Skico speaks on fatal avalanche
December 26, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoSNOWMASS The man who died in an avalanche at Snowmass Ski Area last week may have interpreted a closure differently than the ski patrol intended, according to the Aspen Skiing Co.’s second in command.The ski patrol placed a closed sign at the entrance to Rayburn’s Chute, expert terrain at the Hanging Valley Wall. The patrol clearly felt that its closure extended to rocky cliff bands to the left and right of that chute, said David Perry, Skico’s senior vice president, mountain division.But Blake Davidson, a 25-year-old local man killed in the avalanche, may have interpreted the closure differently, Perry acknowledged.Davidson and a colleague stayed to skier’s left of the chute, then picked their way back to the right. They negotiated a cliff band and picked their way through rocks on patches of snow, according to the Skico’s investigation.Perry said Davidson and his ski partner were among a small, “elite” group of skiers and riders with the skills to negotiate the cliff band near the chute. They might have interpreted that it was “OK” to enter the terrain they did, he said.
“We never said they knowingly entered a closed area,” Perry said.The area that Davidson and his colleague picked to traverse to the right wasn’t roped off, according to Perry, but it was lower on the mountain from the closed sign. Few skiers or riders have the skills to enter such an area, he said.A statement the Skico released Friday after its investigation of the accident said Davidson launched from a knoll in the closed areas and landed below the cliffs. Perry estimated that Davidson jumped roughly 40 feet and landed where Rayburn’s Chute starts to open up – also in a closed area.His landing triggered an avalanche that swept him into an area covered with trees. An autopsy concluded that Davidson died of asphyxia rather than trauma.The area where the avalanche debris ended was open to skiers and riders and accessible by traversing from Lower Ladder, according to the Skico’s investigation.Perry said he is aware that the circumstances of Davidson’s death triggered significant debate and remain a major topic of conversation in the community.
“We’ve been getting calls, too,” Perry said. “People want clarity.”So the Skico is taking the uncommon step of making executives available to discuss the outcome of its internal investigation. Perry said that investigation won’t be released to the public, but he, general manager of operations Rich Burkley and Snowmass Mountain Manager Steve Sewell will discuss the findings with people who have concerns or questions.He said it is vital that people know the facts before forming opinions: “That’s why I invite people to call us,” he said. “We’re more than happy to talk to people.””There is no controversy, in our opinion, nor is further investigation necessary,” Perry said.The Skico has a permit to operate Snowmass on public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service. As a permit holder, it was obligated to contact the Forest Service about Davidson’s death. Two Forest Service officials investigated the site, one Friday and one Saturday. It wasn’t certain Tuesday whether the federal agency will produce an independent report in the investigation.
Skico officials have found themselves in the uncomfortable position of defending their investigation’s conclusions at a time of mourning.Perry prefaced his comments on the investigation by stressing the Skico staff’s primary concern is for Davidson’s family and friends. He said there is “extreme sadness” among Skico workers over the 25-year-old’s death. “It’s very heartfelt,” he said.Friends and family held a memorial service over the Christmas weekend at the top of the Elk Camp section of Snowmass. Perry, along with Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan, attended the ceremony.Parties with a legitimate concern can contact Skico representative Jeff Hanle at 925-1220 to arrange a discussion, according to Perry.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.