Mountain Town News: Vail Resorts lawsuit; ICE visits a brewery | ParkRecord.com

Mountain Town News: Vail Resorts lawsuit; ICE visits a brewery

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

Jury sided with Vail Resorts, but ex-employee saw something else

VAIL, Colo. – Mike Beckley is retired now, living in Denver's Capitol Hill, Colorado's most crowded neighborhood. But in the late 1970s Beckley lived atop Vail Mountain. There, in the caretaker's cottage adjacent to the ski patrol headquarters, every morning he was responsible for evaluating the weather and avalanche risk and making appropriate control assignments.

That experience lies at the heart of Beckley's indignant response to a jury's verdict in the case of an avalanche death on Vail Mountain. The death occurred on a snowy day in January 2012 on a double-black-diamond run called Prima Cornice. Ski patrollers that day had roped off the top of the run. But toward the bottom there's a side entrance through the trees. Taft Conlin, 13, and friends had entered the side gate then side-stepped up the ski trail. An avalanche buried and killed Conlin.

The boy's parents sued, arguing that Vail Resorts was negligent in not closing the lower gate and had violated the Colorado Skier Safety Act. The Vail Daily, which covered the trial, identified the key argument by Vail Resorts was that the Colorado Skier Safety Act identifies alpine skiing means skiing or sliding downhill.

"You have to assume that skiers are going downhill, or you would have to put a four-sided box around closed areas," said Hugh Gottschalk, attorney for Vail Resorts.

"As for the people who said they and others have sidestepped up Prima Cornice, that proves nothing," Gottschalk said.

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Beckley, in a letter published in the Vail Daily, argues not the legal nuance of the governing statute, but rather that Vail Resorts was asleep. He said that the prevailing winds tend to "load" the slope with snow. "I always preferred to 'shoot' Prima Cornice on days we had new snow and winds," he said. "We had a normal, minimal, six-shot route, with three thrown high and three thrown low."

But Vail, he says, should have closed the lower gate that particular day. "I know for a fact that when skiers entered the lower gates, they routinely hiked uphill. I have seen it countless times," says Beckley. "We always 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."

Had he been on duty that day in 2012, says Beckley, "I would have made sure both gates were closed."

After his two years of living atop the mountain, Beckley went on to successive levels of managing, ending up in the 1990s as the top manager at Beaver Creek.

Getting close to nature but without all of the hardships

WHISTLER, B.C. – Nature, it seems, isn't good enough on its own terms. A Canadian company called Moment Factory has eight "lumina" shows around the world that seek to create even more spectacle in night time scenes of nature, including a new one this month in Whistler.

This is one of several new attractions at Whistler this summer that seeks to make the outdoors more accessible. Unlike John Muir, who famously shimmied up a tree in Yosemite in order to see a storm from the perspective of the tree, these new experiences work in the opposite direction. There's less effort, less sweat, less discomfort.

The night-time show is called Vallea Lumina. When debuted in Quebec in 2014, one writer said it "gives visitors an amazing audiovisual experience, but it also draws on local legends to provide a deeper understanding of the cultural history and significance of the forest."

In Whistler, the after-dinner attraction is being assembled in the coastal rainforest on the town's northern edge. Pique Newsmagazine calls it "showcasing nature in high-def: Ancient rushing waters, swaying cedars and hemlocks, and fresh west-coast air meshed with massive screens, interconnected lights and sounds that create an innovative and evocative nighttime world of wonder."

This new world is one of "talking trees, larger-than-life animals, luminescent fish, shooting stars, showering stardust, and an adventure quest in the rainforest," says Pique.

The local production has been put together during the last nine months by Joey Houssain, who has a company called the Adventure Group. That company does zipline tours, whitewater rafting, and snowmobiling. This, says Houssain, sets out in a new direction.

"I hope the experience evokes in people the interconnectedness of us all; that humans are not separate from nature, we are a part of nature," he says.

In this new role, Houssain sees himself as a guide that uses "lights and sound and a little bit of magic – and also an insane amount of technology."

Houssain is the son of Joe Houssain, who in 1986 founded Intrawest. Intrawest at one time owned Whistler Blackcomb and a great many other ski areas before finally being dissolved last year. It has been replaced by Alterra Mountain Co., which even occupies the same second-floor office space in Denver's trendy LoDo district formerly occupied by Intrawest.

