RENO, Nev. (AP) — The widow and a friend of a skier killed in an avalanche at a Lake Tahoe ski resort last year have filed separate lawsuits accusing the resort of negligently rushing to open the slopes in unsafe conditions for a holiday weekend that’s typically one of the season's busiest.
Cole Comstock, 34, of Blairsden, California, was killed and his close friend, Kaley Bloom, was seriously injured when they were swept up in the avalanche on an Alpine Meadows ski run on Jan. 17, 2020 — the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. No one else was seriously hurt.
Bloom and Cole’s widow, Caitlin Raymond, recently filed the lawsuits in Placer County Superior Court. They seek unspecified damages from Alpine Meadows on accusations of negligence, gross negligence and breach of contract. Raymond’s lawsuit also alleged the resort was to blame for her late husband’s death.
The resort had closed the day before Comstock and Bloom went skiing, after several days of heavy snow plus 11 to 22 inches (28-56 centimeters) of snow and high winds that dramatically increased avalanche risks, the lawsuits claimed.
The National Weather Service in Reno reported wind gusts up to 116 mph (186 kph) at the top of Alpine Meadows the night before the avalanche.
Alpine Meadows “premature opening” that Friday “was in response to public and economic pressure to open that particular lift and callous disregard for the dangerous combination of conditions,” according to Bloom’s lawsuit filed on Feb. 2. He says he suffered severe and ongoing injuries and has suffered.
The avalanche happened at 10:16 a.m. after avalanche mitigation work was performed in the area prior to opening to skiers and snowboarders for the day, the resort said previously in a statement. That work often involves the use of air cannons or other explosive detonations to intentionally trigger smaller, less hazardous avalanches.
“While we cannot comment on ongoing litigation, January 17, 2020 was a devastating day for our team at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, and we continue to share our deepest sympathies with the family and friends of those affected,” Alex Spychalsky, a spokeswoman for both of the neighboring resorts, said in an emailed statement.
Raymond’s lawsuit filed on Jan. 29 says Alpine Meadows “should not have opened the ski run under the circumstances.”
Most skiers who buy ski resort passes must sign release forms warning that participating in winter activities “can be dangerous and involve the risk of injury or death.”
But Raymond’s lawsuit said the resort increased the risks beyond those normally assumed by skiers because Cole and Bloom believed they were skiing on a run that was safe because avalanche mitigation efforts had been performed earlier that day.
Reopening the runs Friday after they'd been closed the day before “created a false and reckless illusion of safety,” the lawsuit said. “Inadequate and/or incomplete mitigation measures did not decrease or mitigate the risks, but instead further increased the risk and turned a dangerous area into a deadly one.”
Raymond’s lawsuit notes that most ski fatalities occur outside of ski resort boundaries and that in-bounds avalanche deaths are rare.
Comstock was an experienced skier who grew up in the Sierra Nevada and skied both in-bounds and out-of-bounds depending on the conditions of the day and information from the resort and the ski patrol, his widow said in the lawsuit.
Raymond was skiing on the other side of the mountain when she got a phone call from friends telling her there had been an avalanche. She went to wait for her husband beneath a chairlift.
That’s when she saw the ski patrol pulling a stretcher with someone covered with snow and blood. When they stopped and began administering CPR to the victim, she recognized her husband's maroon ski boots and realized it was her him.
She said blood spewed from his mouth with each push on his chest as the ski patrol team took turns at CPR for 45 minutes.
“Eventually they stopped as she watched them pull the white sheet over him. Her last image of her husband was a broken and already dead body,” the lawsuit said.
Seven people were killed in an avalanche at Alpine Meadows in 1982.