The odds of dying in an elevator are statistically greater than those of dying from a chairlift fall.
Yet, lift safety might be on the minds of skiers and snowboarders after two harrowing incidents that occurred within weeks of each other at Colorado ski resorts, one of which resulted in the death of a Texas woman. And twice in two weeks, a child had to be rescued from a lift at Utah’s Sundance Mountain Resort. In both instances, the boys’ backpacks were caught in the chair.
According to the National Ski Areas Association, there were 12 deaths associated with chairlift malfunctions between 1973 and October 2016, during which time the ski industry gave more than 16.7 billion lift rides.
“These situations are tragic and extremely rare,” said Chris Linsmayer, spokesman for Colorado Ski Country U.S.A. “Chairlifts are an incredibly safe form of transportation, and our resorts do a great job of ensuring guests’ safety while they’re there.”
But people do fall from lifts.
A NSAA analysis of Colorado data collected from 2001 to 2012 showed 227 lift falls over the 11 seasons, 86 percent of which were caused by human error, and 71 percent of which occurred on lifts equipped with restraint bars. Data do not specify whether the bars were used.
In late December, Kelly Huber and her two daughters fell off a lift at Ski Granby Ranch in Grand County. Huber died, marking the first chairlift death in Colorado in 14 years.
And on Thursday, a Durango man with slacklining skills cut free a 30-year-old man who was hanging unconscious by his backpack on a chairlift at Arapahoe Basin.
Colorado draws one-fifth of the country’s skier visits. Though most Colorado ski areas install safety bars on lifts as a liability precaution, state law does not require them, as is the case in most states, though federal rules may change this in 2017. Vermont is the only state that requires lift passengers to use the restraint bar.
Like most ski areas, Purgatory Resort does not require but encourages using the bar, and it adheres to state law that mandates daily lift inspection.
“During the ski season, every one of our lifts is inspected every operating day by our maintenance staff, and all of the braking and safety systems are tested,” spokeswoman Kim Oyler said. “In addition, a comprehensive list of maintenance and inspection procedures are carried out for each lift, each month during the operating season.”
Dave Pitcher, owner of Wolf Creek Ski Area, said the resort invested more than 8,000 hours on lift maintenance last summer, and the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board conducts announced and unannounced inspections.
“We in Colorado do have a regimented set of rules to follow, and we take it very seriously,” Pitcher said. “And we have signage at the bottom of the lift making it clear to customers that if they’re unfamiliar with the lift, we can talk to them.”
Pitcher said it’s Wolf Creek’s policy to run the lifts slowly if a passenger is having issues.
But there’s no policy against backpacks, which caused the most recent incident in Arapahoe Basin. The victim’s pack caught on the chair, suspending him 10 feet above the ground where he hung unconscious before his rescuer, Durango High School graduate Mickey Wilson, climbed up and across the lift and cut him down with a knife.
Pitcher said backpacks are becoming a more common sight on the lifts, but they can be a double-edge sword.
“A lot of people concerned with avalanche awareness ski with backpacks, and unfortunately, it’s encouraged,” Pitcher said. “Some say you should not take one on a lift, but it’s becoming more common. I’ve certainly had my backpack caught on a chair, but usually you can get it off, and it rides back down the line. I can’t say that doesn’t happen two or three times a year.”
Purgatory encourages lift riders to remove packs before loading and hold them in front of them during the ride.
Best practices aren’t regulatory at local ski areas when it comes to safety bars, either.
In the early 1990s, Wolf Creek installed restraint bars on all chairlifts. While using them is mandatory for children in the ski program, it isn’t for adults.
“The bar is there, the signage is there and to some degree, it’s optional still,” Pitcher said. “Historically, we haven’t stopped the lift to shout at everybody.”
The bar installation was right around the time a woman fell out of a lift on the mountain near Treasure Trail, suffering a severe back injury. The lift had a swing to it and hit the tower, causing her to fall out. As a result, the Tramway Board conducted a review and ordered retrofitted grips to hold the cable on each of the lifts for all Colorado ski areas.
Still, Pitcher said, it takes some doing to fall out of a lift if the passenger is seated and acting properly.
Of the 12 deaths recorded by the NSAA between 1973 and October 2016, excluding the most recent in Grand County, six occurred in Colorado – four in Vail, because of cable wires becoming entangled in the gondola, and two at Keystone Resort, because of a welding failure on the wheel.
Authorities have not confirmed details of the incident that led to Huber’s death, including whether the safety bar was down.
Colorado is one of few states that maintain data on passenger falls from chairlifts, which ski areas are required to report to the Colorado Passenger Tramway Board.