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In Vail chairlift death, ‘lift operator was not paying attention,’ according to witness

As Jason Varnish hung from a Vail chairlift in February, eventually dying of positional asphyxia, the lone lift operator yelled to witnesses that he was not able to reverse the lift without permission, according to a Sheriff’s Office incident report released Wednesday.

The witness whose name was redacted in the report attempted to board Chair 37 with Varnish that day, and noticed the seat had been folded up so a rider could not sit down without falling through, according to the report.

“(Varnish) tried to push it down,” the report states.

The witness told police he got out of the way while Varnish’s clothing got caught on the rubber stopper, he thought, lifting him 20-25 feet off the ground. The witness yelled for the lift operator to stop the lift, the report says.

“The lift operator was not paying attention and had been cleaning off snow in the area,” according to the witness, the report states. “A few seconds later the lift stopped and (the witness) observed (Varnish) hanging from the lift.”

Guests attempted to form a human pyramid to push up Varnish’s legs and feet.

“They were not able to do this due to the snow being so deep,” the report states.

The witness said he told the lift operator to reverse the lift.

“The lift operator advised that he could not do that without permission,” the report states. “A short time later (the lift) was reversed and (Varnish) was cut down and CPR was starting due to (Varnish) being unconscious.”

Varnish was a father of three who lived in Millburn, New Jersey. His family asked donations to be sent to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in his name.

Eagle’s Bonfire Block Party postponed until late August

Bonfire Brewing and Optimum Events Wednesday announced that the 2020 Bonfire Block Party is postponed to the last weekend in August. 

This year marks the eighth annual Bonfire Block Party. Originally slated for June 12-14, the new dates are August 28-30. The annual Eagle Outside Fest that takes place in tandem with Block Party is also postponed until August.

A refund process for ticket holders unable to attend in August will be available via the Bonfire Block Party website within the next week. Tickets purchased for the original June dates will be applied to the new August dates with no action needed.

Bonfire Brewing co-owner Amanda Jessen said the decision to postpone the event was difficult, but not really a surprise.

“Now that a bunch of other things have cancelled, this is less of a surprise,” Jessen said.

And, while the current statewide stay-home and other health orders are currently slated to expire April 26, Jessen noted there’s no way now to know if that date will be extended.

It’s also uncertain how ready the community might be for what’s become one of the valley’s signature summer kick-off events.

“We thought if we couldn’t have the spirit and the vibe… it’s best to postpone,” Jessen said. “We want people to be in the right mindset, the right mood… There’s a better chance of doing that in August.”

Eagle Mayor-elect Scott Turnipseed said postponing the annual event is something that’s going on everywhere. The event had become a major way to get people to Eagle, along with the town’s bike trails. Now, after years of work, people are being asked to stay away for a while.

And, while some of the town’s trails are set to open April 15, Turnipseed said there’s been some talk about making some trails one way, so people don’t have to come in close contact passing on singletrack trails.

“It’s a bummer — the town would love (to have) it,” Turnipseed said. But, he added, the event couldn’t legally be held under currrent state orders.

Bonfire and its event partner, Optimum Events, are working to keep the original band lineup and all other weekend plans intact. Jessen said announcements about bands will be coming soon.

Jessen said event organizers have been in contact with performers, and it looks like many will be able to come in late August. But, she added, there’s a sizable scramble across the live music business to try to re-book performers whose dates in March, April, May and June have been postponed or cancelled.

 “With circumstances far out of our control, we’re more grateful to the town of Eagle, our ticket buyers, the bands, and our partners than ever before,” Jessen said in a press release.  “Over the last few weeks, keeping the Bonfire family safe and together has been our top priority, and we’re relieved that that has been possible so far. With the announcement of the (new August) dates, we’re excited to all have something to look forward to, and ready to bring our community the best Bonfire Block Party yet, circumstances permitting.” 

