Slippery Slopes

Sam Turner

The skier was shooting downhill while a snowmobile driven by a young Vail Resorts worker was speeding uphill. At a blind spot on the slope, they collided.

Sound familiar? Except this skier wasn't thirteen-year-old Ashley Stamp, who died December 19 from injuries she sustained when she slammed into a snowmobile driven by Vail's Mark Chard. Stamp, a Steamboat Springs seventh-grader and accomplished ski racer, was warming up for a competition when she and the snowmobile hit. She died soon afterward from massive chest trauma.

Yet Stamp wasn't the first skier to collide with a Vail-owned snowmobile and suffer dire consequences. Just eight months ago, Vail Summit Resorts settled a case that is in some ways so similar to Stamp's that it's eerie.

"When we got done with that case," says Jeffrey Lipman, an Iowa attorney, "I turned to my partner and said, 'This is going to happen again. This definitely is going to happen again. Give it a year.'"

He was four months off.

On January 30, 2001, Bruce Baskerville of Des Moines was skiing with his wife, Pam, at Keystone (which was purchased by Vail in 1997). Baskerville, a restaurant manager and beginning skier, was completing his final run of the day. It was about 3:45 p.m. when he approached the intersection of two green runs, Last Chance and Grassy Thompson.

At the same time, Phil Hoefer had been assigned ski-patrol duties on Keystone's front side. It was his job to make sure all skiers were off the mountain at the end of the day. On this particular afternoon, Hoefer had been given the additional task of repairing a sticky speedometer cable on his snowmobile. Around 3:30, he finished fixing the problem at a Keystone repair shop and responded to a call to help another patroller with an injured skier.

From there, Hoefer started his "close and sweep" chore. The tail end of his route took him up Last Chance. He drove his snowmobile up the left side of the slope, some fifteen to twenty feet from the tree line. On his way up, he glanced down at his speedometer to make sure it was working. He recalled noticing that he was traveling at about ten to fifteen miles per hour. What he didn't notice was Bruce Baskerville skiing directly toward him.

Hoefer later remembered seeing "a blue streak" as he looked up from his speedometer. He yanked the machine to the left and squeezed the brakes. But the maneuver was too late. As the snowmobile skidded around, Baskerville slammed into the machine's right rear side.

Baskerville filed his lawsuit against Vail on January 2, 2002, in U.S. District Court. In it, he claimed that the ski-resort owner was to blame for more than $100,000 in damages. These included the medical costs of repairing injuries to both of his knees, pain and suffering, and lost wages.

Baskerville's case against Vail was built on several facts that he claimed demonstrated negligence on the part of the resort. For starters, it was pointed out that Hoefer, the snowmobile driver, was not looking where he was going; he was checking out the recently repaired speedometer. In addition, the lawsuit notes that Vail's own snowmobile-training manual instructs drivers to "always yield to uphill traffic."

The same manual also directed Vail's snowmobile drivers to drive in a kneeling or a standing position when traveling on a ski slope so as to have a better view of the terrain. Indeed, later reconstruction of the collision would show that a "natural terrain feature" had obscured the views of both parties. Hoefer and Baskerville were invisible to each other because of a slight depression on the trail that Baskerville had dropped into just before encountering the snowmobile.

Over the years, Colorado judges and legislators have been sympathetic to ski-resort operators. The state's Ski Safety Act bars skiers from making legal claims against ski areas "for injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risk of skiing." In most instances, when purchasing a lift ticket, a skier admits that the sport can be risky and forfeits the right to sue.

There are limits, though. Two years ago, a federal court noted that "not all dangers that may be encountered on the ski slopes are inherent and integral to the sport of skiing." And, despite the generous protection Colorado law provides ski operators, it does leave the door open for them to be found negligent if they somehow contribute to a skier's injury.

Both parties, in other words, have responsibilities. For his part, the skier must ski in control and assume the risk of the sport. In return, the resort owner promises to mark trails accurately and warn of any dangers in the terrain. The law also specifies that resort owners "must undertake safety precautions related to the operation of equipment such as snowmobiles and motorized snow-grooming vehicles on slopes and trails within ski area boundaries."

The question, of course, is whether or not a snowmobile speeding uphill on a slope shared by skiers moving in the opposite direction is a danger "inherent" to skiing. Few people would deny that a snowmobile responding to a medical emergency has a right to be on a ski run with skiers. But what if there is no emergency? Does the risk outweigh the benefit?

There are important differences between the accidents that killed Ashley Stamp and injured Bruce Baskerville. For example, the snowmobile that hit Baskerville was arguably performing work that could have just as easily been done after the resort had closed and the skiers were off the mountain. Stamp, by comparison, was participating in a ski race on a part of Vail Mountain not served by a ski lift; snowmobiles were the only means of getting the racers back up the hill.

Yet the collisions share common traits, too. Like Baskerville, Stamp was apparently skiing through a terrain feature that hid her and Chard from one another. She was just coming out of a relatively flat stretch that suddenly dropped into a steep descent -- a common trail configuration. Chard ran into her at the point where the flat meets the grade.

It is unclear what position Chard was in while he was driving up the hill -- standing or kneeling, as the Vail manual instructs, or posting, as Hoefer was when he and Baskerville struck each other. In fact, initial reports after the Stamp accident seemed to nudge the blame toward the middle-schooler. She was said to be wearing headphones under her helmet. That would have meant she might not have heard the siren Chard's snowmobile reportedly had on as he traveled uphill at a responsible speed of ten miles per hour. "As it stands now, I don't see fault on the part of either victim," a state trooper said following the incident.

Later statements from witnesses cast doubt on Chard's version of what happened that morning. Stamp's father, for instance, told a 9News reporter there was no way headphones would fit under his daughter's helmet. In addition, several of Stamp's teammates on the hill that day said they never heard the snowmobile's siren. They also claimed Chard was driving much faster than ten miles per hour. The snowmobile "was going fast enough to go into the air over the blind knolls on the open run," several of Stamp's teammates wrote in e-mails sent to the Denver Post.

Whether or not another snowmobile/skier collision will force Vail -- or any Colorado ski resort -- to revisit its policies is unclear. Both Peter Rietz, who represented Vail in the Baskerville case, and Lipman say a confidentiality clause prevents them from discussing details of that settlement. And with more litigation looming, Vail declined to discuss either the Stamp incident or its snowmobile protocols.

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