Ski resort reopens after avalanche
Safety consultants hired
By Molly Ball
LAS VEGAS SUN
Bright sun glinted off the frosting-white slopes of the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort and hardly a cloud lingered in a Crayola-Sky-Blue sky as 27-year-old Steve Marsh unbuckled his snowboard and collapsed at a picnic table.
“Man, it was like floating!” he said of his board ride. “It was like a pillow catching me!”
Local skiers and snowboarders returned Monday to the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort, which was shuttered for five weeks after an avalanche of monstrous proportions fatally swept 13-year-old Allen Brett Hutchison off a chairlift.
The sparse crowd of perhaps 100 people was in a jubilant mood. With 10 feet of unskied-upon snow, including 13 inches since Friday, conditions could hardly have been better.
“When I found out they were opening, I called my buddies and said, ‘Call in sick!’ ” Marsh said. Marsh, who works for FedEx in Las Vegas, said he was off Mondays.
The resort reopened under strict conditions imposed by the U.S. Forest Service, including hiring two consultants to supervise safety and train staff.
One of the two main chairlifts at the small ski area remains closed for the rest of the season after a subsequent avalanche last month damaged it extensively.
The changes in safety planning only confirm the Hutchison family’s belief that the ski area wasn’t safe before, said attorney Robert Murdock, who is representing the family along with Marty Keach.
“Whatever changes they’ve made, that’s nice, but my question is, how come those changes weren’t in place in January?” Murdock said.
“This ski resort should not have been open that day. I don’t think these people knew what they were doing,” he added. “It looks to me like the motivating factor was greed.”
Resort General Manager Brian Strait insisted that the deadly avalanche — the first fatal avalanche in-bounds at a ski area since 1986 — was a freak event that could not have been foreseen.
“It’s Mother Nature,” he said. “Mother Nature is not an exact science.”
For Monday’s customers at the resort, nearly all of them longtime season pass holders, the lethal slide was neither out of mind nor out of sight.
Many said they could clearly see the swath the avalanche carved down the mountain. High up on the face, to the right of the ski lifts, they said, was a sickeningly stark bald chute in an area previously thick with trees.
Snowboarder Glenn Green, 42, said he was at the ski area on that fateful day.
“I was on the other chair when the avalanche came down,” he said. “It sounded like a jet taking off. By the time I got back down, the atmosphere had changed. I could tell something was wrong.”
Green, a Clark County firefighter and paramedic and a season pass holder at the resort for 13 years, remembered the conditions that day as “weird.” It seemed to be raining, sleeting and snowing all at once.
“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that much different weather,” he said.
Forest Service officials have said that they believe an unprecedented confluence of weather conditions plastered wet snow against a high, steep slope above the chairlift. Then the weight of the snow brought a 10-foot-thick slab crashing down all at once.
A team of Forest Service experts is still working on a report on what caused the avalanche, which they have said will be finished next month.
In the meantime, the resort and the Forest Service worked out a set of four conditions under which the area could reopen, Strait said:
The resort hired a consultant, Chris Stethem of Alberta, Canada, to lend his expertise on avalanche management and mountain safety.
The resort hired a full-time snow safety director, Mike Gajda, to assess snow conditions and train staff.
The resort’s snow safety plan was rewritten to include more avalanche control measures in the area where the avalanche originated.
The resort’s rescue plan was re-examined, although Strait said it was not changed much.
Despite the questions about whether the resort should have stayed open in the extreme conditions of Jan. 9, Strait said the new plans didn’t include protocols dictating when the area would have to close because too many factors were involved.
The resort is offering season pass holders a choice of either a 50 percent discount on next year’s pass or a 50 percent refund of this year’s pass price.
Strait said he expected the season to last through the end of April.
Snowboarder Mia Gibson, a 27-year-old bartender in Las Vegas by night, said the ski area’s regulars were shocked and saddened by last month’s avalanche.
“It hurt everybody a lot,” said Gibson, who rides the slopes three or four days a week. “We’re a family. We’re very dedicated to this mountain.
“Today, it’s like a family reunion.”