Whistler Blackcomb, of course, is now owned by Vail Resorts, which also has a new offering this summer, a suspension bridge among the ski runs that spans 130 metres (426 feet) of thin air and delivers its pedestrians to a lookout with mountaintop views for kilometres in every direction.

The bridge, says Rob McSkimming, vice president of business development for the ski company, "is really just part of a longer-term plan to continue adding those 'wow' attractions."

This is part of Vail Resorts' $366 million in upgrades, the company's largest single-year investment ever at a resort.

Yet a third new summer offering at Whistler is a Sky Walk, which will take guests on a two-hour guided tour over suspended bridges and walkways. Again, there's new technology, this coming from Europe. Unlike the clip/unclip harness for the Via Ferrata, Sky Walk features a system where guests are clipped in the whole way and simply slide their clips through the entire course.

Pique asked a logical question: Do these dilute the Whistler brand? That brand has more to do with hard-core, double-black-diamond adventures. These adventures are more passive.

Those delivering these new attractions say they believe Whistler's image remains intact. Both harder core and now more passive, they say, it's still about the mountains, the forests, the lakes.

#MeToo guys get invited to meeting of the well-heeled

SUN VALLEY, Idaho – Some very wealthy and influential people were invited to the annual Allen & Co. gathering that began last week at Sun Valley. Think Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg, and others from the business world, especially that of tech and media.

Last year, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were there, too. This year, Mary Barr, CEO of General Motors, is expected to be there and also Tim Cook, of Apple.

But what to make of the invitation of Charlie Rose? The disgraced interviewer was booted last year from his prime TV slots because of myriad sexual harassment charges by women. "Charlie Rose ceases to exist," Hollywood heavyweight Barry Diller told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times in March.

"Not if his invitation is any indication," the Idaho Mountain Express notes wryly.

Further evidence that the #MeToo movement doesn't mean #NeverMore was the invitation of Jerry Richardson. He was forced by the National Football League to sell the Carolina Panthers after an investigation by Sports Illustrated found at least four former employees who received confidential payouts to stay silent on Richardson's workplace misconduct. He made out just fine, getting $2.2 billion for the sale, a record. And, he still gets invited to hang out with other billionaires.

But Harvey Weinstein, a regular in years past, is off the invite list, says Hollywood Reporter. Tom Brokaw, who has denied accusations of improprieties, will be there.

And so it goes in the world inhabited by people who have their own private jets or at least have friends and associates who do. Business Insider reported that 350 to 400 private jets were expected. Those jets were double-parked at the airport down-valley from Ketchum and Sun Valley. Late-comers had to drop off their VIPs and then park the jets at some other airport in Idaho.

Buffet, a critic of corporate excess, has sometimes driven his station wagon to Sun Valley..

The conference has gained a reputation as a place where big deals get hatched over lunch or dinner. One example. Bezos, the Amazon founder, several years ago decided to buy the Washington Post, a deal that became public only later.

The New York Times on Monday reported that a focus of the gathering was expected to be on the intensifying consolidation in the media sector. For example, will Disney or Comcast get the assets of 21st Century Fox? Those assets include the FX and National Geo cable channels.

Mountain goats chased by wolves and humans, too

BANFF, Alberta – For wolves, it's not all just snacking on bison calves or old cow elk. In Banff National Park, wildlife biologists discovered that a wolf fell off a cliff, breaking legs, ribs, a jaw, and otherwise sustaining enough injuries that it died. It had been previously collared for research purposes.

Jesse Whittington, an ecologist with Parks Canada, told the Rocky Mountain Outlook it was possible the wolf was just passing through. Also a possibility, given the high elevation, was that the wolf was hunting mountain goats. Until biologists collared wolves with GPS devices, they had no idea that wolves hunted mountain goats.

In Colorado, somebody else hunted mountain goats. Two goats were found along the hiking trail near the summit of Quandary, a 14,000-foot peak near Breckenridge. The goats had been shot at close range.

In Oregon, two wolves hung around Mount Hood this winter. The state has 125 confirmed wolves, but a study concluded that the state has enough habitat to support at least 1,450 wolves. Whether that will ever happen, though, is an open question.

