Vail ski patrollers recount the day Taft Conlin died; lower Prima Cornice was ‘good to go’ for skiing, they said | VailDaily.com

Vail ski patrollers recount the day Taft Conlin died; lower Prima Cornice was ‘good to go’ for skiing, they said

photo - Julie Rust testifies

Julie Rust was head of Vail ski patrol on Jan. 22, 2012, the day an in-bounds avalanche killed 13-year old Taft Conlin. She testified Thursday and Friday in the civil trial.

EAGLE — The Vail Resorts ski patrollers testifying for their company have more than 100 years of combined experience, and all testified that they are unaware of anyone hiking up from Prima Cornice's lower gate to access better snow.

Jim Heckbert, the attorney for Taft Conlin's parents, remained unconvinced.

Heckbert said four people testified under oath that when the upper gate was closed and the lower gate was open, not only did those four sidestep up but did it with a group as large as 10 people at once. And not only do those four do it, they've seen other people do it, Heckbert said.

"If these people saw all this, do you have any explanation why the ski patrol was unaware of this?" Heckbert asked Kevin Latchford, one of those ski patrollers.

"No, I don't have an explanation," Latchford answered.

'Good to go for skiing'

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Julie Rust was head of Vail Ski Patrol on Jan. 22, 2012, when an in-bounds avalanche killed 13-year-old Taft Conlin. Rust said she was surprised to hear about the behavior but testified that people sometimes do some "interesting" things.

The skier death lawsuit by Conlin's parents, Dr. Louise Ingalls and Dr. Stephen Conlin, wrapped up the first week of its scheduled three weeks on Friday, June 15.

On that day in January, the first big storm of an otherwise abysmal snow year, Taft Conlin entered Prima Cornice by the open lower gate, bypassing the closed upper gate.

Rust testified that she was "comfortable" with the decision to leave the lower gate open and handled that decision the same way she had for 25 years. The patrollers trust one another "like family," Rust said.

"We felt the area you would access by the lower gate was good to go for skiing," Rust said.

"Did you think anyone would hike up from the lower gate?" Craig May, one Vail Resorts' attorneys, asked Rust.

"No," Rust said.

Any patroller can close any trail any time they think it's necessary, Rust testified.

Rust disagreed with Heckbert that closed portions of Prima Cornice were unclear or ambiguous.

Ski patrollers repeatedly testified that terrain is considered open if skiers can access it with gravity. If skiers have to climb to reach terrain, then it's closed, they testified.

That fateful day

On the day the avalanche killed him, Taft Conlin was skiing Vail Mountain with friends. They made a couple of Chair 4 runs and headed to Prima Cornice, according to testimony.

During one of those runs, they took a right-hand turn out of the lower Prima Cornice gate. The upper gate was roped off, according to incident reports.

Then everything slid, taking Conlin with it.

Rust was in Game Creek Bowl when the fatal avalanche slid. She jumped on the lift and met other patrollers at the top of Game Creek Bowl with a snowmobile. Rust took over as the dispatcher for the incident and kept a log.

The avalanche slid at 1:40 p.m. The emergency call came at 1:41 p.m., and four minutes later, ski patrollers were on the scene.

Witnesses directed patrollers to where they thought Conlin would be. The patrollers started searching and found Conlin at 1:59 p.m. At 2 p.m., they assessed him.

They met a paramedic at the bottom of Prima Cornice and transported Conlin down the mountain. At 2:53 p.m., they met an ambulance at the bottom of Vail Mountain.

The avalanche pounding his chest had killed him, Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis later determined.

Patrick McInerny has been a ski patroller since 1989. He's an Eagle Scout.

His son was 12 years old at the time and was skiing with Conlin the day Conlin was killed in the in-bounds avalanche.

McInerny was patrolling in Blue Sky Basin when the avalanche report went out over the radio. He called his son, who told him they had hiked up.

McInerny was one of the avalanche investigators and found the GoPro Conlin was wearing on his helmet at the time of his death.

His son was one of Conlin's close friends. During his testimony, McInerny's eyes filled with tears as he recounted that day, as did almost everyone else's in the courtroom.

The six-person jury will decide whether Vail Resorts was negligent in its decision not to close the lower Prima Cornice gate.

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