dangerous than snow sports.

Most fatalities and injuries to skiers occur in the same demographic group that suffers from other high risk behaviors. Just as in car accidents, victims are predominantly male (85%) and in their late teens to late 20s (70%). If you are paying for automobile insurance for a young male driver, this will come as no secret to you.

With the great popularity of snowboarding in this demographic group, there have been some interesting studies about the relative safety of skiing when compared to riding a snowboard. Although snowboarding produces more upper body injuries than does skiing, and skiing produces more knee injuries than does snowboarding, preliminary data suggests that snowboarders do not incur any more fatal injuries than do skiers.

There are definitely ways to mitigate the risk of riding and sliding on the snow. For starters, adhere to the skier's responsibility code which is prominently displayed at virtually every ski resort. Pay attention to your environment, be aware of other skiers and riders, and don't push the level of your physical capabilities. It is okay to say you are done for the day.

In my former life as a military pilot, there was an old adage that went something like this: ``There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.'' I think about that concept every time I hear about an accident in the ski and snowboard world. I always get an overwhelming feeling of sadness, but this time it is worse, because the victim is not anonymous.

This past Sunday I skied a few runs at Stevens Pass on a brilliant, sun-splashed day. I looked around at all the people grabbing their slice of enjoyment and realized again what a gorgeous cathedral snow-covered mountains can represent. On one particular descent, I made a special effort to link together the best turns I possibly could, and I dedicated each one to David Pettigrew. I think he'd like that.

David grew up here on Mercer Island, right in front of us, and his was a truly infectious spirit. Along with many others, so many that we are almost impossible to count, I will really miss him.

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