In Vail chairlift death, ‘lift operator was not paying attention,’ according to witness
As Jason Varnish hung to death on a Vail chairlift in February, 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 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.”
Eagle River Watershed Council: Protecting our community also means protecting public lands
As the weather warms up and the snow line recedes, many of us are wanting to throw together a campout with family and friends, coming together in a joyous celebration of all that nature has to offer. Whether it is solely for the experience of camping, to gather with loved ones or to access the recreational activities that the campsite location provides — most of us mountain residents enjoy and rely on these precious spaces scattered throughout the forests.
However, our spring looks different this year, with many of us dreaming of the days when we could get outside in groups without having to adhere to important COVID-19 regulations and social distancing.
In this time of uncertainty, I have found myself reflecting upon what matters most in my life and, personally, a pristine natural environment to play in and appreciate is at the top of my list. I encourage others to take this (forced) time to slow down and reflect on what nature means to you. For most of us, it equates to health and physical and mental wellness, social opportunities and kid-like joy, aesthetic and wildlife entertainment, and for some, even job security.
These invaluable resources are not all endlessly renewable and need protection. As community members who likely live here due in part to recreation made possible by the local ecosystems, we tend to take notice when protective regulations are not being followed. Who among us has not encountered a campsite with campfire rings abutting the pristine gurgling mountain stream, untreated human waste and trash strewn about, along with cigarette butts and broken bottles littering the ground?
It is an unfortunate story that is all-too-common locally, resulting in many camping areas in the Eagle Valley being abused and overused, which compounds the issues.
The Piney River drainage, north of Vail near Piney Lake and one of such popular camping sites, sees large groups, recurring annual campouts and lengthy retreats. These events are in areas interspersed between a pristine mountain lake, alpine river and sensitive wetland and riparian vegetation zones. To help combat such issues, in the fall of 2019, Eagle River Watershed Council partnered with the United States Forest Service Eagle/Holy Cross Ranger District to rehabilitate several non-compliant campsites, fire rings, and unauthorized user-created vehicle routes, with the help of volunteers from the Vail Resorts Retail/ Vail EpicPromise group. Notable project accomplishments include one mile of roadway decommissioned, three large non-compliant campsites restored, 150 pounds of native grass seed laid, and 50 rolls of erosion control fabric/60 bales of wood straw placed for protection of the revegetation work.
The days when we can frolic in the woods with our friends will come again, but we don’t need to fall back into habits of overuse and forget to protect our beloved natural resources. When the COVID-19 dust settles and we are able to fully enjoy the outdoors, please tap into your gratitude and set forth with a community-first mindset. We have changed our daily habits to protect our community members, now we have a chance to switch outdoor habits to ones of stewardship — protecting these limited and precious resources for all to enjoy, indefinitely.
Protect our public lands! Please abide by regulations, respect trail closures and tread lightly.
Camp only where it is allowed
Select a site at least 100 feet away from any lake, stream, river or trail.
Be aware of and respect the rights of private property owners within public land boundaries.
Abide by regulations
Know what the current fire restrictions are and abide by them no matter what. Never leave a fire unattended — be sure to fully extinguish all fires before leaving the site.
Abide by the 14-day limit for dispersed sites.
Park in designated areas along the road, or just off the road. Do not drive more than 300 feet from established trails.
Keep dogs and other pets leashed and under control. Not only can they frighten other campers, wildlife is often disturbed by pets and their habits change due to the interaction.
Use biodegradable soap for all washing needs (dishes, hands, etc.) Do not wash dishes in streams, rivers or lakes as even biodegradable soaps degrade water quality and injure fish and other aquatic life.
Leave the site better than you found it. Pack out everything you brought and more.
Have a plan for how you will properly dispose of human waste and be sure to bring proper tools and supplies to do so.
Use existing campsites rather than creating a new site.
Using a camp stove has less of an environmental impact than traditional fires.
Bring first-aid and emergency supplies.
Know your water sources and how to properly treat water for human consumption. Bring water from a domestic source if possible.
For further questions about responsible camping ethics, visit the USFS resource page or contact our local ranger station. Be sure to allow ample time for responses as the USFS team is currently working tirelessly through COVID19 concerns to plan and implement severely needed summer restoration efforts in times of uncertain regulations and staffing.
Kate Isaacson is the projects and events Coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit erwc.org.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
I’ll be honest. Over the past few weeks, I’ve ridden the rollercoaster of emotions as I’ve struggled to come to grips with the coronavirus pandemic.
