A trial is underway in a wrongful death lawsuit against Vail Resorts.
On January 22, 2012 Taft Conlin, 13, was involved in an in-bounds avalanche on the front side of Vail Mountain that took his life.
What the jury will need to decide is whether the teenager ducked a rope to hike up the equivalent of a 10-story building to access closed terrain or did Vail Resorts fail to properly restrict access to the terrain.
That day the upper gate to Prima Cornice was closed due to heavy snowfall. Despite that, skiers were entering a lower gate and hiking up, something Taft’s parents said skiers have been doing since 1985 when Prima Cornice opened.
Vail Resorts claims that hiking Prima Cornice was unheard of and that ski patrol had never seen any skiers climb up the mountain in that area.
According to the Vail Daily, Hugh Gottschalk, Vail Resorts’ lead attorney argues that Vail Ski Patrol manages terrain with a simple rule, if you enter a gate, then you can ski any terrain you can get to by going downhill, following gravity. If you can access an area with gravity, then it’s open. If you cannot, then it’s not.
Five skiers entered the Prima Cornice area through the Lower Prima Cornice gate. Skiers 1, 2 and 3 began hiking or sidestepping uphill to the south along the rim of the Prima Cornice. Skiers 4 and 5 quickly decided to stop hiking and skied down about 200-300 vertical feet to a bench in the slope. Skiers 4 and 5 waited for the other three at this bench.
Skiers 1, 2, and 3 continued hiking/sidestepping until they were approximately 120 linear feet uphill and to the south of the Lower Prima Cornice gate. From the rim of the Prima Cornice, they traversed south and further out into the Prima Cornice area. The three skiers were in the Prima Cornice area at the time the avalanche released. From examining physical evidence and eyewitness testimony, we were unable to determine the exact locations of the skiers when the avalanche released.
Skiers 1, 2, and 3 were all caught in the avalanche. Skier 1 was the furthest south on the slope. The avalanche carried Skier 1 through the spruce forest until he came to rest against a tree, partially buried-critical with both skis and one arm above the snow surface. The burial location was approximately 50-75 feet below a traverse track present on the day we visited the site (January 23, 2012). The avalanche carried Skier 2 until he struck and grabbed a tree. He lost both ski poles and gloves in the ride and one ski was knocked off. The tree where Skier 2 came to rest was very near the traverse track present on the day we visited the accident site. The avalanche knocked Skier 3 off a small cliff. He tumbled and when he came to a rest, he was out of the debris and not buried.
Vail Ski Patrol was notified of the avalanche and responded to the scene where they found the avalanche and Skier 1. Skier 1 was transported off of the mountain and to a medical facility. The coroner reported that Skier 1 died from injuries sustained in the avalanche.