Will Schooler, who suffered a head injury while skiing a handrail last weekend, died Monday. The 20-year-old Edmonton, Alberta native had been enrolled in the Ski Resort Operations and Management program at Selkirk College in Nelson, British Columbia.
James Frost, a close friend, said that Schooler's fall seemed innocuous at first, and that he continued hitting the rail afterward. He left the rail session in Nelson in seemingly healthy condition.
The severity of Schooler's injury became apparent the following morning, when friends came to his home to pick him up to go ski touring and found him unconscious. He was rushed to Kootenay Lake Hospital, then airlifted to Kelowna General Hospital. He died Monday morning, the day before his 21st birthday.
"[Schooler] sustained a blunt force head trauma during a skiing incident and ultimately succumbed to that," Chico Newell, Interior Regional Coroner at the B.C. Coroner's Service, told ESPN. "He was not wearing a helmet."
Schooler's death is thought to be the first ski fatality to result from an urban rail accident. In 2005, snowboarder Ryan Lichtenberg died at age 19 from a head injury sustained on a handrail in Breckenridge, Colo.
"[Schooler] had a love for the mountains. That's what drew him out here into the Kootenay Rockies, he aspired to be a great all-around skier," Frost said.
Schooler's death raises awareness of the dangers of urban skiing. Skiers are well aware of the risks inherent in backcountry skiing, but urban and terrain park skiing, devoid of unpredictable environmental dangers such as avalanches, are generally considered safer than backcountry skiing.
When it comes to film and photo projects, the appearance of danger factors into pro skiers' choices of which features to hit. "The riskiness of features that aren't designed for skiing is what makes them so interesting," said Nate Abbott, a long-time photographer and senior editor at Freeskier. "There's always the potential that a photo or video shot won't be used if the spot doesn't look radical enough." Consequently, skiers try to skirt the risk of not getting published by adding risk to the stunts they do on camera, often with harrowing results.
Last winter, skier Nick Martini was filming a handrail in Spokane, Wash., with Poor Boyz Productions when he caught an edge attempting a switch-up. "I fell head-first down the stairs," he says, "I almost cleared the end of the stair set, but I caught the very last stair in my abdominal region."
The force of the fall bruised Martini's heart and tore his spleen into four pieces. By the time he reached the hospital, he'd already lost two pints of blood and underwent emergency surgery to stop the bleeding and remove the ruptured spleen. Days after the surgery, Martini returned to the hospital with chest pain and found that he had developed a pulmonary embolism.
Photographers like Abbott do their best to manage risk for the athletes they shoot. "My job involves being a sounding board," Abbott says, "to make sure that I feel comfortable with the skill level of the athletes involved and with assessing the risks of a specific location." If he feels a setup is too dangerous, Abbott says he'll put away the camera and pull the plug on the shoot.
Taking a pass on the most ill-conceived features can minimize the risk in urban skiing, but it can't eliminate it in a sport where pushing the limits is the motto. Even on comparatively tame rails, urban skiers perform a balancing act between the exhibition of skill and extreme peril.