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Forest Service review clears Vail in avalanche death

Families not happy with conclusions, say the resort and Forest Service can and should do more to prevent similar accidents

A Google Earth view shows the location of the two gates on Prima Cornice. IMAGE COURTESY GOOGLE EARTH/CAIC.

This Google Earth view shows the size of the avalanche in relation to the terrain of Prima Cornice. IMAGE COURTESY GOOGLE EARTH/CAIC.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said his agency won’t require Vail Resorts to revamp its snow safety procedures in the wake of a large inbounds avalanche on Prima Cornice that killed 13-year-old Taft Conlin last winter. Read the Forest Service review here.

Conlin’s mother said she, as well as the families of some of the other youngsters involved in the accident, aren’t completely satisfied with the agency’s conclusions. Read the full statement from the families here.

Another skier died in a separate in-bounds avalanche at Winter Park on the same day during a season marked by some of the most treacherous avalanche conditions in recent memory.

Without directly addressing the circumstances of the Vail avalanche, top U.S. Forest Service avalanche experts said the recent trend of more inbounds and sidecountry avalanches is definitely a topic of discussion for the Forest Service and the ski industry.

Resort execs and snow safety pros discussed the topic during a winter gathering of the National Ski Areas Association, said Doug Abromeit, former director of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center.

“It definitely jumps out at me … it’s definitely atypical. There’s no denying the number of fatalities within ski area boundaries is on the rise. It’s on every snow safety director’s radar,” Abromeit said in a January 2012 interview.

“There’s a very elevated level of awareness about this among snow safety pros because of the new fat skis,” he said, referring to the fact that modern equipment has made it much easier for skiers to maneuver in avalanche-prone terrain. More details in this Summit Voice story.

Vail met all permit requirements

In the review of the Vail avalanche death, Forest Service officials scrutinized the resorts operations logs and review snow safety procedures, as well as a technical report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Fitzwilliams declared that the resort followed all the steps required by its permit.

“I find no indication of noncompliance with the special use authorization, the operating plan, or any related operational procedures,” Fitzwilliams wrote. “I find that pertinent site specific decisions and subsequent actions were made consistent with existing resort operating procedures.”

A review of the Winter Park inbounds avalanche death was completed several months ago, but Fitzwilliams said the Vail review took longer because of his schedule.

“I wanted to be able to personally review all the documents … I take this part of my job pretty seriously. As a landlord, I want to be sure that the resorts abide by the leases,” he said. “I wouldn’t shy away from telling them if they were not in compliance.

“Even though my review shows we don’t need to change the permit, there’s still due diligence to daily and annual operations,” he added. “We are learning, adapting and acting.”

“The safety of our guests and employees is our most important priority and as such, we are continuously reviewing and enhancing our operational policies and procedures, including following any incident and monitoring guest behavior on the mountain,” said Kelly Ladyga, Vail Resorts vice president of corporate communications.

“On behalf of Vail Mountain, Vail Ski Patrol and Vail Resorts, we continue to extend our deepest sympathy and support to the family and friends of Taft Conlin,” she said.

Families disappointed

Conlin’s mother, Louise Ingalls, said she was disappointed with the agency’s review. Along with the families of the other youngsters involved in the avalanche accident, Ingalls is pursuing additional steps to ensure that other families won’t suffer a similar loss.

Ingalls said she was hoping the Forest Service and resort would do more to prevent similar accidents in the future.

In a prepared statement, the families said they were surprised that an inbounds avalanche of this magnitude, resulting in death and injury, didn’t warrant a formal investigation of the accident by the Forest Service.

The January 22 slide ran about 400 vertical feet across a 200-foot section of the expert Prima Cornice terrain on Vail Mountain. The top section of the run was marked as closed and a rope line down the side of the run was marked with warning signs, but Conlin and four friends entered the run through an open gate lower down the slope, then sidestepped and traversed uphill to regain some vertical.

More questions than answers

According to the official report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the Vail ski patrol  “had begun mitigating the avalanche hazard in the Prima Cornice area, but their work had not progressed to the point where they would allow the public into the area accessed from the Upper Prima Cornice gate.”

The skiers told investigators that they followed tracks as they hiked/sidestepped and then traversed towards the area where the avalanche occurred.

The slide carried Conlin until he struck a tree, where he was partially buried, with both skis and one arm out of the snow. According to the Eagle County coroner, he died of chest injuries. A second skier was able to grab a tree and hang on until the slide passed. The avalanche carried the third skier over a cliff, where he survived unscathed.

“I still have a lot of questions about a lot of things,” Ingalls said, explaining that she doesn’t feel like she’s had a satisfactory response from Vail Resorts.

“I learned more about my son’s death from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center than I did from Vail,” she said.

Legal issues?

