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March 14, 2013
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Vail Resorts announces Prima Cornice gate-closure change

BROOMFIELD - Vail Resorts announced Thursday it has changed the way it operates gates on Prima Cornice more than a year after an avalanche killed a 13-year-old skier on that run.

Thirteen-year-old Taft Conlin was killed Jan. 22, 2012 when a Prima Cornice avalanche swept him away. Prima Cornice has two gates - one upper and one lower. The upper gate was closed, but the lower gate was open.

Conlin and some friends entered the run through the lower gate, following the tracks of dozens of other skiers that day. They hiked 120 feet up the hill when the snow under them let loose.

Two of Conlin's friends escaped and skied down for help; Conlin died in the avalanche.

"His parents tried to deal with this between them and Vail Resorts without getting involved in a lawsuit," said Jim Heckbert, an attorney with the firm Burg Simpson, representing Conlin's parents, Dr. Louise Ingalls and Dr. Stephen Conlin.

On March 21, 2012, 60 days after Taft's death, Vail Mountain Chief Operating Officer Chris Jarnot sent a letter to Conlin's parents stating that it's not a public process about how the ski company opens and closes trails.

"Our company does not make such statements after an incident and we don't comment on the state of mind of our guests," Jarnot wrote.

Heckbert was non-plussed.

"Now, what is the most avalanche-prone run on the front mountain and perhaps the entire mountain is being publicly discussed," Heckbert said.

"Last year, in a tragic accident on Vail Mountain, Taft Conlin lost his life in an avalanche on the Prima Cornice trail," the ski company's statement said. "Taft and some friends had entered the lower Prima Cornice gate, which was open, and hiked back into terrain below the upper Prima Cornice gate, which was closed. Prior to the accident, our ski patrol had not anticipated that skiers or riders would hike into the closed terrain from the lower gate. As a result, we continue to believe that our ski patrol had taken all appropriate actions regarding mitigation, closures and openings in this area."

Heckbert said Vail Resorts' only avalanche control on Prima Cornice that day was to send two ski patrollers down the run. Vail Resorts records avalanche mitigation efforts all over the ski area, Heckbert said.

"It is blank for that day on Prima Cornice," Heckbert said.

Vail Resorts says they're applying what they've learned.

"In the time following the accident, our ski patrol carefully reviewed the terrain and determined, given what they now know about potential skier behavior in this area, that when the upper Prima Cornice gate is closed due to avalanche concerns, they will keep the lower Prima Cornice gate closed as well," the ski company said. "The two gates have been operated in this way since the beginning of this ski season. Ski patrol will continue to operate these gates together when there is potential avalanche danger on either portion of Prima Cornice, or if conditions are appropriate to allow us to open the terrain served by the lower Prima Cornice gate when the upper gate remains closed, we will provide additional signs or ropes warning of the closed upper terrain."

A snow pit study after the slide found the snow to be seriously unstable the day Conlin was killed, Heckbert said. Under conditions like that, the snow on the lower levels became like tiny marbles, Heckbert said.

"If you throw marbles on the floor, then put board on the marbles and try to walk on the boards, that's what the snow was like on Prima Cornice that day," Heckbert said.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center had warned skiers to stay out of the backcountry, because of avalanche danger.

"The Prima Cornice was the same conditions (as the backcountry) because no one was controlling avalanches there either," Heckbert said.

"Vail Resorts takes safety as its highest priority, and we continually re-evaluate and adapt based on new information or changing skier behavior," the ski company said.

Vail Resorts again expressed sympathy for Conlin's family in the statement.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Mar 14, 2013 10:01PM Published Mar 14, 2013 07:57PM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.