Mountain News: Ski resort settles tree-well fatality lawsuit 

click to enlarge WWW.SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - LAWSUIT SETTLED  A student from German was skiing on the slopes of Whitefish Mountain in late December 2010 when he fell into a tree well. His family brought forth a lawsuit, which was recently settled.
  • LAWSUIT SETTLED A student from German was skiing on the slopes of Whitefish Mountain in late December 2010 when he fell into a tree well. His family brought forth a lawsuit, which was recently settled.

WHITEFISH, Mont. — A 16-year-old exchange student from Germany was skiing on the slopes of Whitefish Mountain in late December 2010 when he ended up in a tree well, his head down, snow cascading around his face, his skis anchored to the surface. He was stuck.

Two other skiers noticed his skis and extricated him. But it wasn't quick enough. After three days at a local hospital, he was declared brain dead, the victim of asphyxiation and suffocation.

Who was at fault? The family of the student sued the ski area operator, his host family in Montana, and the company that co-ordinated his exchange. Recently, a settlement was reached.

Terms were kept confidential, the resort told the Whitefish Pilot in a statement, but the resort operator admitted no guilt. It said that the student wasn't skiing within his abilities and that tree wells are an inherent danger of skiing.

However, after that death, Whitefish posted a list of tree-well safety tips and guidelines on its website and installed signs around the ski area warning of tree-well dangers.

Whitefish, then called Big Mountain, previously experienced tree-well deaths in 1978, 1979, and 1990. It also had a second tree-well death the same winter as the exchange student died.

By one estimate, 20 per cent of all skier fatalities in the U.S. are the result of such inversions. Nearly all occur in the West, with its lighter, fluffier snow, which is more conducive to formation of tree wells.

To avoid being one of these grim statistics, always ski with a pal when in the trees and never lose sight of that pal.

What Facebook has to do with avalanche decisions

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — Avalanche season has arrived. In Alberta, an experienced skier was swept to his death off a 300-metre cliff near Lake Louise. Another couple was also caught in Banff National Park but escaped serious injury.

The victim, Trevor Sexsmith, 27, was described by his older brother, Brian Sexsmith, as being addicted to skiing and the outdoors. "He really was. I think everyone needs some sort of addiction in their life, a good addiction obviously," he told CBS News in a telephone interview from his Ontario home.

In Colorado, hundreds of snow science and avalanche safety experts were scheduled to gather this week in Breckenridge for the six-day International Snow Science Workshop. It was last held in Banff in 2014, but the last time it was held in the U.S. was in 2006. That was in Telluride.

Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, told the Summit Daily News that one new twist in avalanche education has to do with social media like Facebook. They can influence decision-making during ski season, he said.

Are dams needed to deal with global warming?

ASPEN, Colo. — Aspen elected officials were tasked recently with assessing the risk of climate change to the city's municipal water supply. The hard part is, nobody really knows. Climate models are clear about temperature increases, but less certain is how much precipitation will fall in the southern Rockies.

At issue are some water rights filed by the city in 1971. The idea then was that someday the city might want to build dams on two local creeks, Castle and Maroon. The reservoirs, explained the Aspen Daily News, would back up behind the dams into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area.

Council members heard protests from wilderness advocates. But they indicated they would continue to keep their claims alive for the two dams — just in case several decades from now it becomes apparent that Aspen needs the added capacity to store water because of the changed climate.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported that a team of top scientists is telling world leaders to stop congratulating themselves on last December's Paris agreement to fight climate change. If more isn't done than what the nations have agreed to do, it said, global temperatures would likely hit dangerous warming levels in about 35 years.

Temperatures have already risen about 1 degree C. But the agreed-to greenhouse-gas reductions will still allow temperatures to rise 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels by 2050.

"The pledges are not going to get even close," said Sir Robert Watson, a former World Bank chief scientist. The AP noted that the conclusions of Watson and his five colleagues were not peer reviewed.

Vail Resorts has strong year

BROOMFIELD, Colo. — The Epic season pass offered by Vail Resorts continues to be a hit for the company. The company last week reported that revenue from the pass sales during the fiscal year ending July 31 increased 29 per cent.

Overall visitation was up, but the international business has been a mixed bag. Australia remains a growing market, thanks in large part to the company's purchase of Perisher ski resort in 2014. However, with the strengthening dollar, which makes U.S. visits more expensive, Great Britain and Canadian visitors declined in their total visits. The Brazilian market had "dramatic declines," said chief executive Rob Katz in a conference call with the Vail Daily.

Katz said adding Whistler Blackcomb to the team's fleet of ski areas will give the company a way to adjust to international currency fluctuations. Whistler has benefited from the strong dollar, he said. Exchange rates can drive guests to either Canada or the U.S., and now the company has resorts in both countries.

Meanwhile, Vail's US$1.4 billion purchase of Whistler Blackcomb has been approved by the Canadian Competition Bureau, the nation's anti-trust agency, and has received Investment Canada Act approval (see page 20).

Suicide sparks questions about despair in paradise

FRISCO, Colo. — Colorado's Summit County is on its way toward a banner year of self-destruction. The most recent suicide, the county's eighth this year, occurred when a 43-year-old man walked into the bedroom he shared with a girlfriend. They had been quarrelling, and he held a gun up to his head and killed himself as the woman watched.

For students of the macabre, the Summit Daily News reports more inventive ways of death.

One person strapped himself to a 18-kilogram bag, then floated out onto a pond on a paddleboard before rolling off. A third taped over vents in a hotel room and then mixed up chemicals to ensure a lethal dose of carbon monoxide.