Optimum Events owner Ted Wenninger said his firm is working to the original lineup intact as much as possible. “We’re driven to keep the Bonfire Block Party going not only for the community here in Eagle, but also for all the artists, vendors, and staff that have seen their livelihoods disappear.”

Turnipseed noted “there’s not a lot we can do about this,” adding that Eagle, like much of the U.S., is still in the first phase of the pandemic, trying to control its spread.

The second phase will be re-opening the economy. Turnipseed remained optimistic that the annual Eagle Flight Days celebration could go on as planned the last weekend in June. But there’s simply no way to know at this point.

For more information and to buy tickets online, go to www.bonfireblockparty.com.

Vail Valley Prayer Flag Project collecting hundreds of messages of encouragement, faith, love

Prayer Flag Project

Heidi Cofelice is creative and optimistic by nature, so when the Vail Christian High School art teacher asked herself, “What I could do for my students?” a breeze kicked up and answered her question.

Like most of us, Cofelice has a side hustle. She is also the creative director and owner of Project Seedling.

“My tagline is plant a seed and watch it grow,” Cofelice said.

What’s growing is her idea to create flags. Call them what you will — prayer flags, encouragement flags, hang-in-there flags. They’re about the same size as Tibetan prayer flags. In the Tibetan tradition, every time a flag wafts in the breeze a prayer goes up to heaven.

“It’s meant to honor the original context of the Tibetan payer flags. The white flag is tabula rasa, blank canvas, for folks to express themselves in any way,” Cofelice said.

Some of her Vail Christian High School students emblazoned their flags with scripture, which is great, but not a requirement, Cofelice said. In fact, there are no requirements, only suggestions: the flags are 8 inches square and should depict something encouraging.

‘Making art is so cathartic’

“I sat at my sewing machine and cranked out 150 of these flags for my high school students and private classes,” Cofelice said.

She has dozens so far, on the way to hundreds and maybe more than a thousand.

“People are running with it. It’s inspiring to see what people are coming up with.” Cofelice said.

She has visions of permanent displays, certainly in her Vail Christian High School classroom and maybe other places — a reminder of that time when we really were all in this together and acted like it.

“There’s an obstacle but we can overcome it. Making art is so cathartic. We need an outlet like that,” Cofelice said. “The bigger it gets the more inspiring it will be.”

It’s the first time the Colorado native has curated a community project. Her friends in the Front Range are involved, as are friends and others in the valley, Vermont, California — from sea to shining sea.

“This began as a small project for my art students at Vail Christian High School to create a meaningful art installation, but is quickly growing and I’m now hoping that we will have hundreds, even thousands of entries to compile into a much larger public art installation to display somewhere in our community, serving as a visual reminder that we are all in this together and there is great hope on the horizon,” Cofelice said.

Cofelice has been talking with her students about this since late February, said Vail Christian High School headmaster Steve O’Neil.

“She’s a rock star and has been talking about selfless acts and service since late February when corona was an abstraction in the valley,” O’Neil said.

National forests impose recreation area closures as well as fire restrictions

Acting Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien has announced and signed an order to temporarily close developed recreation sites and an order to implement fire restrictions within the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region to align with local, state and federal orders and guidelines to protect public health and safety. The region includes 24 national forests and grasslands across Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.

“While we know that going outside provides forest and grassland visitors needed space, exercise and satisfaction, we are taking the risks presented by (the COVID-19 virus) seriously,” Eberlien said. “We are providing some recreation opportunities where we can while protecting and keeping employees, the public and our communities safe from the virus, as well as protecting and keeping communities and natural and cultural resources safe from unwanted human-caused wildfires.”

Recreation closures

Developed recreation sites are temporarily closed while dispersed camping, hiking and river uses are allowed, although discouraged. Closed developed recreation sites include campgrounds, day-use areas, picnic areas, and any other constructed facility amenities — including potable water stations, fire rings/grills, picnic tables, restroom facilities with flush or vaulted toilets, and trash cans and trash collection services. Parking facilities, trails and trailheads remain open. Dispersed camping includes camping on a national forest or grassland where recreation facilities or services are not provided.

