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Vail chairlift death similar to 2000 case, attorney says

A local attorney said he sees similarities between last week’s chairlift death of a New Jersey man and a case he won against Vail Resorts 20 years ago.

Attorney Joe Bloch won a chairlift injury case against Vail Resorts stemming from a Feb. 1, 2000, incident on the Arrowbahn Express lift in which a chairlift seat was flipped up and a woman was injured when she fell through.

Jason Varnish, 46, of Short Hills, New Jersey, died Feb. 13 while riding Chair 37 in Vail’s Blue Sky Basin, according to Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis.

Bettis said the chairlift seat had flipped up and Varnish fell through. His ski coat got caught on the chair and went around his head and neck in a position that compromised his airway.

“It’s a dangerous sport. We all know that. There are risks. But falling through a lift chair and asphyxiating should not be one of them,” Bloch said in a phone interview.

Two decades ago

It was Feb. 1, 2000, when Sallyann Aarons and her husband Alan, a 28-year veteran of the National Ski Patrol, tried to get on the Arrowbahn Express lift. Aarons, who was 68 at the time, was an experienced skier of more than 40 years.

Lift operators flip lift seats up when the ski day is done so they’re dry and free of ice and snow in the morning, Bloch said.

The seat on their lift chair had flipped up and Sallyann fell through when she tried to sit down, Bloch said.

“When something malfunctions it happens fast and becomes extremely dangerous,” Bloch said.

Sallyann suffered a broken clavicle that never fused and a torn rotator cuff.

The case took two years to come to trial before Eagle County District Court Judge Richard Hart.

According to a case summary, Vail Resorts admitted that the lift operator was negligent for failing to stop the lift, and tried to flip down the chairlift seat instead of stopping the lift.

In the Aarons’ case, the lift operator tried to hold the chair back, Bloch said.

“They should have hit the emergency stop. It would have been stopped before it cleared the loading zone,” Bloch said.

After the two-day trial, the jury found Vail Resorts negligent in training and operation, the case summary said. The jury awarded the Aarons $175,000.

Bloch advocates for video cameras in chairlift loading and unloading zones.

“Why don’t they have them? Who cares about their exposure? Let’s care about making people safe,” Bloch said.

no mechanical issue

Varnish’s death has been ruled an accident.

Bloomberg News reported Tuesday that Varnish was a managing director for Credit Suisse Group AG. He most recently served as the bank’s global head of prime services risk. He’d spent more than 20 years at Credit Suisse after he joined in collateral and valuations in London in 1998.

“On behalf of all employees of Credit Suisse, we send our deepest condolences to Jason’s family and friends,” the bank said in a statement Tuesday.

Varnish, according to his obituary, is survived by his sons Cameron and Luko, his daughter Grace, and their mother Jo. His many passions included music, reading and cars, and he was an excellent and eager cook. Above all else, Jase loved his family, the obituary reads. A memorial is scheduled for Sunday at Prospect Presbyterian Church in Maplewood, New Jersey.

Last week Bettis said that, according to witnesses, the chairlift’s folding seat was in the upright position, instead of being folded down so riders could sit on it. That left an open area through which one could fall through if they did not notice the seat was not in place.

The Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board said that, for now, the investigation shows nothing mechanical failed.

“The Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board is working with Vail Mountain Resort on its investigation into the Feb. 14, 2020, fatality on the Skyline Express Lift. There is no indication at this juncture that lift components or operations contributed to the tragic accident. Any further questions regarding this matter should be addressed to Vail Resorts,” Lee Rasizer with the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board said Wednesday morning in an email.

The ongoing investigation includes Vail Ski Patrol, Vail Resorts, Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board, Eagle County Paramedic Services, Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, Eagle County Coroner’s Office and Vail Public Safety Communications.

Bettis had no comment regarding the investigation. Jessie Porter, a public information officer with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, wrote this in an email Wednesday to the Vail Daily: “We have received several different requests for information regarding this incident. At this time this is an active investigation and our reports are not at an appropriate level that they can be released at this time.”

