On Tuesday, December 28, 2010, the report came crackling over resort radios at Sugarloaf, Maine: The Spillway East chairlift, a Borvig fixed-grip double with 162 chairs, experienced what the resort termed “a rope derailment.” The haul rope had deroped at one of the towers. Conditions were described as windy, but not abnormally so.
Seven injured lift passengers required immediate medical attention, while the remaining passengers required evacuation.
By all accounts the evacuation was executed quickly, professionally, and without further incident or injury. The story was initially reported by social media and was chronicled in real time by people on the lift and at the area; had Sugarloaf performed less than capably, that news would have been spread internationally in a matter of minutes. Instead, the world heard that the evac went smoothly and quickly—more quickly than many of those on the lift expected. As Sid Roslund, director of technical services for NSAA puts it, “Sugarloaf came off pretty well.”
Lift evacuations like the Spillway accident are extremely rare, but every ski area must be prepared and ready to act swiftly should an evacuation be necessary for any reason. And there’s always a chance that the next unexpected or unpredictable incident could happen at your area. Preparation is the best defense.
As a double chair, with limited passenger capacity, relatively low tower heights, and spanning terrain skiable for most ability levels, the Spillway East lift—replaced a year ago with a new chair, the Skyline Quad—did not present any extraordinary evacuation challenges. But that doesn’t make planning for an orderly evacuation any less important.
PLANNING FOR PROBLEMS
The reason the Spillway evacuation came off smoothly: preparation and regular training exercises. According to Roddy Ehrlenbach, Sugarloaf’s assistant ski patrol director, the resort has 75 people trained in various aspects of evacuation. Of these, about 20 are full-time employees, mostly members of the patrol, while the others are on-call volunteers within easy driving distance of the resort. In addition, says Ehrlenbach, all lift operators and lift-maintenance staff are fully trained.
Before Sugarloaf’s evacuation teams go into action, however, the staff takes three steps: 1. Identify the cause and whether or not it is quickly reparable; 2. Determine if it is possible to run and unload the lift using auxiliary power; and 3. If the lift is stopped for at least 10 minutes, have someone ski the line, explain to guests the nature of the problem and the expected repair (or evacuation) time, determine if there are any medical emergencies, and advise people to stay on their chairs with the bar down.
If evacuation is necessary, the procedure at Sugarloaf, as in virtually all lift evacuations nationwide, involves three-person teams stationed along the lift line. Each team comprises a primary belayer, a secondary belayer, and a guest-contact person. Of Sugarloaf’s 75 available people, about 30 to 40 are qualified to belay or lower stranded lift passengers, according to Ehrlenbach. Ideally, he adds, the resort seeks to station one team per tower span, with lifts at Sugarloaf typically involving 12 to 18 towers.
Training is an annual process at Sugarloaf, focusing primarily on rope management. All evacuation personnel don’t undergo hands-on re-training every year, says Ehrlenbach. Instead, approximately 12 people are re-trained each year, on a rotating basis, through mock evacuation procedures.
The basic method—lowering guests one-by-one on a harness attached to a rope strung over the lift cable—is at the heart of the training, but an evacuation crew must be prepared for additional contingencies. According to Ehrlenbach, “a very select crew” is trained to ascend “if someone has a medical emergency.” Special equipment and procedures may be necessary for disabled skiers. In addition, Sugarloaf readies heated snowcats, for guest warm-up and ground evacuation, any time a lift stops for more than 15 minutes.
Helping guests once they are off the lift might not require technical or belaying skills, but it is a vital follow-through in the full evacuation process. The evacuation team must determine how to assist guests if the terrain below the lift is unskiable or too challenging for their skill level, and how to assist guests who might be frightened or physically challenged (cold, hypothermic, or frostbitten).
The final piece at Sugarloaf is a matter of guest relations, headed by a top resort executive. An area in the base lodge is cordoned off for the evacuees, where “we can keep an eye on them,” says Ehrlenbach, for signs of frostbite or other physical distress. Hot drinks and soup are served, and day tickets for future visits are handed out. Everything possible is done to soothe disgruntled guests, but as Ehrlenbach concedes, “there is no easy way to deal with it.”