Forest and grassland visitors camping in dispersed recreation sites, hiking or embarking on river activities are encouraged to adhere to the following safety and responsibility guidelines:

  • Stay close to home to keep other communities safe.
  • Stay 6 feet apart from others.
  • Avoid crowding in parking lots, trails, scenic overlooks and other areas.
  • Take CDC precautions to prevent illnesses like COVID-19.
  • Prepare for limited or no services, such as restroom facilities and garbage collection.
  • Prepare to pack out trash and human waste.

Fire restrictions

Effective immediately until rescinded, the following is prohibited:

  • Igniting, building, maintaining, attending or using a fire, including charcoal grills and barbecues, coal and wood-burning stoves, and sheepherder’s stoves.
  • Smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle, trailer or building.


The following persons are exempt from fire restrictions:

  • Persons with a Forest Permit, Form FS-7700-48, specifically exempting them from the effect of this order in the areas listed above.
  • Any federal, state or local officer or member of an organized rescue or firefighting force in the performance of an official duty is exempt from prohibitions.
  • Persons using pressurized liquid or gas devices (stoves, grills or lanterns) with shut-off valves in an area at least three feet from any flammable materials are exempt from the first prohibition.
  • Residents, owners or lessees within the areas listed above who are using a fire in a permanent dwelling with an effective and properly installed USDA- or SAE-approved spark arrestor, are exempt from the first prohibition.

Fire restrictions enhance public safety, protect natural and cultural resources and help prevent human-caused wildfires. Several criteria are used to determine when to implement fire restrictions, including fire activity levels, current and predicted weather, fuel moisture and the availability of emergency and firefighting resources. Additional restrictions may be required if conditions warrant.

Entering upon closed areas or igniting, building, maintaining, attending or using a fire or smoking on national forests and grasslands is a violation of federal law and may result in consequent fines and possible jail time.

All Forest Service offices are conducting business and providing virtual services. For information about the White River National Forest, go to https://www.fs.usda.gov/whiteriver.

Vail locals hit 32 Colorado resorts in one winter, checking off final 4 after COVID-19 shutdown

Locals Cliff Merchant and Susan Weston call Vail their home mountain, but this winter, the couple set out to hit all 32 Colorado resorts.

Merchant, 36, has been snowboarding since 1996. Weston, 35, grew up skiing before switching to snowboarding. He moved to Colorado in 2002 and lived in Summit County before moving to the Vail Valley in 2014. She has been spending winters in Vail for seven years while also living in Las Vegas during the summers.

“I realized over all those years that there were several places I hadn’t been in the state,” Merchant said. “There were about 11 or 12 resorts I hadn’t been to yet. I thought it would be fun to knock those out. I got to thinking about it a little more and I realized that some of the ones I’d already done, I hadn’t been to in 10 years. So I thought maybe it would be fun to do them all in the same season.”

Both Merchant and Weston work nights at Vail Health Hospital, so their itinerary included many day trips, a couple days hitting multiple resorts and some overnight trips for the farther away resorts.

Before the season, they bought both Ikon and Epic passes.

“It’s definitely got me thinking that I’m going to buy at least the Ikon and Epic passes again next year,” Merchant said. “It was really nice to have access to all those places. You don’t realize what you’re missing not going to Copper, Winter Park, Steamboat and others during the season. It’s nice to kind of break it up.”

Cliff Merchant and Susan Weston said they enjoyed all of the mountains they visited this winter. However, Silverton was the most memorable, which included a heli drop.
Special to the Daily

While they said they enjoyed visiting all of the mountains, they really enjoyed the small towns across the state that sit below the ski hills.

“I think everyone should see all of these small hills that people would never ever go to that were so fun,” Weston said.