Vail Resorts did not respond to requests for comment on Bloch’s 2000 case and what had been done since then to mitigate chairlift seats flipping up.

Vail Resorts did release a statement after Varnish’s death last week.

“Vail Mountain confirms a serious incident that took place yesterday involving a 46-year-old man from New Jersey. The incident occurred when the guest attempted to load the Skyline Express lift (Chair 37). Vail Mountain Ski Patrol responded to the incident and performed CPR and emergency care on scene before the guest was transported to Vail Health, where he was pronounced deceased,” the company said.

The National Ski Areas Association, a resort trade group, wrote in a 2017 industry paper that chairlift deaths because of mechanical malfunction are rare. Kelly Huber, a 40-year-old Texas woman, was killed after being thrown from a ski lift at Granby Ranch resort in 2016 because of a malfunction with the lift’s mechanical drive. Lift injuries caused by other nonmechanical issues are more common, including one from 2017 where a skier’s backpack was caught by a chairlift at Arapahoe Basin. The man was dragged back down the hill hanging by his neck and unconscious before he was cut down and rescued.

Tributes pour in for Gypsum men killed in an avalanche

Gypsum locals Dillon Block, 28, and Cesar “Pollo” Almanza-Hernandez, 30, died Saturday after being buried by an avalanche while riding Timbersleds near Muddy Pass.

The news of the deaths rushed through the downvalley community quicker than official reports. Peers who walked the halls of Eagle Valley High School with the two shared precious memories on Facebook. Friend Elena Hernandez established a GoFundMe page to assist their families. In less than 20 hours, she had collected more than $20,000 as contributors talked about how Almanza-Hernandez, who was known as “Pollo” among friends and family, and Block touched their lives.

“There’s this thing that happens when you grow up in a small town; all the fibers of everyone’s lives weave together,” wrote former classmate Casey Medsker Huff in a memorial to Almanza-Hernandez and Block. “You share first and last days of school. Invite each other to kiddie birthday parties. Play youth sports together. Pick teams on the blacktop at recess. You grow up together. Elementary, then middle, then high school. You take the same classes and talk about your dreams. You hug in the hallway and high five on the court. You cheer each other on. You pick each other up.

“Then you turn 18, you graduate high school, and some of you move away while some of you stay. Lives change. Relationships are put on hold or morph into something different. Dreams evolve. But somewhere in your heart, there’s still that small town tapestry embedded into your DNA.”

It has been a decade since Almanza-Hernandez graduated from Eagle Valley High School, and almost that long for Block. But inevitably, when a native son passes unexpectedly and tragically, folks tend to remember times spent together during their high school days.

Longtime EVHS teacher and coach John Ramunno had fond memories of both Almanza-Hernandez and Block.

Both men were members of the EVHS football team and they both enrolled in Ramunno’s weightlifting classes. Almanza earned all-league recognition as a defensive tackle.

After he graduated, Almanza-Hernandez assisted Ramunno as a volunteer football coach. Over the years, Ramunno periodically bumped into his former student while skiing at Beaver Creek.

“Man, could he ride a snowboard. He would fly by me like I was standing still,” Ramunno said. “If I was at the Blue Moose at lunchtime, Pollo would always get me something to eat. He’d say ‘The season’s coming, coach. You gotta bulk up.’”

Block also was a standout football talent.

“His senior year, he was one of the stars of our team,” Ramunno said. “Dillon loved auto shop. He had a passion for that and every day he looked forward to getting out to auto shop and working. Jay Taylor hired him right out of high school.”

“They were super kids and they were both way too young,” Ramunno said. “I am so sad for their families. They both had a lot ahead of them.”

Two men from Gypsum dead after avalanche on Muddy Pass north of Vail

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported on Sunday that the bodies of two timbersledders buried in an an avalanche have been recovered.

The Eagle County Coroner’s Office has identified the victims as Dillon Block, 28, and Cesar Almanza-Hernandez, 30. Both men were from Gypsum.

