Deaths, 10 minutes apart, year’s first on slopes
Two men skiing at Snowmass Ski Area died within minutes of each other Wednesday, the first on-mountain deaths of the season at local ski areas. Heart attacks likely were the cause.The names and hometowns of the men, who were on separate parts of the mountain, were not released pending notification of their families, Pitkin County Coroner Steve Ayers said. One man was 61, and the other was in his 70s.Until an autopsy is performed today, the deaths are considered a result of natural causes, Ayers said. The men did not strike any objects, and both cases appear unrelated.”Most of the time, statistically, when somebody has a sudden death for no apparent reason, it’s almost always cardiac-related,” Ayers said.Ski patrollers were notified of the men about 10 minutes apart. The 61-year-old victim was found unconscious on the Turkey Trot trail around noon. Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle said the man had been skiing with friends.The other man was found unconscious near a lift tower of the Big Burn lift. It wasn’t known if the man was skiing with someone or alone, Hanle said.The nearly simultaneous calls left patrollers scrambling.”It’s certainly odd to have incidents like this take place simultaneously, but we had the equipment and the personnel to respond to both of them,” Hanle said.Aspen ambulances were on standby to provide aid to the Snowmass district if needed, Ayers added.”Each ambulance district has usually one advanced life-support ambulance on call 24-7,” he said. “They have backup capabilities, but sometimes the backup capability is not advanced life support so they call for mutual aid.”One of the victims was pronounced dead at the Snowmass Ski Area medical clinic; the other was declared dead at Aspen Valley Hospital.Statistics on how many people die of heart attacks each ski season weren’t available.”Unfortunately, it seems like we have a couple every year,” Hanle said.On the ski hills, there is an average of 40 percent less oxygen than at sea level, which “does strain the body,” Ayers said.Even in Aspen, at about 9,000 feet, people can suffer from mountain sickness, high-altitude pulmonary edema and high-altitude cerebral edema. The latter two can be fatal.But “there is no clear evidence that exertion at altitude causes heart attacks more than exertion at sea level,” Ayers said. “A lot of people assume that.”The body, however, is working harder at higher altitudes, and “there’s more stress hormones and things that tend to cause heart attacks,” he said.But statistically, the Aspen area does not have “a higher percentage of 60-year-olds [dying] than they do in Chicago. It’s just not the case.”Front Range coroners are studying how elevation affects the heart and other organs, Ayers said.Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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