Investigation of fatal avalanche ends |

Investigation of fatal avalanche ends

Bob Berwyn
Summit Daily/Kristin Skvorc White River National Forest supervisor Maribeth Gustafson dicscusses technicalities of the May 20 avalanche at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area Friday during a press conference at the Dillon Ranger District in Silverthorne. Forest Service experts determined that warm temperatures in the hours and days preceding the slide resulted in factors that caused the avalanche.

SILVERTHORNE – In the wake of a fatal avalanche at Arapahoe Basin earlier this year, the U.S. Forest Service says it will work more closely with ski resorts on safety procedures. David Conway, 53, died while skiing at Arapahoe Basin on May 20. The Forest Service recently completed its investigation into his death. “This fall, we’ll go through the snow-safety plans, and augment them with any state-of-the-art science (dealing with) wet snow slab avalanches,” said Maribeth Gustafson, supervisor of the surrounding White River National Forest.

According to the report, Conway died of blunt trauma head injuries, despite efforts by rescuers to revive him when he was found about 30 minutes after he was caught by the slide.Gustafson said the Forest Service doesn’t investigate all ski area accidents, but that unusual nature of the rare, fatal in-bounds avalanche required study to ensure that the agency is administering ski area permits to the best of its ability. Public safety is “the No. 1 concern,” she said. The slide marked the first in-bounds avalanche death in 30 years at a Colorado ski area.Arapahoe Basin officials offered a short statement on the deadly slide, once again offering condolences to Conway’s family and indicating that the ski area will work with the Forest Service to increase understanding of wet snow slab avalanches, but didn’t comment on any potential pending litigation.Forest Service officials identified ski injury attorney Jim Chalat as the contact person for Conway’s family. Chalat, representing Conway’s widow, Elizabeth Gaffney, said Conway had large number of friends who were deeply impacted by his death.

Elizabeth Gaffney is an executive with Children’s Hospital in Denver, and Conway is also survived by two college-age daughters.”The family was really blown apart by this,” Chalat said. “They appreciate the efforts the Forest Service put into the investigation and support the Forest Service intentions to strengthen its snow safety standards, but the snow safety standards referenced by the Forest Service report do not take into account a high altitude ski area staying open until late May with temperatures remaining above freezing.”Chalat responded with a “no comment” when asked whether legal action is being pursued.Gustafson said that A-Basin ski patrollers “fulfilled the spirit and intent of the ski area’s snow safety plan,” and that the existing plan met all existing standards for review and approval by the Forest Service.

Outgoing Colorado Avalanche Information Center director Knox Williams, speaking during his last official day on the job, said the mechanics of wet snow slides are known, but that they present a more difficult forecasting problem than avalanches resulting directly from a storm cycle. “I’ve thought about it often,” Williams said. “I haven’t come close to an answer as to why the avalanche occurred that day, and not the day before.”Vail, Colorado

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