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Montana lifts send skiers and chairs flying

As skiers boot up and strap in for a day of powder, a chairlift accident is usually the last thing on their minds. Sure, the lift will occasionally stop for a while. But most skiers trust they won't plummet to the ground—and that the chairs won't either.

That faith wasn't completely warranted in the 2011-2012 season, when Montana ski areas were plagued by an unusual series of chairlift accidents. On Dec. 27, a chair detached from the cable of the LaVelle lift at Montana Snowbowl after it hit a lift operator in the loading zone; he was not seriously hurt.

Less than 24 hours later, a burst of wind at Red Lodge Mountain Resort caused a chair to drop off the cable of the Willow Creek lift. The chair and its riders—two 17-year-old snowboarders—fell 30 feet to the ground. The teens were treated for injuries at a local clinic and released that night.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall
  • Eric Samsoe

Then, on February 11, an instructor and three kids fell off the Ramcharger lift at Big Sky Resort after one or more of the children failed to load properly. None were injured, thanks to falls cushioned by fresh powder.

The incidents led the three ski areas to assess their equipment and procedures. The conclusion in each case: The equipment was not to blame. Rather, the culprits were user error or a freak confluence of events.

Jeff Schmidt, the general manager at Red Lodge, said the incidents are so uncommon, nothing much can be done to prevent them. One chair out of 114 on the lift happened to be in a bad place when the wind came up, he said. An engineer inspected the lift and cleared it for reopening.

Chairlift accidents are rare in general, industry officials say. The injuries to the teens at Red Lodge were the first of their kind in Montana since the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) started keeping track in 1973.

Dave Byrd, NSAA's risk manager, said chairlifts in the country have transported skiers 7 billion miles since 1978. "Our safety record is extraordinary," he said.

Most accidents involve inexperienced skiers, children who are too short to load without help, or people who have medical problems (the case for a 19-year-old woman who fell to her death Jan. 29 after suffering a seizure on a lift at Canyons Ski Resort in Utah). A 7-year-old boy and 19-year-old man also died in falls this season.

Human error causes about 90 percent of lift accidents. "If you drop a glove, drop a ski pole, when you're loading or unloading, it's more likely to happen," Byrd says.

If anything, the recent troubles should make people pay a little more attention to how they ride lifts, beginners especially, said Chad Jones, the public relations manager for Big Sky. "At any given time, you're several feet off the ground and you need to act like it."

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