According to the CAIC’s preliminary report, the avalanche occurred at about 2:30 p.m. on Saturday.

“Three motorized snowbike riders were caught in an avalanche east of Red and White Mountain in Eagle County on Saturday … One rider was partially buried and was able to extricate himself and go for help. The avalanche carried the other two riders into a gully in the drainage bottom,” according to the report.

“Avalanche debris piled up deeply and they were fully buried and killed. Search and Rescue volunteers recovered the bodies on February 16. The avalanche occurred on a northeast-facing below treeline slope, around 9800 feet in elevation. It was about 650 feet wide and ran about 120 vertical feet. The avalanche initiated in the old snow layers about three feet below the snow surface. It stepped down to a weak layer near the ground, about five feet deep.”

The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office said they received the call about the incident at 4:45 p.m. on Saturday. The Sheriff’s Office, Vail Mountain Rescue Group, Eagle County Coroner’s Office, Colorado Avalanche Information Center, United States Forest Service, the Vail Public Safety Communications Center and several local citizens assisted in the search and recovery efforts of this incident.

“We are so appreciative for of the volunteers with Vail Mountain Rescue Group who worked on this very tragic incident, our thoughts are with the families and friends of Mr. Block and Mr. Almanza-Hernandez,” said Sheriff James Van Beek.

Vail local Hunter Schleper was in the area on Saturday and helped locate the riders. In a Facebook post, Schleper described the incident:

“As our group of 6 were heading back to the trucks, we were notified by a group of riders that a couple of timbersledders were buried in an avalanche,” Schleper posted on Sunday. “We all rushed as quickly as we could to help assist in locating the guys. Between 10 of us, we each dug and dug for hours. The riders were buried so deep that none of our probes could reach them.

“We finally located each of the riders at a depth of around 20 feet. It was clear that there was no chance of survival from early on. Everyone involved in the search executed the quickest recovery we could, but after 5 hours of digging and uncovering the riders, Vail Mountain Rescue finally arrived and we were immediately told to suspend the recovery. They felt it was too late into the evening and we were still in avalanche danger. We all made it out of the woods around 9 p.m., hearts heavy. We want to thank our friends and other riders who worked alongside us no questions asked to get the buried riders out. We extend our deepest condolences and sympathies to the families.”

The Eagle County Sheriff’s Department warned backcountry travelers, especially people recreating on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees, to take the time to analyze snowpack layers and test their stability. The slope angle on the face that slid Saturday was about 37 degrees, according to CAIC’s report. 
 
“Cautious route-finding and conservative decision-making is essential,” the Sheriff’s Department wrote.


Vail skier death was from accidental hanging, according to initial investigation

Jason Varnish, 46, of Short Hills, New Jersey, died of positional asphyxia Thursday while riding a chairlift in Vail’s Blue Sky basin, according to the Eagle County coroner.

Kara Bettis said the death has been ruled an accident and that toxicology results are still pending.

Bettis, in a text, wrote: “We are still investigating how this whole situation happened. According to our initial investigation, the deceased slipped through the seat of the chair lift and his ski coat got caught up in the chair. The coat ended up going up around his head and neck area putting his neck in a position that compromised his airway.”

Bettis said that the folding seat was in the upright position, according to witnesses, instead of being folded down so people could sit on it, leaving an open area which one could fall through if they did not notice the seat was not in place.

Skiers in the area witnessed CPR being performed on Varnish at the base of Chair 37 in Blue Sky Basin. Blue Sky Basin was closed for the day following the incident before re-opening Friday around 11:30 a.m.

Questions on the incident Friday were being referred to Bettis, who, after releasing the details of her initial investigation, referred questions to the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department.

The Sheriff’s Department then referred questions to Vail Resorts, which issued the following statement:

“Vail Mountain confirms a serious incident that took place yesterday involving a 46-year-old man from New Jersey. The incident occurred when the guest attempted to load the Skyline Express lift (Chair 37). Vail Mountain Ski Patrol responded to the incident and performed CPR and emergency care on scene before the guest was transported to Vail Health, where he was pronounced deceased. 

