Colorado courts grappling with inbounds avalanche deaths

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Looking toward the area on Prima Cornice where the avalanche started. Photo courtesy Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Click on the photo to read the full CAIC report on the slide.

One case dismissed as another heads toward jury trial: outcome could hinge on interpretation of Colorado Ski Safety Act’s ‘inherent risks of skiing’ definition

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Two Colorado judges have reached dramatically different conclusions about a pair of inbounds avalanche deaths that occurred on the same day at Winter Park and Vail ski areas last season.

Both Colorado skiers died Jan. 22, 2012, after one of last season’s first big snowstorms dumped fresh powder atop a rotten base layer, leading to dangerous avalanche conditions across the state.

In early December, Broomfield District Court Judge Patrick Murphy rejected arguments by Vail Resorts attorneys that the avalanche that killed teenager Taft Conlin on the Prima Cornice trail at Vail Ski Area was an inherent risk of skiing, as defined by the Colorado Ski Safety Act.

In late December, Grand County District Court Judge Mary Hoak dismissed a similar lawsuit against Intrawest Winter Park Operations Corporation in the death of Christopher Norris, who was also killed by an avalanche while skiing an inbounds area at Winter Park.

Hoak ruled concluded “that the inbounds avalanche falls squarely within the definition of inherent dangers and risks of skiing.” Read the court order here. Continue reading

Colorado: Judge rejects Vail Resorts’ claim that avalanches are an inherent risk of inbounds, lift-served resort skiing

Vail will have to produce avalanche safety documents for trial

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A jury trial may determine whether Vail Resorts has any liability for the Jan. 22 avalanche death of 13-year-old Taft Conlin on Prima Cornice.

By Bob Berwyn

* some discusssion of this story on the Telemark Tips forum.

FRISCO — Vail Resorts failed last week to convince a judge that avalanches are an inherent risk of skiing on the company’s flagship mountain. Broomfield District Court Judge Patrick Murphy declined to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the family of Taft Conlin, who was killed by a snowslide on Prima Cornice in January 2012.

The company’s argument that avalanches are an inherent risk of skiing inbounds at ski areas may surprise a great many skiers, most of whom probably assume that they won’t be exposed to avalanche danger when they’re riding resort lifts and skiing on marked trails. Read Vail’s motion to dismiss here.

Advocating on behalf of Conlin’s family and for all skiers, attorney Jim Heckbert urged the court to reject Vail Resorts’ claims.

“If one is to accept the Defendant’s arguments, a ski area operator is permitted to negligently or knowingly expose skiers to the danger of death by avalanches with impunity. Because the risk of avalanche on January 22. 2012, could have been eliminated through the use of reasonable safety measures, the risk was not an inherent danger of skiing,” Heckbert wrote in the response to the the Vail Resorts motion to dismiss. Read the entire response here. Continue reading

Vail Resorts dials back earnings expectations

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Will the early season snow drought affect Vail’s bottom line? Only time will tell. Bob Berwyn photo.

Colorado’s second consecutive early season snow drought may be affecting pass sales and advance bookings

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Vail Resorts stock swooned a bit, but then started to recover, after   CEO and chairman Rob Katz, said this week that it may be a challenge for his company to achieve its previously stated earnings goals.

MTN dropped as much as 12 percent and ended the day down 8 percent, at about $52 per share, after Katz said that early season booking trends are not as strong as they could be. The stock price started to recover Wednesday, climbing back up about 2.5 percent, perhaps with investors, just like skiers, taking a wait and see attitude.

That was Katz’s line, too, as he told investors that the holiday season will likely tell the tale.

“We will know more about the season after the holidays and intend to address our fiscal 2013 guidance when we release our ski season metrics in mid-January,” Katz said in the earning statements released to investors early Tuesday morning.

For the first quarter of fiscal year 2013, the company reported a net loss of $60.6 million compared to a net loss of $55.7 million in the same period in the prior year, a decline of 8.7 percent.

