High tension on the mountain
I was suspended 40 feet in the air on a broken chairlift for 80 bitterly cold minutes last month. My brother-in-law and I had been riding up Mount Snow in Vermont, looking forward to a morning on the slopes without our children, when the lift’s steel cable slipped off its track.
In nearly 30 years of skiing, I had neither seen nor heard of such a breakdown. I was not immediately concerned when the chairlift stopped, which is common. But after an unusually long delay on this particularly windy day, the people on the chair in front of us turned around and said: “Oh no, oh no. The cable is off the track.”
They were snowboarders, so I was skeptical. But when I turned to look, the cable on the downhill side was indeed no longer threaded through the guiding wheels atop the support tower behind us.
A mild panic began to set in. Would the cable sag? Could the chairs fall? With the wind chill about 25 below zero, would we be frostbitten before we could be rescued? But I mostly wondered how we were going to get back on the ground.
“It is a harrowing experience for the passengers, especially in weather conditions you were describing,” said Dick Penniman, the chief research officer with the SnowSport Safety Foundation in California, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving safety on the slopes. He added, “Most of the time, it is not a big deal.”
My brother-in-law, Scott Brunenavs, remained calm, and it turns out my worries were largely unfounded. Mount Snow, like every ski resort, has an evacuation procedure for these incidents, known as deropements.
I had pondered worst-case outcomes for about 10 minutes when a rescuer on a snowmobile came by to explain the operation. A crew on the ground would toss up a rope with a harness to lower each person.
Mount Snow’s personnel practice the rope evacuation twice a year, said Kelly Pawlak, the resort’s general manager. From what I witnessed, they were well prepared.
Snowmobiles raced up and down the mountain delivering members of the staff, including lift mechanics, office workers and ski instructors, to our chairlift. They worked in groups of five to eight, going chair to chair to rescue the 130 people stranded on the lift.
The first step involved devising a pulley by having a rescuer heave a beanbag attached to a lightweight rope over the cable. I later learned that this is the most difficult part of the operation. A slingshot was required for some sections of cable, including ours, that were too high to reach for anyone not named Manning.
The pulley was used to deliver a heavy-duty rope with a harness to wrap tightly around our chests. Then, one by one, we dropped our ski poles, grabbed the rope, took a deep breath and slid off the chairlift.
I remember being lowered quickly — the descent was actually kind of fun — and my fears evaporated. I felt two pairs of hands stabilize me as my skis touched the snow, and a first-aid worker asked if I was all right. I said I was fine. We all were fine, except for a few frozen toes and shaken nerves. Some people were rescued in about 30 minutes; I was the last one.
Pawlak said the Mount Snow problem had probably been caused by a gust. Through early March, Vermont had three other chairlift deropements this season, according to the state’s Workers’ Compensation and Safety Division, and six in the past four seasons. No injuries were reported. In Colorado, the Department of Regulatory Agencies reported five deropements in the past five years, with no one hurt.
Not everyone is so fortunate. According to the National Ski Areas Association, a trade group, chairlift malfunctions in the United States have resulted in 12 deaths and 62 injuries since it began tracking those statistics in 1973.
The most recent deropement to cause injuries occurred two seasons ago, when eight people were hurt at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine, the association said.
Injuries are more likely if a deropement occurs at a support tower lifting a cable over a ridge, the safety foundation’s Penniman said. If the haul rope drops off the tower, it can create a violent bounce, and shock waves can travel up and down the line.
With a deropement at a midspan tower, like the one I experienced, Penniman said, “the chairs will bounce suddenly, sometimes quite a bit, as the deropement switch initiates an emergency stop of the lift.”
That jolt could cause unaccompanied youngsters to slip off the chair, even if it is equipped with a safety bar. Scott and I were thankful that we were the ones who had been stranded, and not our children.
Beyond my initial panic and the bitter cold, the experience was not so terrible. If evacuation by rope is the worst thing that ever happens to me on a chairlift, I’ll keep skiing.