Most of the wolves are in northeastern Oregon, along the border with Idaho, near the lovely mountain town of Joseph. More recently they have been near Baker City. That area, reports the Bend Bulletin, remains a test case of how an entrenched ranching community can adapt and learn to live with wolves. That case has implications for the rest of Oregon—including the area around Bend, in the central part of the state. Bachelor ski area is nearby.

The eisting wolves have been snacking on cattle, not surprisingly provoking objections from ranchers.

Ranchers see no easy way to prevent losses, and even the hard ways have limited effectiveness. An environmental group representative said the most effective way to stop depredation of livestock herds is to have humans around. Unlike sheep, which constantly have herders, ranchers typically let cattle roam, whether in fenced pastures or on public lands.

ICE agents visit brewery but not for a cold one

OURAY, Colo. – Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrived in plain clothes in late June, leaving with one added individual, a worker at a brew pub who the federal agents accuse of immigration violations.

The individual arrested had reportedly lived in Ouray, located in a colorful canyon on the edge of the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, for several years and has a family. The owner of the Ouray Brewery, Erin Eddy, told the Telluride Daily Planet that she believed the individual was in the United States legally.

"We're now trying to sort through what this individual has been telling us, and whether it's true or not," she said.

The ICE agents also were in Telluride, but they made no arrest, the Planet said. One restaurateur told the newspaper that without immigrants "we'd be serving burgers and fries on paper plates."

At Ridgway, 10 miles from Ouray and about twice that to Telluride, a restaurant owner reported an uproar on social media. "Everyone is taking up arms, figuratively," said the restaurateur.

Draft plan completed for mass evacuation of Whistler

WHISTLER, B.C. – Wildfire continues to grow in the thinking of people along the coast of British Columbia. The latest evidence is a draft plan for evacuation of the Sea to Sky corridor between Whistler and Vancouver.

It's not just wildfire, though. Pique Magazine says that the plan also identifies other hazards that could potentially require a mass evacuation in Whistler: volcanic eruption, a hazardous material spill, and a large-scale terrorist incident.

More religion about the value of thinning the forest interface

GRAND LAKE, Colo. – Testimony continues to arrive of the value of thinning forests in the urban-wildlands interface. A case in point is near Grand Lake, at the west entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.

There, flames soared recently, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of homes in the Columbine subdivision. While incinerating 20 acres, no homes were lost, however.

Mike Long, the fire chief in Grand Lake, credits work by the Colorado State Forest Service. Since 2015, the state agency removed dead trees and created fuel-breaks on 2017 acres near the subdivision and other residential properties.

"That work without a doubt saved the Columbine subdivision," Long told the Sky-Hi News.

About an hour away in Summit County, dead trees are also being removed. The Summit Daily News reports work has begun on removing a wide swath of beetle-killed trees between Frisco and Breckenridge. This is part of a program to "treat" about 800 acres of U.S. Forest Service land.

A year ago, the nearby Peak 2 fire awed Summit County residents and worried residents of nearby Breckenridge. Then, the winds shifted, and the blaze was put out with very little harm done.

Summit County has made a long journey in its attitudes toward the threat of wildfire and what must be done to abate the risk to homes. Nearly all of the county – home to four ski areas – is within what is called the wildland-urban interface.

In the 1990s, it was official government policy to oppose cutting trees. After the raspy dry years of wildfires in 2002, local jurisdictions in Colorado evolved in their thinking about wildfire. Even so, there was significant public opposition in 2015 to the fuels reduction work now being completed between Frisco and Breckenridge.

Mountain reservoirs drop after a winter of little snow

GUNNISON, Colo. – Entering July, the question across Colorado was when it would begin raining. Limiting expansion of fires and preventing new fires was one reason for the prayers for rain. But reservoir levels have been dropping rapidly after a subpar winter of snow.

In the Crested Butte area, the Slate River has been running about one-tenth of its average flow for late June, reported Frank Kugel, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. "It's not as bad as the drought of 2002, the benchmark for drought, "but we are approaching that point," he told the Crested Butte News.

Two local reservoirs, Taylor Park and Blue Mesa – the latter being the largest in Colorado – normally reach their peak storage in mid to late July; this year both reached their max in early June.