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

Eagle County coroner rules death an accident

John LaConte
Vail Daily

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.


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