“We take all incidents seriously and are conducting a full investigation.

“The lift has been thoroughly inspected and is operating normally.

“ ‘Vail Mountain and the entire Vail Resorts family express our sincere condolences and extend our support to the guest’s family and friends,’ said Beth Howard, chief operating officer.”

Skiers mourning Varnish on Thursday were quick to remember a similar incident from 2009, when a man found himself suspended upside down, genitals fully exposed, in Blue Sky Basin.

The story went viral when the truTV website thesmokinggun.com picked it up, using the memorable headline “Skier suffers exposure.”

That victim in that case had also slipped through seat of the chairlift, which was not folded down properly, reported witness Marty Odom.

The incident also occurred on Chair 37 Skyline Express, the same chairlift that Varnish was riding.

Vail Daily Editor Nate Peterson contributed to this report.

New Jersey man dies in Vail Mountain’s Blue Sky Basin area

Jason Varnish, of New Jersey, died Thursday on Vail Mountain, coroner Kara Bettis has confirmed.

Skiers in the area witnessed CPR being performed on Varnish at the base of Chair 37 in Blue Sky Basin. Varnish may have been involved in an incident involving the chair itself before, according to second-hand accounts from skiers in the area. Blue Sky Basin was closed following the incident.

Vail Resorts released a statement Thursday afternoon:

“Vail Mountain confirms that ski patrol responded to a serious incident at Blue Sky Basin this morning involving a 48-year-old man from New Jersey. Upon arrival, they provided CPR and other emergency care on scene. The guest was then transported to Vail Health Hospital.” 

“Vail Mountain and the entire Vail Resorts family express our sincere condolences and extend our support to the guest’s family and friends,” said Beth Howard, chief operating officer.

This is a developing story that will be updated.

Vail Mountain COO offers apology, context on massive weekend lift lines

Beth Howard, the chief operating officer for Vail Mountain, issued the following statement Wednesday morning:

Wow, what a storm. Last weekend, in a 48-hour period, we received 38 inches of snow at Vail Mountain, which ranks as a top-five snowfall event in our 58-year history. We know that no one wants to miss powder like that — so we got straight to work. We had a lot on the line.

Digging out from that kind of snowfall to get our mountain open and safe for guests requires a Herculean effort by ski patrol, lift operations, groomers and the entire Vail Mountain staff. I want to express my deepest appreciation for their hard work.

We were fully staffed — it was truly an all-hands-on-deck scenario — and we spared no expense to get the mountain open as quickly as possible. In fact, our patrol team used a record number of explosives in their thorough avalanche mitigation. But safety always comes first — and to ensure terrain is absolutely safe for guests and employees, it takes time.

I want to thank our guests for their patience this weekend and apologize for any experience that was less than ideal. I’d also like to use this opportunity to acknowledge and provide context around two particularly striking lift lines that people saw on social media.

On Friday and Saturday, the line at the bottom of Gondola One was undeniably long. Guests began lining up at 6 a.m. — more than two hours before we opened — eager, as I was, to experience the historic powder. While I don’t like to see anyone waiting in any line, I want to assure you that those lines were gone by 10 a.m. on Friday and by 9:15 a.m. on Saturday. That gondola can manage a lot of guests — and once the initial group dissipated, the line was around five minutes long the rest of those days.

Midday on Saturday, while the majority of the mountain was free from lines, we saw a more challenging situation in the limited amount of terrain we had been able to open safely in our Back Bowls. As many of you know, when skiing or riding the Sun Down and Sun Up bowls to the bottom, the only option to upload is Chair 5. At 10:30 a.m. the wait time began to exceed 30 minutes, and the line grew much longer. By 2 p.m., the line had subsided, but that period in between created an unacceptable experience for our guests and I apologize to anyone who got stuck in it.

