Former Vail Patroller Speaks Out Over Avalanche Wrongful Death Verdict | All Gates to Prima Cornice Should have been Closed

Steven Agar | | Industry NewsIndustry News
vail, avalanche, court, negligence
The top entrance to the “Prima Cornice” run at Vail Mountain. On January 22, 2012, Taft Conlin and a group of young skiers entered the Prima Cornice run through a lower gate that was open. The top gate was closed. An in-bounds avalanche killed 13-year-old telemark skier, Taft Conlin. Credit: Vail Daily

Former Vail ski instructor, Vail snowcat driver and Vail ski patroller Michael Beckley wrote this letter to Vail Daily in response to the verdict of Ingalls v. Vail. Vail Resorts was sued for negligence for the death of then 13 year old skier Taft Conlin. On January 22, 2012, Taft Conlin and four other skiers entered the lower gate of Prima Cornice at Vail Resort.

vail, avalanche, court, negligence
Dr. Louise Ingalls looks over photographs of her son, Taft Conlin, in Taft’s room at her home in Eagle. Credit: Vail Daily

The upper gate to the run had been roped off due to avalanche danger. Taft’s parents, Dr. Louise Ingalls and Dr. Stephen Conlin, had sued the ski company for negligence, saying the company did not close the run properly and violated Colorado’s Skier Safety Act. A six-person jury ruled Wednesday, June 20, that Vail Resorts had closed the upper Prima Cornice run on Vail Mountain’s front side before an in-bounds avalanche killed Taft.

Here is Michael Beckley’s letter in its entirety:

To whom it may concern: I read with sadness about the jury’s decision in Ingalls v. Vail (“Jury rules for Vail Resorts in skier death case,” Randy Wyrick, Thursday, June 21).

I started as a Vail ski instructor in the 1975-77 seasons and then a Vail snowcat driver. After that, I was a professional ski patroller on Vail Mountain. For two years, I was assigned to living in the caretaker’s cottage adjacent to Patrol Headquarters on top of Vail Mountain. There, I oversaw doing the early-morning weather/snow and avalanche risk assessment and appropriate control assignments.

I made up the avalanche bombs and assigned all the avalanche-control routes to the patrollers when they arrived at the top of the mountain. I dug countless snow pits and taught avalanche safety classes. In the summers, I was foreman of the summer Signs and Closures Crew and built most of the signs, closures and gates on Vail Mountain. I buildt the upper and lower Prima Cornice gates that Mr. Conlin skied past and through.

After that, I was promoted from ski patrol to supervisor of Vail Mountain Trail Crew, World Cup Racing and Special Events. I oversaw all signs, closures and trail marking and trail maintenance. I was in charge of the first World Cups, which Vail hosted when the races returned to the United States. I went on to be director of mountain operations at Beaver Creek and eventually managing director of Beaver Creek for Vail Resorts (then Vail Associates). I was recruited to be president and general manager of Catamount Ranch and Club in Steamboat Springs and thus ended 25 wonderful years with Vail.

Why am I saddened by the verdict? Firstly, Prima Cornice is a highly, extremely dangerous area. The exposure and its proclivity to “load” with snow from the westerly wind-driven snows made the area incredibly unpredictable. I always preferred to “shoot” Prima Cornice on days we had new snow and winds. We had a normal, minimal, six-shot route, with three thrown high and three thrown low.

I don’t suppose to second guess the patrol’s on-site decisions; however, the fact even the lower gate was opened with no control other than some ski cutting seemed very odd.

Secondly, that lower gate should never been left open on Jan. 22, 2012. I know for a fact that when skiers entered the lower gates, they routinely hiked uphill. I have seen it countless times, and in time after time when I’ve skied Prima Cornice, I’ve seen tracks of skiers who have climbed. I always considered the lower gate to be an entrance to the entire Prima Cornice slope. And, we all knew that some of the local kids would not duck a rope but that they would take advantage of an open gate on a powder day.

The testimony at trial apparently showed that young people had climbed up the slope from the lower gate. Had I been on duty on Jan. 22, 2012, I would have made sure both gates were closed.

I was extremely troubled that only one “expert witness” was called. There are many past patrollers with vast experience who could have spoken to the Prima Cornice facts. The jury could have been much better informed as to the history behind the closures to Prima Cornice, the history of hiking up in the area and the incredible snow hazards in that specific area.

In closing, I regret having to write this letter, but I could not, in clear conscience, let my clear memories of Prima Cornice go unmentioned.


Michael Beckley


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