Up until early March, a Corona came with a lime, had some goofy TV commercials and was only accessible to those over 21. And while a Corona is still just a beer, COVID-19 is a serious virus without a cure that comes with shortness of breath, fever, dry cough, headache, body aches, earache, sore throat, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of the sense of smell or taste and can kill anyone in the world regardless of their age. And, the worst part is that it seems as if the guidance to stay safe keeps changing.
However, from the beginning of this pandemic, two things have stayed constant: social distancing and Kevin Bacon. Yes, Kevin Bacon has been here for us without any of us realizing it, and if we can all make sure to add a little more Kevin Bacon to our lives during this coronavirus pandemic, we will all be safer and happier.
Why Kevin Bacon you ask? Aside from his name being Bacon (which is delicious) and his amazing roles in “Footloose,” “A Few Good Men,” and “Apollo 13” — which can help you burn a few hours while you shelter in place — Kevin Bacon is 5 feet, 10 inches. But after you add 2 inches for his perfectly spiked hair, Mr. Bacon’s height is the magic social distance of 6 feet.
That’s 6 feet … or one Kevin Bacon … what a simple thing to remember when you’re not quarantining. It can save a life. It can save your life. So why aren’t we doing it?
The other day I went for a trail run and I was happy to see others enjoying the beautiful day, but I was saddened to see two groups of hikers and neither group had brought any Bacon. I know everyone is stir crazy, and we all love to be outside and share our outside experiences with our friends and family, but in your haste to get outside and find some sanity or fun, let’s not forget to bring the Bacon.
Just like he helped save that little town of Beaumont, Utah, from a life without dance, adding more Bacon to our lives now will help our little community get back to what it loves: dancing, biking, skiing, and eating in our local restaurants.
Please set political debates aside and follow the science. Be safe, be happy, add Bacon and remember that we are in this together and we will get through it together. #baconsaveus #vailstrong #baconnowdancelater
With new and continually updated federal, state, and county orders in place, people wonder, what role will law enforcement take? Naturally, the degree is based upon the threat. In highly populated urban areas, where one indiscretion can affect many due to density, enforcement must be tighter because of proximity. This is especially important during a pandemic.
In Eagle County, you won’t notice much change because, in rural areas, social distancing is almost a way of life. We live here because of our passion for open space. Yet, we tend to be quite social and we must monitor how we interact with one another in public places like grocery stores and post offices.
On hold are the welcoming handshakes and hugs, yet the big smiles, remain. We share a level of friendliness and respect with our neighbors and visitors that is uncommon in many other areas. It makes serving this community an absolute honor and a privilege. We also trust one another.
According to the dictionary, trust is the “the firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.”
Here, we do rely on the truth and strength of one another, and the ability to look out for the most vulnerable among us. Trust is essential, as we make sacrifices for neighbors we know, and those we have yet to meet, and that commitment is being tested daily.
Social distancing, continual hand washing, home containment … for a friendly community, these things can be challenging, yet we are all on board. We trust members of our community to maintain parameters of behavior, which will keep us all safe. Team Eagle County is stepping up and taking care of each other. It is how we roll!
Let me reassure members of Eagle County that all law enforcement agencies are continuing to handle their regular duties and doing so at the exceptional levels you have come to expect. In areas where there might be an unusually high demand, we have coordinated resources to help one another, as a joint team, working together for the overall safety of this community.
With that in mind, during a critical event, there are legal as well as ethical recommendations asked of the community, to address mutual concerns. Some of these have official implications. While we will continue to enforce serious infractions, we also acknowledge the sensitive nature of all that is occurring and the physical and emotional toll it takes on communities.
As such, we ask our friends and neighbors to please use the “honor system” in adhering to local, state, and federal guidelines and requirements. We have come to trust members of our community, to pull together during times of crisis, and this is no exception.
Since all of this is new to leadership across the country, you will notice that some “orders” are being modified upon implementation because of unforeseeable circumstances, which may make the order inappropriate for any number of valid reasons. This is new terrain for everyone.
As such, our office and that of others in Eagle County, will not be stopping motorists and demanding justification for their travel. We will assume that they have a good reason for leaving their homes and risking contamination. However, if someone is engaged in illegal activity and that activity also defies health orders, they will be held responsible for both violations.
As the sheriff, and also as your neighbor, I ask that we all observe the honor system and attempt to remain within our homes as much as possible. Of course, we are lucky to live in such an amazing environment, and most officials agree that getting outdoors for exercise and a break from isolation is both healthy and a natural part of living in Eagle County … just remember to keep those distances from one another to 6 feet or more.
We are a community that cares. Please reach out to those who may need assistance. Stay healthy, remain safe, and be happy!
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.