Vail Resorts’ expert witness says ski company closed Prima properly, as Taft Conlin skier death case heads into final days
June 19, 2018
EAGLE — Taft Conlin was riding a chairlift in Vail, having a good-natured cellphone disagreement about which powder day was better, Vail or Beaver Creek's.
To prove his point, he wanted to get GoPro footage of a sweet line he and his friends spotted during that lift ride. They made their plan, climbed up and skied it.
That Jan. 22, 2012, phone call was likely Taft Conlin's last. That GoPro video depicted the avalanche that killed him.
Taft Conlin's parents, Dr. Louise Ingalls and Dr. Stephen Conlin, sued Vail Resorts for negligence following Taft's death, claiming that while the upper gate to the Prima Cornice run on the front side of Vail Mountain was closed, the lower gate was open. If Vail ski patrollers wanted to close the run, then they should have closed both gates, their lawsuit claims.
Vail Resorts ski patrollers testified that, to their knowledge, no one has climbed up from the lower Prima Cornice gate.
Skiers testified that they do it all the time.
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Testimony closed Tuesday, June 19, on what would have been Taft Conlin's 20th birthday.
Closing arguments could come Wednesday, June 20, in the civil trial.
Radamus was 'disappointed'
A former Ski & Snowboard Club Vail big-mountain competitor testified Tuesday that he and his friends regularly climbed up from Prima Cornice's lower gate toward the upper gate to train for big-mountain competitions. In a video deposition, the teenaged SSCV athlete also testified that he did it with several other ski club members and, occasionally, a coach.
Former SSCV director Aldo Radamus said he was "disappointed" when he learned about that, so he reached out to ski company executive Chris Jarnot, offering to testify in the negligence trial brought by Taft Conlin's parents against Vail Resorts.
Radamus testified that was not aware the coach had done that and did not learn of it until after that coach was no longer with the club. Radamus also testified that he could not recall how he learned about it, saying it must have been through the "grapevine."
"When the lower gate is open, that meant that the terrain below the lower gate was open," Radamus said.
Radamus said he did not recall seeing tracks from people side stepping up and did not recall seeing people do it. He said he thought he would remember seeing that.
Another of Taft's friends said in a video deposition that it was his understanding if Prima Cornice's upper gate was closed, then they could enter through the lower gate and climb up. In fact, he said, they did it that day.
Another teen skiing with Taft that day said in his video deposition that he learned later that climbing up violated ski company policy.
"If there's a building with a door on it, it's not OK to go in a window," the young skier said.
He said ski patrollers later told him that they had hiked into a closed area, saying when something is closed, you cannot hike up.
The ski company's policy is that when a run is closed, they put a sign at the top, according to Tuesday's testimony.
VR's expert witness says company was correct
Charles Tolton is Vail Resorts' former director of risk management and their expert witness. He said he has conducted classes about how to close runs, under the guidance of Colorado's Skier Safety Act.
He testified that he thinks Prima Cornice was properly closed.
Tolton said he has been paid $69,000 for his work, plus fees from the last year for which he has not billed the ski company. His consulting fees did not depend on the conclusion he reached, he testified.
Scott Toepfer's Colorado Avalanche Information Center report said the avalanche was 200 feet wide and ran 400 feet down the 46-degree slope and that Taft was 120 feet to the skiers' right and above the lower gate.
Tolton disagreed, claiming that Taft was 368 feet to the skiers' right and above the lower gate. He said that's 80 percent of the way to that closed upper gate.
In the 25 winters since Prima Cornice opened, it was more common for the lower gate to be opened first. The upper gate would open later, after enough snow fell to cover the steep, rocky terrain, Tolton said.
There had been no incidents in all that time, Tolton said.
Tolton said during his investigation he became aware that people would sometimes sidestep up from Prima Cornice's lower gate.
Alpine skiing is a downhill or gravity-fed sport. Adhering to gravity would take you down, not across the face of Prima Cornice, Tolton said. However, under questioning from Jim Heckbert, Taft's parents' attorney, Tolton said Colorado's Skier Safety Act does not mention gravity.
The ski patrol's decision to close the upper gate and open the lower gate was "reasonable" and "appropriate," Tolton said.
Tolton said Taft caused his own death with the avalanche. Answering a question from Vail Resorts attorney Hugh Gottschalk, he added that he believed Taft Conlin was negligent and at fault in going up into what he called "a closed area."
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.