The U.S. Forest Service has essentially found Vail had no responsibility for the terrible tragedy that cost one teen his life. White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said his agency won’t require Vail Resorts to revamp its snow safety procedures in the wake of a large inbounds avalanche on Prima Cornice that killed 13-year-old Taft Conlin last winter.
Another skier died in a separate in-bounds avalanche at Winter Park on the same day during a record season for treacherous avalanche conditions. Another skier died in a separate in-bounds avalanche at Winter Park on the same day during a season marked by some of the most treacherous avalanche conditions in recent memory.
The January 22 slide ran about 400 vertical feet across a 200-foot section of the expert Prima Cornice terrain on Vail Mountain. The top section of the run was marked as closed and a rope line down the side of the run was marked with warning signs, but Conlin and four friends entered the run through an open gate lower down on the slope, then sidestepped and traversed uphill to gain some vertical distance.
According to the official report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the Vail ski patrol “had begun mitigating the avalanche hazard in the Prima Cornice area, but their work had not progressed to the point where they would allow the public into the area accessed from the Upper Prima Cornice gate.”
The skiers told investigators that they followed tracks as they hiked/sidestepped and then traversed towards the area where the avalanche occurred.
The slide slammed Conlin into a tree, where he was partially buried, with both skis and one arm out of the snow. According to the Eagle County coroner, he died of chest injuries. A second skier was able to grab a tree and hang on until the slide passed. The avalanche carried the third skier over a cliff, where he survived unscathed.
In their statement on the accident, the families of the boys involved in the avalanche say the resort could have done more to alert skiers to the potential avalanche danger. In a prepared statement, the families said they were surprised that an inbounds avalanche of this magnitude, resulting in death and injury, didn’t warrant a formal investigation of the accident by the Forest Service.
Without direct reference to the Vail avalanche, top U.S. Forest Service avalanche experts said the recent trend of more inbounds and sidecountry avalanches is definitely a topic of discussion for the Forest Service and the ski industry. Experts agree that the number of fatalities within ski area boundaries is on the rise. Some point to the fat skis that have made it much easier for skiers to maneuver in avalanche-prone terrain.
In the review of the Vail avalanche death, Forest Service officials considered the resorts operations logs and review snow safety procedures, as well as a technical report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The Forest Service declared that the resort followed all the steps required by its permit.