Kristi Ferraro, a local attorney whose son was injured in the avalanche, said, “I don’t believe the boys were doing anything wrong. They are expert skiers and were following all the rules of the skier responsibility code. The Colorado Ski Safety Act does not prohibit skiers from sidestepping up or traversing across a slope. The boys did not duck a rope or knowingly ski into the closed terrain. They accessed the run through an open gate.”

Ferraro said the parents have repeatedly asked Vail Resorts to “clear the boys’ names,” as the families don’t believe that they violated their duties under the Ski Safety Act because the  run was not properly closed.

In their statement on the accident, the families of the boys involved in the avalanche say the resort could have done more to alert skiers to the potential avalanche danger. According to Ferarro’s interpretation of the Ski Safety Act, resorts have an obligation to notify skiers “at each identified entrance of each portion of the slope that is closed.”

“The purpose of this provision (CRS Sections 33-44-107(4) and 109(3)) is to make clear to the public, by signs or ropes, that proceeding beyond the sign or rope is skiing into a closed area. If a ski area operator wants to prohibit sidestepping or traversing into a closed area, a sign or rope between the open gate and the closed area is required, because the open gate is another entrance to the closed area,” Ferraro said. “It is insufficient to close the run at the top, but not on the sides, if the closed area can be entered from the side.”

Ferraro said that, when the families raised this point with the Forest Service, several officials with the agency said skiers are only supposed to ski downhill in the fall line after entering terrain through a gate, an apparently unwritten rule that would probably come as a surprise to many Colorado skiers and snowboarders.

“We begged Vail Resorts in the first meeting and two subsequent meetings to change their roping and … signage policies, but they have steadfastly refused to commit to any changes” Ingalls said.

In light of this refusal, the families then turned to the Forest Service.

“I am confounded and saddened that in the wake of my son’s death in an avalanche of this scale on the front side of Vail Mountain, that both entities are unwilling to make any recommendations or changes,” she said. “We don’t want any other family to endure the heartbreak of losing a loved one for want of a sign or rope.”

Whitewash?

“The families’ disagreement is well-placed,” said veteran Denver trial attorney Jim Chalat, who has a national reputation for his handling of ski injury cases. “Their interpretation of the ski safety act … their focus on criteria for closing a trail are absolutely correct.

“The cost for running a rope down the skier’s right-hand side of lower Prima Cornice would be negligible and would have brought them into compliance with the standard set out in the Ski Safety Act (107 (4)),” Chalat said, explaining that the law requires resorts to close trails at each identifiable point of entry.

“With regard to the Forest Service report, I can understand and share the parents disagreement with the Forest Service. The White River National Forest Report whitewashes the incident. The Forest Service should be in the business of protecting the public, not acting in deference to Vail Resorts,” he said, pointing out that Vail Resorts has frequently won cases against its own customers based on the precise wording of the safety law.

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11 Responses

  1. I live in a ski town (Crested Butte) and am appalled by the forest service’s inaction regarding Vail Resort’s obvious negligence in this case. If Vail is indeed “in compliance” with their lease as this article states, the tragedy of this and other in-bounds avalanche deaths in Colorado point to a dire need for Vail to revise their snow safety procedures. In my opinion, as a resort skier, this is first the Resort’s duty. If the resort doesn’t care enough to do so, then it becomes the Forest Service’s duty. If the Forest Service will not require Vail to revise their procedures, I sincerely hope that Vail Resorts will do so anyway, there are plenty of skilled avalanche professionals here in Crested Butte and other ski resorts who could help Vail to become a safe resort and prevent more needless avalanche deaths in the future.

  2. It seems Bobby Katz and the Forest Service are best friends after all. It’s tough always getting what you want. Hopefully the court of law will actually decide what really happened.

    I once skied through an open gate only to run into ski patrol. Who then started threatening me, wanting to pull my pass, and telling me that I was in a closed area. After some time of arguing another ski patroller went through the open gate and realized that they had made a mistake by leaving it open. I was then allowed to continue skiing.

  3. It seems incredible to me that Vail Resorts would not want to be proactive in establishing the safest ski area in the country. Making the sorts of improvements in postings that the victims’ families are asking for would not imply any manner of guilt on the part of Vail Resorts for the death and injuries that occurred. Instead, it would demonstrate to the skiing public that Vail Resorts wishes to go beyond the minimum that is apparently endorsed by the Forest Service Supervisor ( absent a formal hearing) to decrease the probability of a repeat of this horrendous accident. By the way, if there is some unwritten rule that skiers can only ski down the fall line on a hill, it seems high time that this rule be made public and communicated in postings for all to see. An ounce of prevention is still worth a pound of cure!

    • I find it pretty hard to believe that the ski area would let anyone near a major ski trail in the heart of the resort with the avalanche danger only partly mitigated, as per the CAIC report. As for the “ski only downhill” rule, I’ve never heard that.

