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Vail Skier Celebrates Saviors

February 15, 2010
- Special to the Vail Daily Vail skier celebrates saviors Wisconsin man has returned each year since Vail ski patrollers saved him Lauren Glendenning lglendenning@vaildaily.com Vail, CO Colorado, VAIL, Colorado — As skiers, snowboarders and Vail Resorts officials celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Blue Sky Basin, Wisconsin skier Lee Curtes was celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the day Vail Ski Patrol saved his life. It just so happens that Curtes went into cardiac arrest while at the top of Blue Sky Basin, at Belle's Camp, just a week after the terrain opened for the first time. Curtes was skiing with his wife, Melodee, and friends Doug and Kim Young — it was their first time on the new terrain and they were thrilled to be there. “We were very much in awe of the surroundings,” Lee Curtes said. Not long after arriving at Belle's Camp on Jan. 14, 2000, Lee Curtes started to have trouble breathing. He didn't think the altitude was high enough to be the problem because he had skied at Vail many times before. The group contacted Vail Ski Patrol and Kevin Latchford, a 10-year Vail Ski Patrol veteran at the time, began going through the steps to determine what was happening to 54-year-old Lee Curtes. Lee Curtes' pain level was at about a seven out of 10. When Latchford suggested they might have to get him off the mountain via a helicopter, Lee Curtes remembers thinking that sounded a bit extreme. By the time the second wave of pain came through, things got more serious. “I laid down and the last thing I recall was looking up at the sky and being unable to breathe,” Lee Curtes said. “It was at that point I was fighting for my life, and then my heart stopped.” Melodee Curtes remembers Latchford and Mark Patterson, another Vail Ski Patroler, getting out the defillibrator — a machine that sends an electrical shock to the heart to try to bring back the heart's normal rhythm. One shock was all it took to get his heart beating again, and shortly after that a helicopter landed at Belle's Camp, Melodee Curtes said. “It was just amazing,” she said. From there, Lee Curtes was rushed down to the Vail Valley Medical Center where cardiologist Dr. Larry Gaul was at his side. It wasn't long before he was on another helicopter on his way to St. Joseph Hospital in Denver. Lee Curtes, now 64, hasn't missed an anniversary of that day ever since — he comes back to Vail every year with family and friends and meets up with the Vail Ski Patrol, Flight for Life crew, Dr. Gaul and others involved in saving his life to show his appreciation. They gather at Belle's Camp and pray, and do what Lee Curtes wasn't able to do that day — ski down Blue Sky Basin. “The patrolers, they are absolutely guardian angels,” Lee Curtes said. “I've embraced them into my family. They're like sons to me.” To be able to come back and give thanks is something Lee Curtes said he “absolutely has to do.” Latchford is flattered by the gratitude. He said he and other ski patrolers just do their jobs and never expect the kind of thanks that Lee Curtes has given over the years. This year was special because Latchford and Patterson got to meet Lee Curtes' six grandchildren — grandchildren Lee Curtes never would have met had he died that day. Latchford said he and Patterson, the only two patrolers who still work at Vail who helped that day, always make sure they're stationed at Blue Sky for the anniversary so they can take some runs together with the Curtes family. Lee Curtes said he asks the emergency responders to tell the story so his family can hear about what went into saving his life and better understand “the miracle on the mountain,” he said. Lee Curtes said he applauds Vail Resorts for putting the defillibrator machines all over the mountain and for training ski patrol so well — it's what saved his life, he said. “They do a job up there that is not quite thankless, but they don't get a lot of reward,” Lee Curtes said. “I wanted to make sure they know they're appreciated and I'll never forget them for the rest of my life.” Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or lglendenning@vaildaily.com.