Testimony begins in skier death lawsuit against Vail Resorts; skiers, patroller take the stand
EAGLE — It’s called the “skiers’ right,” as in a right-hand turn through the Prima Cornice gate, and skiers climb to it because the terrain is better.
Taft Conlin made that climb from the lower gate of Prima Cornice. Skiers do it all the time and have for 25 years since the run opened on the front of Vail Mountain, according to testimony in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Conlin’s parents against Vail Resorts.
If skiers do climb it, then Vail ski patrollers don’t know about it, Vail Resorts attorney Hugh Gottschalk said.
Conlin died in an in-bounds avalanche on Jan. 22, 2012, the first big snow of an abysmal snow year.
Lots of skiers take that “skiers’ right,” testified John Ryan. It’s common to see people on the ridge on Prima Cornice and making that climb, Ryan said.
In fact, he saw people making that climb the day Taft Conlin died.
Ryan lives in Breckenridge and has operated Frisco’s Ramada Inn for 15 years. He and a friend took about 10 laps on Prima Cornice on Jan. 22, 2012, according to testimony.
Around 1:40 p.m. that day, they saw a boy start down the face and stop on a rock. Then they saw a big snow cloud kick up as some snow slipped and swept him downhill, about 100 feet, and pinned him in a tree well. When they found him, he was rubbing snow from his bloodied face but otherwise OK, Ryan testified.
After making sure he was OK, Ryan skied down and spotted two girls who told him that not everyone was accounted for, that there was a third boy, and he had not been located.
They all skied down to speak with a lift operator and contact ski patrol.
SKIERS ‘DID IT ALL THE TIME’
Matthew Frampton heard about Conlin’s death a day or two later when he was speaking with his dad, Harry Frampton.
“You know, Dad, we used to do that all the time, and we know people who did it all the time,” Matthew Frampton said in his deposition, played in court Wednesday, June 13.
Matthew Frampton guessed he has made the climb two dozen times when the upper Prima Cornice gate was closed. It takes about five minutes, he said.
Most times he did it, he saw tracks of skiers who had done it before him, he said.
Matthew Frampton moved to Vail when his dad, Harry Frampton, was hired as Vail Associates president. He was 15 years old the first time he skied Prima Cornice.
NOT TO OUR KNOWLEDGE
Keith Reihe worked with Vail Resorts for decades as a ski patroller and retired in April. He was in his 17th year on patrol on Jan. 22, 2012.
Reihe said he has no knowledge that people make that climb from the lower Prima Cornice gate when the upper gate is closed.
“That area is closed, and we don’t want skiers going through there,” Reihe said. “I would use gravity, come in and ski down.”
Reihe (pronounced Rye) had that weekend off, but was back at work the next day, Jan. 23, 2012, and was assigned to investigate the accident that killed Conlin.
His rangefinder told him that the slide traveled down the 47-degree angle of the slope.
Reihe testified that he had seen tracks between the upper and lower gates of Prima Cornice, but he could not determine whether those skiers were sidestepping up or down. In fact, Reihe said he sidesteps that spot, and some of those sidestep tracks might have been his own.
“It’s a downhill sport. You go through the gate and ski what’s there. Why would you sidestep up into those rocks?” Reihe said.
WHAT HAPPENED THAT DAY
On the day the avalanche killed him, Taft Conlin was skiing Vail with friends. They made a couple of Chair 4 runs and headed to Prima Cornice, according to testimony.
During one of those runs, they took that right-hand turn out of the lower Prima Cornice gate. The upper gate was roped off, according to incident reports.
They stopped to look up and saw a huge flurry of snow. One of the boys in the group was swept off a rock. The others quickly made their way to him. The boy stood up, his face bloody from the pummeling — it was another of their friends, not Conlin.
Then everything slid.
They tried to find Conlin, working their way down the mountain, headed toward a lift house.
Conlin was found a short time later, his legs sticking out of the snow against a tree. The avalanche pounding his chest had killed him.
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