Along the way, they said locals in towns across the state were friendly and curious about their travels.

“It definitely gives you perspective on the different resorts,” Merchant said. “It makes you realize how much more grooming they do around here.”

‘We loved every mountain’

As COVID-19 started spreading across the state and country, Merchant and Weston were trying to wrap up their winter mission. They were down to four mountains, in Aspen, and even had a hotel booked for Sunday night, March 15. Their plan was to ride two mountains Sunday, stay the night and then finish the final two on Monday.

On Saturday, March 14, ski resorts across Colorado shut down due to coronavirus.

“He looked so sad when they closed the mountain,” Weston said. “I’ve never seen someone look so defeated and sad.”

With plans already in place, they decided to hike the final four mountains — before more restrictions came down on uphill access at ski resorts.

“We both knew that we couldn’t quit on it,” Merchant said. “It was just accepting the fact that we were going to be hiking the next two days.”

Along the way this winter, friends of the couple joined along at different stops across the state. When they finished their final resort, Buttermilk, they popped champagne at the top of the halfpipe and again at the bottom with friends.

“Mainly, it was his idea,” she said, “and I’m glad I did it.”

Colorado ski resorts shut down due to coronavirus concerns as the local couple had four mountains remaining on their list, all in Aspen. They decided to hike the final four in two days.
Special to the Daily

Merchant said he was looking forward to going back to a few places and riding Vail for some “normal snowboard days,” but the abrupt end to the season has eliminated the possibility of that.

They plan on creating some kind of memento with the pins, patches, trail maps and stickers collected from resorts across the state.

Cliff Merchant and Susan Weston have been snowboarding in Colorado for years and call Vail Mountain their home mountain.
Special to the Daily

“We loved every mountain,” Weston said. “Silverton was the most memorable and probably always will be. The small mountains gave us a great appreciation for the towns that still operate them. It reminded us of the small mountains we grew up on. We are both very fortunate to have met and live in Vail. We have one of the best mountains in the country right in our backyard.”

Colorado resorts

  • Arapahoe Basin
  • Aspen Highlands (Aspen)
  • Aspen Mountain (Aspen)
  • Beaver Creek
  • Breckenridge
  • Buttermilk (Aspen)
  • Chapman Hill Ski Area (Durango)
  • Copper Mountain
  • Cranor Ski Area (Gunnison)
  • Crested Butte
  • Echo Mountain Park
  • Eldora
  • Hesperus Ski Area
  • Howelsen Hill
  • Kendall Mountain (Silverton)
  • Keystone
  • Lake City Ski Hill (Lake City)
  • Lee’s Hill (Ouray)
  • Loveland Basin/Loveland Valley
  • Monarch Mountain
  • Powderhorn Resort
  • Purgatory Resort
  • Silverton Mountain
  • Ski Cooper
  • Ski Granby Ranch
  • Snowmass (Aspen)
  • Steamboat
  • Sunlight
  • Telluride
  • Vail
  • Winter Park/Mary Jane
  • Wolf Creek

Assistant Editor Ross Leonhart can be reached at 970-748-2984 and rleonhart@vaildaily.com. Follow him on Instagram at colorado_livin_on_the_hill.

Feds sending 100 ventilators to Colorado, Trump says

President Donald Trump announced via Twitter on Wednesday morning that the federal government will be sending 100 ventilators to Colorado.

Gov. Jared Polis has requested 10,000 ventilators be sent to Colorado and said Saturday that the state was set to purchase 500 before the Federal Emergency Management Administration swooped in and bought them first.

Trump tweeted that the federal government will be sending the 100 ventilators to Colorado “at the request of Senator (Cory) Gardner.” The Republican president and Republican senator from Yuma have grown close in recent months.

“I have been working with the state to get ventilators from FEMA,” Gardner told a constituent during a telephone town hall meeting Tuesday. The woman had asked why the federal government bought 500 ventilators out from under Colorado and what Gardner was doing to stop it.