We considered whether to limit or meter guest access to that terrain, but candidly it was not something we had done before. We also tried to warn guests about the line, but fell way short in our effectiveness — and even when we did, guests tended to ski right past our staff because they wanted to enjoy the untouched powder. To help make up for any guest impacts, we decided to keep the lifts running an additional half-hour.

Again, I know we could have done a much better job anticipating these situations and communicating with our guests. As we head into another big weekend — with more snow in the forecast — I’m focused on improving those communication channels. You’ll see more updates and information on all of Vail Mountain’s social accounts, and I’m pleased to share the EpicMix app has been upgraded so that you can rely on it for accurate lift line wait times. 

I am well aware that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I truly hope my words here help provide context for what happened. I have complete confidence in our team at Vail Mountain and the huge investment we’ve made in high-speed chairlifts to alleviate lift line concerns across our resort. I am confident this was an isolated incident in the midst of extreme conditions.

Today our operations are back to normal – and conditions are truly outstanding. I hope to see you up here soon. 

Sincerely,

Beth Howard

Chief Operating Officer, Vail Mountain

Widowmaker avalanche path slides during CDOT mitigation work, covering US Highway 6 and delaying A-Basin opening

ARAPAHOE BASIN — The Widowmaker avalanche path above U.S. Highway 6 near Arapahoe Basin Ski Area slid Tuesday morning during mitigation work by the Colorado Department of Transportation. The slide closed the highway and caused a delayed opening for the ski area.

The avalanche mitigation work followed a recent storm cycle that dropped 43 inches in four days at A-Basin. The Widowmaker path, which is about a mile west of the ski area’s base, slid at about 10:05 a.m. Tuesday across the closed highway.

“Using a helicopter, CDOT deployed an explosive on the path creating an avalanche that deposited 6-8 feet of snow on US Highway 6 approximately one mile west of Arapahoe Basin,” A-Basin Chief Operating Officer Al Henceroth wrote on his blog.

CDOT was conducting avalanche mitigation work on Widowmaker as well as the Professor avalanche path directly across from the ski area’s base, according to an earlier blog post.

The highway was cleared and reopened at about 11:28 a.m., and Henceroth described conditions at A-Basin as “beautiful.” The ski area’s Tuesday morning report recorded 3 inches of new snow, bringing the total to 46 inches — nearly 4 feet — over the past five days.

“The skiing is pretty darn good,” Henceroth wrote.

To make up for the late start, the ski area announced that some of the lifts would be kept open later than usual. The Lenawee Mountain Lift will remain open until 3:45 p.m., and the Pallavichini Lift will be open until 4 p.m.

Summit Daily Sports & Outdoors Editor Antonio Olivero contributed to this report.

Breckenridge Resort confirms 2 deaths at ski area in past month

Representatives with Breckenridge Ski Resort have confirmed two incidents that resulted in fatalities at the ski area over the past three weeks.

On Jan. 20, a “serious incident” took place on the mountain involving a 45-year-old woman from Leesburg, Virginia, according to the resort. The woman has since been identified as Shirley V. Louangamath, originally from Vientiene, Laos.

Breckenridge Ski Patrol responded to the incident on an intermediate trail on Peak 8, and the woman was transported to St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood but later died.

The manner of death was accidental and caused by traumatic heart failure due to blunt force trauma, according to the Summit County Coroner’s Office.

The resort also confirmed another fatality on the mountain Feb. 7 involving a 56-year-old man from Austin, Texas, identified as Stephen William Piche.

According to the resort, ski patrol recovered Piche from an expert trail on Peak 9, and he was transported to the Breckenridge Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

The manner of Piche’s death was natural, and it was caused by an acute myocardial infarction, or heart attack, according to the Coroner’s Office.

“Breckenridge Ski Resort, ski patrol and the entire Vail Resorts family extend our deepest sympathy and support to our guests’ family and friends,” John Buhler, vice president and chief operating officer at Breckenridge Ski Resort, said in a statement.

Skier dies at Steamboat Resort after falling into tree well

 A 53-year-old skier from Philadelphia died after falling headfirst into a tree well on Shadows, a black diamond tree run at Steamboat Resort, on Saturday afternoon, according to Routt County Coroner Rob Ryg.

