Snow and Avalanche Center 2012 Avalanche News

Report dodges details in Vail avalanche death

Forest Service report says only that ski company didn't violate permit, procedures

VAIL, Colorado — Taft Conlin's parents say they're “confounded and saddened” that their son's death won't change Forest Service or ski company policies.

“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,” Conlin's mother, Louise Ingalls, said in a written statement. “We don't want another family to endure the heartbreak of losing a loved one for want of a sign or rope.”

The Forest Service's report about the avalanche that killed Conlin, issued Friday, said only that Vail Resorts complied with its operating procedures and Forest Service permit requirements.

The report did not address the incident, and isn't meant to, said Scott Fitzwilliams, forest supervisor with the White River National Forest.

A Colorado Avalanche Information Center report says Conlin and other skiers entered Lower Prima Cornice through an open gate, sidestepped up 120 feet and traversed around to the south when the avalanche engulfed them.

Vail Resorts has insisted the run was closed, but none of the reports indicate where, in those 120 feet, the skiers might have crossed from an open area to a closed area.

“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,” Kelly Ladyga, Vail Resorts' director of corporate communications, said in a statement. “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.”

Line in the snow? On Jan. 22, around 1 p.m., five young skiers passed through an open gate in the Lower Prima Cornice area looking for fresh snow. Several others had already skied into the area that day, after one of last winter's rare storms dropped new snow.

A rope indicating it was closed blocked the upper gate at the top of the Prima Cornice run.

Three of those skiers sidestepped about 120 feet up the hill and to the south when the avalanche released, according to the CAIC report.

Two skiers made it to safety, skiing down to the bottom of the Northwoods Express to report it. But the avalanche caught Conlin and carried him through a spruce forest until he came to rest against a tree, upside down.

Coroner Kara Bettis ruled that Conlin was killed by blunt force trauma — blows to his chest. He did not suffocate, she said.

The CAIC staff investigated the slide site the next day and saw numerous ski and snowboard tracks in the area.

“Since we do not know exactly when the tracks were made, we cannot completely rule out the possibility that another rider, not in this group, triggered the avalanche,” the CAIC report.

The Forest Service's review

In incidents like this, it's Forest Service policy to review operating plans and permits, Fitzwilliams said.

“If you find something out of whack, you change it, Fitzwilliams said. “We found no instances when they were in non-compliance.”

Fitzwilliams said he found nothing that needed to be changed in Vail Resorts' special use permit, the terms under which the company operates the White River National Forest.

“I found nothing in the permit that needed to be changed, and we depend on snow safety professionals who are out on the ground evaluating the changing conditions,” Fitzwilliams said. “But that doesn't mean we don't make year-to-year, day-to-day and hour-to-hour changes, based on conditions.”

In the hours following the avalanche, some reports said the boys ducked under a rope. Not true, Fitzwilliams said.

“The kids did not duck a rope. That was a rumor,” Fitzwilliams said.

What's closed, what's not?

Kristi Ferraro, a local attorney whose son Peter was injured in the avalanche said the boys did nothing wrong.

“They are expert skiers and were following all the rules of the skier responsibility code,” Ferraro said Friday in a statement.

“The Colorado Skier Safety Act does not prohibit skiers from sidestepping up or traversing across a slope,” Ferraro wrote. “The boys did not duck a rope or knowingly ski into the closed terrain. They accessed the run through an open gate.”

Under the Colorado Skier Safety Act, skiers have a duty not to ski on a ski slope that has been properly posted as “closed,” Ferraro said.

If part of a run is closed, the Skier Safety Act requires a sign notifying the public about the closure at each identified entrance of each portion of the closed slope, Ferraro said, citing the Skier Safety Act.

“The purpose of this provision is to make clear to the public, by signs or ropes, that proceeding beyond the sign or rope is skiing into a closed area,” Ferraro said. “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 into a closed area,” Ferraro said.

The boys entered the run from the side, as did several others during the day, according to incident reports.

“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.

No change

Ingalls, Taft's father Steve Conlin, and Peter's father Craig Ferraro say they asked repeatedly to meet with Vail Resorts not long after the Jan. 22 incident, with the goal of keeping something like this from happening again.

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

After Vail Resorts rejected them, they turned to the Forest Service. Officially, the Forest Service said only that the ski company did not violate its permit or procedures, Ingalls said.

While Vail Mountain's accident rate per 1,000 skiers is half the national average, it doesn't fix this tragedy, Fitzwilliams said.

“We make the mountain as safe as we can. It's an inherently dangerous sport,” Fitzwilliams said.

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