      On the other hand, if the rope line along the ridge at the top of Prima Cornice had visible avalanche danger warning signs, then hiking uphill from the lower gate may have been a questionable choice — and I hate to say that because I wasn’t there, but the issues of choices and judgment (along with communication, education and awareness) are, or should be, just as much part of this discussion as the specific requirements of the ski safety act, IMO.

  4. What about hiking up hill behind a closure? They are stretching the rules. In Whistler we now have to put avalanche signs at the bottom of ski runs while we do explosive avalanche control. The amount of fencing and signage is getting out of control. Still a tragedy that needs to be addressed. Increasingly we see a new rule – no hiking uphill printed on ski area maps and posted at the bottom of lifts. Does anyone read them?

    • Thanks for the insight. Here in CO managing non-traditional uphill traffic of all sorts is also an emerging issue (skinning up before the lifts open, etc).

      To me, a key question is whether the existing Forest Service and resort protocols and procedures are adequate to address all the emerging uses.

      On top of that, common sense and good judgment by users is required!

  5. Skiers know the ropes, we skiers have all done it. Ski the open gate and climb back into closed terrain because of the powder even though we are below the closed sign and know it’s there. Looking at the photos, I am surprised any of the terrain was open at all until the avalanche work was done. It appears strange to have everything around the area open and a center section closed. You are asking for trouble if someone decides to enter the area. You could have had the skiers skiing in open terrain and triggered a slide in the closed area that wrapped into the open terrain. In advanced terrain, it is never really safe. I have seen slides in areas where they have bombed the hell out of the area and someone hits a sweet spot and it slides. In an unstable snow year like this past season all runs are suspect regardless of inbounds or out of bounds.All season in Utah the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center was telling people ski slopes less than 25 to 30 degrees and we still had a number of deaths by people skiing steeper terrain. I am sorry for the family’s loss.

  6. I am not a skier, but common sense is not difficult to figure out. If I run a business and fail to provide adequate protection for the consumers when there is a risk of life or death, I am sure liable for such failure. If after a tragedy of this magnitude, I am counseled on how to improve safety for the consumers and I refuse to make such improvements, I have no rights to run such business. The life of a child or any other human being clearly has precedence over business interests.

  7. I am disappointed that Vail Resorts and the USFS would fail to adopt very basic and easily implemented changes that would eliminate the current ambiguity of their terrain closure rules and prevent this tragedy from happening again. In addition to being irresponsible generally, this inaction is long-term bad business for VR shareholders and poor stewardship of a (national forest) by the USFS. It calls into question the leadership of both of these organizations and I hope the financial and general press will investigate what has motivated the leaders of the two organizations to take their current position.

  8. How irresponsible both the ski company and the Forest Service are being. Given the tragedy that has occurred, it would seem that every effort would be made to prevent such tragedy in the future. It is appalling to me that there is no effort to increase signage when dangerous conditions exist. One would think that Vail would want to be a leader in the country regarding safety for skiers. I agree with Douglas above that if there is some unwritten rule that skiers can only ski down the fall line on a hill, it seems high time that this rule be made public and communicated in postings for all to see. Step up to the plate Vail, and do the right thing, not only what serves your big company.

  9. Gates are three feet wide. I have yet to see a skier descend from the gate down the fall line in a three foot column. The question raised is valid: at what point in between the open and closed gates did the run turn from open to closed? Nobody can tell you because the issue is not addressed in any guideline and was not addressed by ropes. The avalanche appears to have been triggered approximately mid-way between the two gates, probably closer to the lower gate than the upper gate. In the absence of other guidance, I don’t think that the midpoint of the gates is a completely unreasonable assumption to make to delineate where one portion of the run ends and one begins. But regardless of the details of this particular incident, defaulting to very different members of the community – ski patrollers, local skiers, out-of-towners, adults and children – to make their own interpretation of unnecessarily ambiguous rules is an undesirable state of affairs.

    There are many things in life that are out of our control. The really difficult judgments we make are the ones that deal with these unknowables and these judgements are, by their nature, imperfect. Ski patrollers, for example, are asked to make judgments about weather and snow conditions and terrain – about nature, which is almost always gray, and rarely black and white. Each rope that they put up is their best attempt to make a messy nature safer. It’s a difficult job that demands you to manage things that are unpredictable and out of your control and yet to have so very much at stake. There are other such jobs out there. Ask any parent.

    But for all the things that are not under our control, there are some that are. Providing better guidance to all constituents by eliminating known ambiguities in policies is one of those things. I think that Vail Resorts and the USFS recognize this. They certainly should recognize this, as they have been presented with a vivid, tragic example. Not to take action and provide clear guidance on a known ambiguity is a disservice to Vail’s ski patrollers, its community and its customers. It is irresponsible. And it is reckless.

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