But why such despair in a landscape of such beauty? That question has been asked frequently in mountains towns of Colorado and elsewhere.

Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley have a disturbingly high suicide rate. And then there have been the weird stories like the bulldozer operators who wreaked destruction in Alma and Granby on the way to their graves.

Summit County's suicide rate last year was 21.3 per 100,000 population, compared to the Colorado rate of 19.4, which itself is one of the highest in the country. It's not clear how many of the suicides were by permanent residents and those of visitors.

"This is just speculation, but I think part of it is that Colorado is a magnet state, and Summit Count is a magnet area," said Sarah Vaine, an assistant county manager who formerly was chief executive of Summit County Care Clinic. "I think some people come here with a fantasy of what life will be like in a resort area, but they end up isolated and working many, many hours to make ends meet. And the problems they came here with persist."

There's also this: Despite its relative urbanization for a mountain valley, Summit County still doesn't have the same mental health resources as those found in metropolitan Denver, an hour away, or other more urbanized areas.

Wallace Stegner book is talk of the town

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — This fall, readers participating in One Book Steamboat are working through Wallace Stegner's 1971 Pulitzer Prize-winning Angle of Repose. It's a novel set mostly in the mountains of the West during the early period of American settlement.

Born in 1909, Stegner himself was a product of what might be called the second generation of Western settlers. He grew up in Saskatchewan, Montana and, especially, in Salt Lake City before an extensive career at Stanford University. There, his students included Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, and Ken Kesey, all of them noted writers, as well as Sandra Day O'Connor, a Supreme Court justice.

In the novel, he explored a fragile marriage between an engineer and high-minded woman. His job takes them to two-mile-high Leadville, Colo., in its mining heyday and to the agriculturally fecund Snake River plains of Idaho. Another character, the grandson who recreates the history, lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, at Grass Valley.

It wasn't entirely a piece of fiction. Stegner admitted that he used the letters of Mary Hallock Foote, the wife of a mining engineering in Leadville, extensively in the novel.

The Steamboat Pilot & Today notes that Stegner has a connection to the local community in this way: the Yampa River flows through Steamboat on its way to Dinosaur National Park, the scene of one of the great conservation battles of the 20th century.

The upshot was that, through the work of Stegner, David Brower, and others, a dam in the park was defeated. Instead, they compromised on a dam in Utah — which created Lake Mead. Brower rued the concession to his death.

And if you can explain what the "angle of repose means" in a literal sense and translate the metaphor in Stegner's novel, you'd have yourself a front-row seat in the community discussion now underway in Steamboat.

Yellowstone's dry, fiery 2016 summer a distant second

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. — It was the biggest fire season in Yellowstone National Park since 1988, when massive fires licked at trees near Old Faithful Inn and captivated the nation's attention. A third of the park's trees were at least singed that year.

But in total numbers, this year wasn't nearly as fiery: just 62,000 acres burned compared to 794,000 acres in that banner year of 1988.

What was comparable was the dryness level. Roy Rankin, fire ecologist in Yellowstone, told the Jackson Hole News&Guide that the dryness hit the 97th and 98th percentiles after rainfall ended in mid-July. In comparison, Yellowstone dryness hit the 99th percentile in 1988.

Solar Roadways being tested

SANDPOINT, Idaho — Might the future of highways, streets, and our entire electrical system be emerging from a town square in the panhandle of Idaho?

That's the great optimism in Sandpoint, located along Lake Pend Oreille and at the foot of the Schweitzer ski area. Electrical engineer Scott Brusaw and his wife, Julie Brusaw, came up with the idea of installing solar collectors into roadways. "We've got a little over (72,520 square kilometres) of paved surfaces in the lower 48 states," Scott Brusaw told a local TV station. "If we covered all those surfaces, we'd produce three times more energy than we use."

Brusaw first demonstrated his thinking of a solar road panel inside a friend's garage. That led to a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. In 2014, a crowd-funding campaign using Indiegogo yielded $2.2 million in donations for his project, called Solar Roadways.

Sandpoint is purported to be the first municipality in the nation to use the technology.

Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad heralded Solar Roadways as a "revolutionary idea" that is "poised to really change the face of how we travel."

Seminal grizzly expert, climber remembered

JACKSON, Wyo. — Two seminal figures in Jackson Hole were saluted upon their passing in September. John Craighead died at the age of 100. He and a twin brother, Frank Craighead, had earned PhDs by the late 1950s and set out to unveil the secret lives of grizzly bears.

"Dad and Frank were part of a period when the United States was shifting over from that manifest destiny mindset to be more concerned about the environment," Derek Craighead, John's son, told the Jackson Hole News&Guide.

Their science sometimes led them into political conflict.

"He often warned us that when you collected the facts and acted on the truth of the situation, you might pay the price," Derek Craighead said. "But he taught us that it was your obligation as a person and a scientist to put the truth in front."

Kim Schmitz, a former Exum Mountain guide, also died. He was the first to scale some of the biggest walls in Yosemite. In Asia, he was the first to ascend the Great Trango Tower, located in the Karakoram mountains on the borders between Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, and India. He spent nearly 50 days traversing the same range on skis, a 480-kilometre trek.

There were also disabling accidents. He broke his back in an avalanche in China in 1980. Three years later, in the Tetons, he fell again, breaking both his wrists and legs. He was put back together, says the News&Guide, but he was never the same. He was in constant pain, leading to addictions that he overcame. But the pain always lingered.

He died in a single-car accident after a transcendent day of river rafting.


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