Breck skier fatality spurs debate
BRECKENRIDGE – Every skier and boarder has a story of a near miss. And, as the district attorney mulls possible charges against a man in the death of skier at Breckenridge Ski Resort Sunday, a debate about how mountain sports have changed in past decades and what to do about it is heating up.
Today, Fifth Judicial District Attorney Mark Hurlbert is expected to announce whether charges will be brought against Robert Wills.
Wills, a 31-year-old scaffolder from Plymouth, England, remained in the Summit County Jail Wednesday with bail set at $20,000. Summit County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested Wills Sunday following a crash at Breckenridge.
Wills reportedly collided with Richard Henrichs, a 56-year-old advertising salesman from Naperville, Illinois, as the two were skiing on Peak 9. The collision reportedly sent Henrichs flying from his bindings into a tree. Henrichs was pronounced dead later that day in Denver.
Wills faces possible charges of manslaughter in the death.
The case is attracting international attention. Reporters from the British Broadcasting Corporation, several London newspapers and periodicals from throughout the United States are inquiring about details of the accident and a possible court case, forcing Summit County authorities to change messages on voicemail systems to deal with increased calls. Breckenridge officials were reportedly interviewing with national television shows Wednesday, as well, and the New York Times carried the story of Wills’ arrest.
Summit County emigrees from Europe said Wednesday that the death, Wills’ arrest and possible criminal charges are getting headlines for numerous reasons. In England, Wills wouldn’t be sitting in jail for four days before charges are announced. Police will hold suspects and question them for a few hours and then decide on charges or release them, British transplants said.
Reporters also said there’s the feeling that Wills was simply “a man on holiday,” and the accident could have easily involved anyone.
There is also a sense, however, that something must be done to make a point about ski safety. Donn Mosser is an 82-year-old Minnesota physician who’s traveled the world skiing for more than 50 years. When he read about Sunday’s accident, he called the Summit Daily News to express his concern.
Near-misses and collisions have risen exponentially in recent decades, Mosser said. As crowds grow and as ski technology improves, the associated risk of skiing has followed.
“I always fear an injury,” Mosser said. “You have to be conscious of what other people are doing.”
Some want ski areas to take greater responsibility for preventing disaster on the slopes. Mike Walters, a Chicago resident, spent last week skiing at Breckenridge and read about Sunday’s fatality on the Summit Daily News Web site. Walters said Breckenridge Ski Patrol needs to increase its presence and visibility on the mountain.
Walters said he also visits Monarch Ski Area. Patrollers there take a much more aggressive approach to controlling speed, he said.
“I purposely watched at Breckenridge for three days to see how many patrollers I would find,” Walters said. “I saw three, that’s all.”
Other recreationists are weighing in, as well. Some complain that high-speed, high-capacity lifts are flooding trails with skiers and boarders. Old-school skiers are complaining about snowboarders and how the styles of the different sports clash, sometimes physically. Others complain that the popularity of extreme sports is pushing novices to attempt speeds and feats at which they are not practiced.
In the end, a judge and jury might have the final word on the debate. Brett Heckman, an Edwards attorney, represented Nathan Hall in a pivotal ski law case that drew similar attention two years ago. Hall was found guilty in the death of Alan Cobb following a collision at Vail Mountain and served 90 days in jail.
Heckman said the Hall case laid the groundwork for a case against Wills, but each case must be judged on its own facts.
“If the facts give rise to a charge of homicide (which includes manslaughter), the law has recognized that that charge can be made, that conviction can be had,” Heckman said. “The Hall case also left open the possibility that even if the collision wasn’t purely an accident, the defendant’s conduct must be such that it rises to the level of reckless disregard of the rights of others.”
The Colorado Ski Safety Act of 1979 outlines the responsibilities of ski areas and skiers. The law includes provisions that resorts must follow – padding lift towers, for example. The law also outlines rules skiers must adhere to – not crossing boundary ropes and remaining at the scene of an accident, among others.
The law was also written a quarter of a century ago, and the popularity, equipment and culture of the sport has changed dramatically.
“I could see a day when maybe the Legislature would look at imposing some more responsibility on ski areas,” Heckman said. “But the laws now are really, if not sufficient, a good first step to letting people know what the consequences are. People can be cited for misdemeanor reckless skiing. They can be charged with assault. If they cause a death, they can be charged with homicide. If they didn’t know it, they’ll know it now.”
And as Wills waits today to learn whether he faces charges, many hope the debate will continue.
“The public needs to have some thoughts about this,” Mosser said. “In Europe now, a skier who hits someone is almost automatically subject to prosecution. Will we need to do that?”
Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 237, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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