Season passes helped drive revenue in the quarter, with sales to-date (including 4-Packs) up about 5 percent in units and approximately 8 percent in revenue compared to the same period in the prior year, and adjusted as if Kirkwood were owned in both periods.

But lack of early season snowfall in Colorado may be affecting overall sales. Katz said current weather conditions are a concern for skiers who have delayed their pass-purchasing decisions.

“The total growth of the (pass) program is slightly below our expectations, as we believe that the amount of sales that we pulled forward to earlier selling periods was somewhat larger than expected,” he said. “Sales in Tahoe and international markets continued to show the most strength. We expect the final results of the program will be generally consistent with these percentage increases as final sales conclude in the coming weeks,” he added.

Overall,  lodging reservations are slightly down from last year, but a kids-ski-free with lodging program at Keystone has helped drive strong early bookings at that Summit County resort. Based on historical averages, less than half the winter season reservations are on the books this time of year.

With the ski season just ramping up, Katz said the earnings figures from the first fiscal quarter generally reflect late summer activity at the company’s properties, and that there were “positive trends” in summer mountain and lodging operations, with improved visitation driving increased revenue from summer activities and dining.

The company sold four luxury condos at the Ritz-Carlton Residences in Vail and reported a positive net real estate cash flow of $5.5 million for the quarter.

Vail Resorts 2012 earnings, revenue and skier visits down

Company reports increases in season pass sales and advance bookings

Breckenridge ski resort peaks seen from Dillon, Colorado.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — After one of the toughest seasons in memory, Vail Resorts wrapped up its fiscal year 2012 with earnings down about 7.5 percent from 2011, according to the company’s earnings statement released today (Sept. 25).

Total net revenue was $1,024.4 million in 2012 compared to $1,167.0 million in the prior year, a 12.2 percent decrease.

For 2012, VR reported a net income of $16.5 million, down from $34.5 million in 2011, as skier visits dropped steeply at the company’s California and Colorado ski areas. In Colorado (Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone and Breckenridge) visits dropped 8.9 percent, from 5.2 million in 2011 to 4.8 million in 2012.

Overall VR skier visits dropped by 12.1 percent, from 7 million in 2011 to 6.1 million in 2012. Continue reading

Breckenridge: New Peak 8 development in the works

Town council to discuss development agreement that would enable site work before a final building permit is issued

More development at Peak 8?

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The latest proposal for a new timeshare development at Peak 8, up for discussion at a July 24 town council meeting, could give the developers (Breckenridge Grand Vacation) an opportunity to get a head start on the proposed timeshare project by allowing them to start demolishing the Bergenhof and building infrastructure before the actual building permit is issued.

That would be a new path for the town, since development codes don’t allow  site work to begin before a building permit is issued.

The deal, which has been in the works for several months, includes Vail Resorts selling the property to the timeshare developer, as well as an increase in overall density above what is allowed on the site and a decrease in parking spaces.

The developers also want to gain density by reclassifying already built and future proposed public restroom space, employee locker room space and storage spaces as listed in the Peak 7 and 8 Master Plan as skier services to new category that does not require density.

To sweeten the pot, the developer has proposed donating $25,000 to the town for preservation activities in Cucumber Gulch.

Check out the staff memo and the proposed development agreement in the town council packet for the July 24 meeting.

Skiing: Courts define limits of season pass liability waivers

The extent of season pass liability waivers are being tested in Colorado courts. PHOTO BY BOB BERWYN.

Judges rule that waivers don’t exempt ski areas from meeting requirements of the Ski Safety Act

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY —Judges in Colorado ski towns are starting to carve out a little bit of room for skiers to claim damages when ski areas are found to violate specific provisions of the Ski Safety Act.

At issue are the broad liability waivers that skiers and snowboarders sign when they purchase season passes. Daily lift tickets also include a waiver, but the season pass waivers have included an additional liability waiver under which pass holders give up their rights to sue for negligence.

