Resort says it will use more ropes and signage when needed to discourage uphill traffic and warn of potential hazards
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — With the discovery phase of a trial over last year’s inbounds avalanche death of a teenage skier under way, Vail Resorts this week announced that it has changed the way ski patrollers manage the Vail Ski Area terrain where the deadly incident occurred.
Based on its own review of the avalanche on Prima Cornice, Vail officials said there may be times when patrollers use more ropes and signage to indicate closures and potential danger. The changes were instituted at the start of this season, according to a statement from Vail Resorts.
“Vail Resorts takes safety as its highest priority, and we continually re-evaluate and adapt based on new information or changing skier behavior. The Company remains a defendant in a lawsuit concerning this incident and will not be making additional comments. We remain incredibly saddened by the events of that day, and our deepest sympathy continues to go out to the family of Taft Conlin,” the company said in it statement.
Conlin, then 13, was skiing on Prima Cornice with friends last year on Jan. 22 when the group entered lower Prima Cornice through an open gate, then climbed up the slope to find more powder. The upper part of the trail and the upper access gates were closed. Several of the boys were ultimately swept back down the mountain by an avalanche, and parts of the incident were recorded by a helmet cam worn by one of the skiers. Conlin died from blunt force trauma, according to the official coroner’s report.
Conlin’s family subsequently sued Vail Resorts, claiming the company was reckless and negligent in the way it managed the terrain, and that the ski area failed to live up to its obligations under very specific sections of the Colorado Ski Safety Act that define how resorts have to mark closures.
Vail Resorts moved to have the case dismissed, claiming that avalanches are one of the inherent risks of skiing for which ski areas can’t be held liable, but an Eagle County Court refused to dismiss the case on those grounds.
In a similar case involving another inbounds avalanche death that happened on the same day at Winter Park, a Grand County court did dismiss a lawsuit, finding that inbounds avalanches fall squarely within the definition of inherent risks under the Ski Safety Act.
Vail Resorts said the decision to change management of the terrain was made independently of the ongoing lawsuit. The company said it believes its patrollers and mountain managers made the right choices last year on the day Taft Conlin died.
“Prior to the accident, our ski patrol had not anticipated that skiers or riders would hike into the closed terrain from the lower gate. As a result, we continue to believe that our ski patrol had taken all appropriate actions regarding mitigation, closures and openings in this area,” Vail Resorts said in its statement.
During the most recent phase of the lawsuit, Steamboat Springs attorney Jim Heckbert said documents submitted by Vail Resorts outline the management of Prima Cornice in the days leading up to the deadly slide.
“The Vail documents are notable for they do not contain,” Heckbert said via email. “No avalanche control work done on Prima Cornice prior to January 22, 2012. They have not given me anything showing snow stability evaluation using snow pits was done. They claim two ski patrollers made one ski cutting run somewhere on Prima Cornice the morning of the slide.’
Vail Resorts said it learned from the review of the slide.
“In the time following the accident, our ski patrol carefully reviewed the terrain and determined, given what they now know about potential skier behavior in this area, that when the upper Prima Cornice gate is closed due to avalanche concerns, they will keep the lower Prima Cornice gate closed as well,” according to the statement released this week.
“The two gates have been operated in this way since the beginning of this ski season. Ski patrol will continue to operate these gates together when there is potential avalanche danger on either portion of Prima Cornice, or if conditions are appropriate to allow us to open the terrain served by the lower Prima Cornice gate when the upper gate remains closed, we will provide additional signs or ropes warning of the closed upper terrain,” the statement continues.
Heckbert said the statement from Vail Resorts is not a prelude to a settlement of the lawsuit. He said he is requesting more specific documents on management of the Prima Cornice terrain.