Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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On March 17, 2011, Maureen Ryan dropped her 19-year-old son, Cooper Larsh, off at Howelsen Hill Ski Area for an afternoon of skiing during a visit to Steamboat Springs.
By 8 that evening, Ryan was experiencing every parent’s worst fear. As the ski area closed, she couldn’t locate her son. Soon thereafter, Ryan learned Larsh was dead. A ski patroller found him buried head down in the snow with only his legs exposed.
According to the Steamboat Springs Police Department report, “Larsh was found in a closed off part of the mountain near the Alpine Slide.” An autopsy determined he died from positional asphyxia. In layman’s terms, Larsh suffocated.
Relying extensively on investigations conducted by personnel of the Howelsen Hill Ski Area and Steamboat Ski Area ski patrol — including an accident reconstruction specialist from Steamboat Ski Area — and after reviewing Colorado’s Ski Safety and Liability Act, the police department concluded:
“Based on the information gathered during this investigation, the ski area has complied with requirements set forth in (Ski Safety and Liability Act) regarding posting signs at the head of a closed area and if a skier makes a decision to ignore the signs, that person is actually committing a violation of the Ski Safety Act.
“In summary, Cooper Larsh’s death was the result of a single skier accident after he intentionally entered a restricted/closed area and upon experiencing a double heel boot release after skiing off an elevated snow covered wall, he was thrown head first into extremely deep snow where he ultimately succumbed due to positional asphyxia.”
Two years later, the police conclusion that the Howelsen Hill Ski Area was in compliance with the law and that it was Larsh who acted unlawfully because he “intentionally entered a restricted/closed area” is doubtful.
On Jan. 24, 14th Judicial District Judge Shelley Hill denied the city of Steamboat Springs’ request, pursuant to the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act, that the court dismiss a lawsuit Ryan filed against the city. Hill’s order that the city must answer Ryan’s complaint indirectly shreds the police department’s conclusion.
Significantly, Hill found that the ski area had not posted signs or roped off the location where Larsh entered the upper portion of the “closed” area surrounding the Alpine Slide; that the trail maps did not show the “closure areas were actually closed for skiing”; and that two of the four or five other public skiers that day — there was a race on another trail — entered the area where Larsh died thinking it “was an open run.”
Applying the same law the police used, Hill concluded:
“Defendants’ decision not to rope off the 20-foot access at the top of the upper closure area constituted an unreasonable risk to the safety of the City’s skiing guests. Moreover, under this standard, Defendants should have known of the unreasonable risk because their failure to rope off the area was in direct contravention of the Ski Safety and Liability Act. Finally, the physical condition of the unroped area was caused by the negligent omission of the Defendants in constructing the enclosure surrounding the admittedly dangerous conditions over the alpine slide.”
Bottom line: “Defendants knew the skiable terrain over and surrounding the Alpine Slide — including where Cooper perished — was a dangerous area. ... Defendants’ negligence in failing to rope off or to construct other safety devices at the top of the access area to the upper closure area, an integral part of the upper closure area, constituted a dangerous condition.”
While the city’s insurance company is appealing Hill’s decision, what should be of immediate concern to the city is determining why the police department reached a conclusion so at odds from what Hill concluded based on the same facts. It can’t be ignored that Hill’s findings raise serious doubts about the thoroughness of the police investigation and the police department’s knowledge of the Ski Safety and Liability Act.
The question moving forward is whether the police department and City Council will conduct an appropriate examination to determine what, if anything, went wrong with the 2011 police investigation of Larsh’s tragic death.
To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.