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Vail skier death was from accidental hanging, according to initial investigation

Eagle County coroner rules death an accident

John LaConte
Vail Daily

Jason Varnish, 46, of Short Hills, New Jersey, died Thursday of positional asphyxia while riding Chair 37 in Vail’s Blue Sky Basin, according to the Eagle County coroner.

Coroner Kara Bettis said the death has been ruled an accident.

Bettis, in a text, wrote: “We are still investigating how this whole situation happened. According to our initial investigation, the deceased slipped through the seat of the chair lift and his ski coat got caught up in the chair. The coat ended up going up around his head and neck area putting his neck in a position that compromised his airway.”

Bettis said that the chairlift’s folding seat was in the upright position, according to witnesses, instead of being folded down so riders could sit on it, leaving an open area which one could fall through if they did not notice the seat was not in place.

Skiers in the area witnessed CPR being performed on Varnish at the base of Chair 37. Blue Sky Basin was closed for about 24 hours following the incident, re-opening Friday around 11:30 a.m.

Numerous questions

Questions on the incident Friday were being referred to Bettis, who, after releasing the details of her initial investigation, referred questions to the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department.

The Sheriff’s Department then referred questions to Vail Resorts, which issued the following statement:

“Vail Mountain confirms a serious incident that took place yesterday involving a 46-year-old man from New Jersey. The incident occurred when the guest attempted to load the Skyline Express lift (Chair 37). Vail Mountain Ski Patrol responded to the incident and performed CPR and emergency care on scene before the guest was transported to Vail Health, where he was pronounced deceased. 

“We take all incidents seriously and are conducting a full investigation.

“The lift has been thoroughly inspected and is operating normally.

“’Vail Mountain and the entire Vail Resorts family express our sincere condolences and extend our support to the guest’s family and friends,’ said Beth Howard, chief operating officer.”

Similar circumstances to 2009 incident

Skiers mourning Varnish on Thursday were quick to remember a similar incident from 2009 on the same chairlift when a man found himself suspended upside down in Blue Sky Basin.

The man in the 2009 incident had also slipped through seat of the chairlift, which was not folded down properly, reported witness Marty Odom.

—Vail Daily Editor Nate Peterson contributed to this report

Read more about skier deaths in Colorado in our in-depth three-part series.


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