Testimony in Taft Conlin avalanche death lawsuit claims skiers have been climbing it for decades
December 9, 2013
VAIL — Skiers have been hiking up Prima Cornice for decades, and it’s disingenuous for Vail Resorts to say they didn’t know it was happening, said Jim Heckbert, the attorney for Louise Ingalls and Stephen Conlin, parents of Taft Conlin.
Conlin was 13 years old when he was swept away and killed in a Prima Cornice avalanche, Jan. 20, 2012.
“These people are not sneaking in there. No one has told them not to. They’ve been leaving tracks for decades,” Heckbert said.
Conlin’s parents are suing Vail Resorts over their son’s death, claiming the ski company was negligent.
Hugh Gottschalk, counsel for Vail Mountain and a partner at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, said Conlin hiked up into closed terrain. He said the blame remains with the skiers and not the ski company because Conlin entered the lower Prima Cornice gate, which was open, and climbed up to within 35 feet of the upper gate which was closed.
Climbing is common, some say
In a March 14 statement, Vail Resorts said that before the accident, they had not anticipated that skiers or riders would hike into the closed area from the lower gate.
However, in court documents filed late Friday, several longtime locals testified in depositions that skiers have been hiking up Prima Cornice for decades.
Matthew Frampton moved to Vail when he was 8 years old. He’s now 39 and says he has hiked up to the ridge of the Prima Cornice trail at least 50 times. He said he presumed the entire trail was open, if the lower gate was.
Davy Gorsuch testified that he began skiing Vail before he was 5 years old. He said he has made that climb, and he has seen the tracks of other skiers who did the same thing.
John Ryan, a Summit County resident, has been skiing Vail for decades and was skiing Vail the day Conlin was killed. He testified that he traversed the face of the Prima Cornice face four or five times that day before the avalanche at 1:30 p.m. There was no sign or instruction prohibiting skiers from climbing higher, he said. There was also no rope or other barrier prohibiting skiers for accessing any part of the run, Ryan said.
Trygve Verke, 29, started skiing Prima Cornice when he was 10 years old. He testified that hiking to the upper ridge from the lower gate is a common practice. He said there was never a sign or rope inside the open lower gate indicating the area above it was closed.
Ski patrollers testified that they’ve often seen tracks in there when the terrain is closed, but some said they assumed it was ski patrollers doing a sweep of the area.
“In the time following the accident, our ski patrol carefully reviewed the terrain and determined, given when they now know about potential skier behavior in this area, that when upper Prima Cornice is closed due to avalanche concerns, they will keep the lower Prima Cornice gate closed as well,” Vail Resorts said in that March 14 statement.
Heckbert, with the Denver firm Burg Simpson, asserted that depositions indicated Vail ski patrollers did no avalanche mitigation on Prima Cornice, then created documents afterward to indicate they did.
About 1:45 p.m. Jan. 20, 2012, Conlin and his friends accessed Prima Cornice trail through the lower gate, which was open. The run’s upper gate was closed following the first big storm of that snow-starved season.
Heckbert cited the Colorado Skier Safety Act as saying that if a ski area operator wants to close a trail, then a sign must be placed at each identified entrance, or a rope strung up to identify the closed area.
Conlin and a friend sidestepped about 120 feet to a cliff above the lower gate. The avalanche swept them away and Conlin was killed. The Vail Ski Patrol found his body wrapped around a tree. Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis said he was killed by a blunt force chest injury.
The avalanche was 18 inches deep, 200 feet wide and ran approximately 400 feet, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
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