Skiers say they climb, patrollers say they’re not aware as testimony continues in Taft Conlin skier death trial | VailDaily.com

Skiers say they climb, patrollers say they’re not aware as testimony continues in Taft Conlin skier death trial

photo - Jim Heckbert

Jim Heckbert, attorney with Burg Simpson, is representing Taft Conlin's parents in a skier death trial. Conlin died Jan. 22, 2012 in an in-bounds avalanche on Vail Mountain.

EAGLE — Skiers testified that they climb up Prima Cornice all of the time and have since it opened in 1985.

Vail Resorts ski patrollers say they have no knowledge that skiers do that and say they don't understand why anyone would.

A six-person jury will decide what was closed and wasn't on Jan. 22, 2012, the day an in-bounds avalanche on Vail Mountain killed 13-year-old Taft Conlin.

The Vail Resorts website listed Prima Cornice as open that day, according to testimony on Thursday, June 14. What "open" means, though, could be a matter of interpretation.

Ski patrollers testified Thursday that if you can access an area through gravity, then it's open. If you have to climb to it, then it's closed, they said.

Conlin entered through the lower gate of Prima Cornice and sidestepped up the run, reportedly looking for fresh snow on the first good snow day of an abysmal snow season. An avalanche swept him away and killed him. The jury will also decide whether Vail Resorts should have posted part or all of Prima Cornice as closed and if the ski company violated Colorado's Skier Safety Act.

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Gravity rules

William Mattison is a ski patroller for Vail Resorts and has been since 1988.

Mattison said that in his 26 years as a ski patroller, he had no knowledge of people climbing up Prima Cornice run from the lower gate. He also said he knows of no ski patroller being asked whether that was OK.

Mattison testified that if he had seen someone doing that, then he would have told them they're in a closed area and pulled their pass for 30 days.

The upper gate was closed because there was not enough snow to cover the rocks and stumps, Mattison said, and not because of avalanche conditions.

Prior to Jan. 22, 2012, Mattison said he was not aware of anyone hiking uphill from the lower Prima Cornice gate.

"People duck under ropes every day. The question in our minds is why someone would go down through the lower gate, then climb up into a closed area," Mattison said. "It's a downhill ski area. There is no need for people to do that."

Drew Warkentin, ski patroller on Vail Mountain, was the first one on the scene after the avalanche. He also testified that he had no knowledge of people hiking up Prima Cornice.

Ski patroller David LaBelle said patrol operates under the policy that, "Wherever gravity takes the skier is what I deem as safe."

LaBelle made the decision to close the Prima Cornice upper gate and leave the lower gate open.

LaBelle said if he had thought people would hike up from the lower gate, then he would have closed it.

No, gravity doesn't always rule

John Ryan and Matthew Frampton both testified Wednesday, June 13, that it's common to see people on the ridge on Prima Cornice and making that climb.

In fact, Ryan saw people making that climb the day Taft Conlin died.

Frampton said in a video testimony that skiers make that climb all of the time.

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