“I talked to the vice president, the president as well, about this need and we’re going to continue to fight each and every moment for Colorado,” Gardner said.

Read more via The Denver Post.

COVID-19 tracker: 418 confirmed cases in Eagle County

*Updated April 8


Cases:5,655 cases

Hospitalizations: 1,162 

Deaths: 193

This data is updated daily by CDPHE.

Eagle County

Cases: 418

Tested: 1,817

Deaths: 5

This data is updated daily by Vail Health and Eagle County Government.

More information on coronavirus

80 Vail Resorts employees from Ecuador are stuck in Colorado’s mountain towns

A month ago, Grace Barrera had a seasonal job picking up trash and cleaning tables for about $12 an hour at a mountaintop restaurant on Vail Mountain. It was a job she liked because the people where she worked  “were very kind,” she said.

But now, the 28-year-old is one of about 80 Ecuadorians stranded in Eagle and Summit counties because the ski areas have been shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak. She has a plane ticket to return home on April 30, but she could not afford the exorbitant change fee to re-book for an earlier flight, she said. And even if she could, Ecuador closed its borders because of the coronavirus outbreak the same weekend Colorado ski resorts were closed.

So with two parents and a sister back in Ecuador, Barrera lives rent-free in Vail employee housing, and she waits.

“I’m sad because I can’t go back home and see my family,” said Barrera, who is from Quito, Ecuador’s capital city. “If I had the money, I would buy the flight, but I can’t.”

Susy Osorio-Kinsky of Denver, a native of Ecuador who has been a resident of Colorado and U.S. citizen for 20 years, is working on behalf of Ecuador’s consul general to assist the workers who are stuck in the mountains of Colorado, 3,200 miles from home. They are here on J-1 exchange student work visas for a few months during the ski season.

Read more via The Denver Post.

Charlotte Figi, the Colorado girl who inspired the CBD movement, dies following illness suspected to be coronavirus

Charlotte Figi, the Colorado Springs girl who, as a gleeful and fragile child, launched a movement that led to sweeping changes in marijuana laws across the globe, has died from complications possibly related to the new coronavirus.

She was 13.

Charlotte’s death was announced by a family friend Tuesday night on the Facebook page of her mother, Paige Figi.

“Charlotte is no longer suffering. She is seizure-free forever. Thank you so much for all of your love,” read the post, which also asked the public to respect Figi’s family’s privacy.

Read more via The Colorado Sun.

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Bernie Sanders drops 2020 bid, leaving Biden as likely Democratic nominee

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who saw his once strong lead in the Democratic primary evaporate as the party’s establishment lined swiftly up behind rival Joe Biden, ended his presidential bid on Wednesday, an acknowledgment that the former vice president is too far ahead for him to have any reasonable hope of catching up.

The Vermont senator’s announcement makes Biden the presumptive Democratic nominee to challenge President Donald Trump in November.

Sanders plans to talk to his supporters later Wednesday.

Sanders initially exceeded sky-high expectations about his ability to recreate the magic of his 2016 presidential bid, and even overcame a heart attack last October on the campaign trail. But he found himself unable to convert unwavering support from progressives into a viable path to the nomination amid “electability” fears fueled by questions about whether his democratic socialist ideology would be palatable to general election voters.

The 78-year-old senator began his latest White House bid facing questions about whether he could win back the supporters who chose him four years ago as an insurgent alternative to the party establishment’s choice, Hillary Clinton. Despite winning 22 states in 2016, there were no guarantees he’d be a major presidential contender this cycle, especially as the race’s oldest candidate.

Sanders, though, used strong polling and solid fundraising — collected almost entirely from small donations made online — to more than quiet early doubters. Like the first time, he attracted widespread support from young voters and was able to make new inroads within the Hispanic community, even as his appeal with African Americans remained small.