Resorts have consistently used to waivers to counter lawsuits, asserting they are protected from most claims by boilerplate waiver language like this:

“The Undersigned expressly ASSUME ALL RISKS associated with Holder’s participation in the Activity, known or unknown, inherent or otherwise … “

It’s that added layer of legal insulation that’s being challenged in court, and on May 10, Pitkin County District Court Judge Denise Lynch ruled that the waiver doesn’t protect the Aspen Skiing Company from claims made by Ryan Bradley, who was injured Feb. 20, 2010 when he was hit by a jake table, installed on a chairlift to transport injured skiers. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Breckenridge: Peak 6 expansion decision due next month

Forest Service set to make final call on controversial ski area project

Breckenridge Peak 6 expansion proposal map.

A public site visit to the proposed Peak 6 expansion area drew a crowd.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Federal agencies are on track to release a final environmental study for a controversial ski area expansion at Breckenridge sometime in June, according to White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.

Click here to see all previous Summit Voice coverage of the Peak 6 process.

Most recently, the Forest Service submitted a biological study focusing mainly on lynx to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a required consultation under the Endangered Species Act.

Within 120 days, the Fish and Wildlife Service must respond with a formal biological opinion that evaluates and discloses impacts to listed species. The deadline is in early June, and the Fish and Wildlife Service is on track to meet that deadline, said Grand Junction-based USFWS biologist Kurt Broderdorp.

Since the two agencies have been communicating about the Peak 6 project for several years, Broderdorp said the Forest Service study didn’t include any groundbreaking information.

“It’s pretty straigthforward,” Broderdorp said, explaining that his agency must determine whether the proposed action will result in any significant adverse effects to lynx, the powder-loving wild cat that often wanders in the same terrain favored by Colorado skiers — shady, snow-coveredhigh-elevation slopes with thick clumps of spruce and fir trees. Continue reading

Colorado: Vail Resorts boosts new wilderness plan

Eagles Nest Wilderness, Gore Range, Colorado. PHOTO BY BOB BERWYN.

Sen. Mark Udall still seeking community consensus for new national forest designations in White River NF

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — A proposal to add more wilderness and other specially designated conservation and recreation areas in the White River National Forest got support from a key economic stakeholder last week, as Vail Resorts announced support for what’s now being called the central mountains wilderness proposal.

“The special nature of the economies in Colorado’s resort communities relies on the successful balance of offering thoughtfully developed recreation opportunities on our public lands with the preservation of pristine wilderness areas,” said Beth Ganz, Vail Resorts vice president of public affairs and sustainability. “Vail Resorts is proud to support this effort to strike that important balance. We believe this proposal and the protections it will provide are critical for Colorado.”

“The areas under consideration in Eagle and Summit counties have been identified as important ecological areas that provide wildlife habitat and serve as our community watersheds, including Hoosier Ridge near Breckenridge and West Lake Creek outside of Edwards. These areas will benefit greatly from the contemplated higher levels of protection and will contribute to the quality of life in our iconic mountain communities,” Vail Resorts announced on its web site. Continue reading

Breckenridge Ski Area extends season

Two extra weekends of turns — and free parking — on tap for Colorado skiers

Spring season extended at Breckenridge Ski Area. PHOTO COURTESY VAIL RESORTS/JACK AFFLECK.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY— For the first time since merging with Vail Resorts, Breckenridge Ski Area will extend the season in response to a flood of requests from loyal skiers.

The area’s high-altitude should ensure good conditions through late April. Breckenridge often stayed open into early May back in the 1980s, when old-timers can remember celebrating Cinco de Mayo with late-season turns on Peak 8.

The two-weekend bonus season will include only Peak 8 terrain, including the Imperial Express SuperChair, for  two additional weekends, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, April 20-22 and April 27-29, from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. each day. In addition, the resort will have a special 50th season extension day ticket price of $50 for those without passes and free parking in the gondola lots. Continue reading

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