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