The man, identified as Frank Maimone, was found around 2:30 p.m., Ryg said. Steamboat Ski Patrol performed CPR and continued to perform CPR all the way to UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs, where the man died, Ryg said.

An autopsy report will be released Monday, Ryg said. There wasn’t any visible trauma, he said, but it isn’t known at this time whether the man suffered any trauma, and no cause of death has been identified at this time.

As of 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. had not returned a call requesting more information about the incident.

The resort has received 38 inches of new snowfall since an intense snow storm hit the area Thursday.

According to the National Association of Ski Areas, a deep snow, or tree well immersion accident, occurs when a skier or rider falls into an area of deep unconsolidated snow, becomes immobilized and suffocates. These deaths are referred to as snow immersion suffocation.

Vail’s lift-line woes over weekend on heels of historic powder conditions

Vail Mountain enjoyed one of its top-five snow events on record from Thursday to Saturday.

All told, the mountain recorded 38 inches at Patrol Headquarters during a 48-hour period between Thursday and Saturday. Much of the mountain’s 5,300 acres were closed during the weather event, as ski patrol worked to mitigate avalanche danger. Vail’s Blue Sky Basin has yet to open following the blizzard.

“We want to thank everyone for skiing and riding with us as we dig out from this historic storm,” said John Plack, Senior Communications Manager at Vail. “Mountain Operations is hard at work mitigating terrain risks, and we want to remind everyone to stay out of closed terrain.”

Plack said skiers and snowboarders can anticipate more terrain openings on Sunday as ski patrol continues to mitigate the risks associated with the heavy snowfall.

The lift closures caused crowds to funnel at the base areas in epic proportions on Friday and Saturday.

Friday’s scene at the base of Gondola One instantly went viral on social media, with national outlets sharing an Instagram post that showed a massive line of skiers and snowboarders stretching out of the maze and up the slope.

Vail acknowledged the situation, saying it was 10 a.m. before things finally dispersed at the base area on Friday.

“It’s a Herculean effort to dig out lifts and ensure terrain is safe when there is this much snow,” Beth Howard, Vail Mountain COO said on Friday.

Despite the fact that Vail Pass was closed due to avalanche mitigation, skiers and snowboarders still hit the slopes in big numbers.

In Vail, as 152 cars spilled out of the structures Friday and received free parking on the Frontage Road. For reference, following snow during Vail’s big holiday week, on Dec. 27, 171 cars were parked on the Frontage Road. On Jan. 2, 402 cars spilled over, which was the most for the 2019-20 ski season, until Saturday.

Saturday’s total was 456 cars. And the morning liftlines corresponded.

“I think the line is worse at Vail today,” Phillyfreak5 posted on Reddit Saturday morning.

As chair openings rolled out, the crowds dispersed all over Vail Mountain, and then regrouped in other places.

Pictures of enormous crowds at the bottoms of chairs 5 and 7 could be seen on social media throughout the day.

Readers using the #vaillive hashtag on Instagram kept us updated on the lift line statuses of High Noon Express and Game Creek Express on Saturday.

In addition to heavy crowds, the snow itself was heavy, as well. By Saturday afternoon, the thermometers were reading 45 degrees at base areas in Vail and Lionshead.

“Heaviest snow I’ve ever ridden in Vail,” said Chris Tierney, a former podium finisher in masters division snowboard cross racing. “The run I took was sick, but you have to point it and not stop.”

Additional video from Tierney shows the moments leading up to the rope drop at Sun Down Bowl, where an excited crowd earned some unforgettable turns.

After the busy morning, Vail stayed open a half hour later on Saturday for skiers and snowboarders looking to extend their day.

“We know everyone was excited to get out on the mountain, and as a thank you for your patience while we continue to open more terrain, we hope our guests enjoyed the extended lift operating hours on Saturday,” Howard said.

Vail Daily’s Digital Engagement Editor Sean Naylor contributed to this report.