While lift technology has evolved and every lift presents a somewhat different set of challenges, the basic procedure that Sugarloaf practiced for the Spillway East evacuation—belaying stranded passengers down via rope and harness—has changed little over the last 25 years.
Some lifts, of course, present particularly unusual challenges that might call for modifications in the standard process. One example is Aspen’s Silver Queen gondola, which has one span where the lift is approximately 200 feet above the ground, according to Rich Burkley, vice president of mountain operations for the Aspen Skiing Company.
While the 80 members of Aspen’s on-call evacuation team are “in all states of physical ability,” a few must be exceptionally strong to climb the tall towers, possibly multiple times, carrying evacuation ropes and harnesses. Even so, basic evacuation techniques have changed little in recent years. One noteworthy change, says Burkley, has been improved gear that is considerably lighter than its predecessors. That makes the job of anyone climbing a tower much easier.
While evacuation of the Silver Queen might be the same as on other lifts, the height of the Silver Queen can be daunting, and the evac team’s interpersonal skills come to the fore. “We do everything we can to instill confidence,” says Burkley in roping guests down from as high as 200 feet.
Fortunately for Aspen, the resort has never had to conduct a real Silver Queen evacuation. But it performed an unusual rescue, using evac protocols, when a paraglider became entangled in the lift’s cables. Yes, lift evacuation teams must be prepared for just about anything.
WHO SETS THE RULES?
The art of lift evacuation is subject to very little government oversight. Annual lift inspections and load tests are common throughout ski country, but certification of evacuation personnel and procedures is essentially non-existent.
Partly, that arises from the odd mish-mash of governmental entities responsible for lift safety. In Maine, for example, the Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety oversees lift safety and inspection, despite the fact that a lift like the Spillway East chair hardly seems to qualify as either an elevator or a tramway. Says Ehrlenbach: “As far as our protocols go, the state understands that we know more than they do.”
That is typical of many states. Wally Shank, who today does ski-area risk assessments for the Wells Fargo insurance company, remembers that when he worked in the ski industry in Pennsylvania, it was simply the state elevator board that took on the role.
For the most part, state governments rely on logs, maintenance records, and other resort documents to determine if a functional evacuation plan is in place, and then leave safety to the vigilance of ski-area personnel (and their insurance companies).
A few states, however, are more hands-on in their oversight of lift safety. According to Burkley, the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board conducts annual inspections, throwing unannounced visits into the mix. Inspections include visual surveys, a check of electronics, interviews with lift-ops personnel, and a review of maintenance logs.
More active in assessing evacuation plans are insurance companies, with a financial stake in assuring that everything comes off smoothly and safely. And that oversight, along with the vigilance and experience of resorts themselves, has led to more efficient operations.
Improved lift operations themselves have made evacuations less frequent. Forty years ago, says Shank, “lift evacuations were fairly common.” Now, he says, they are “a very, very small number. But anything that turns and moves can fail at some point.”
According to Shank, when an insurance company makes a risk assessment of a lift, “an evacuation plan is a part of that. Insurance companies are aggressive about (a ski area) having a trained evacuation team.” In effect, he says, the insurance company becomes “a de facto training board.”
The ANSI B77 code, says Shank, provides the framework for areas to develop a thorough lift-safety plan, including evacuation. Although the code provides no specific time standard, Shank says that “one hour should be a goal” for a complete evacuation. After that, he says, “hypothermia and frostbite are real threats.”
Ultimately, though, Shank concedes: “Ski resorts are completely responsible for training and having the equipment to make evacuations.” Like government agencies, an insurance company can go only so far when it comes to assessing on-going lift inspection and safety procedures.
While events such as the Spillway derailment do happen, those with experience and knowledge about lift safety agree: prevention is the best plan. When it comes to inspecting Aspen’s lifts, says Burkley, the process is “hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly” in making sure lifts function properly. With that approach, the possibility of an evacuation diminishes considerably, even if evacuation planning and training must remain part of a complete safety plan. It’s better to be safe than stuck.
TRAINING: HOW TO GET EVACUATION RIGHT
Mary Davis, a ski patroller and long-time (but recently-retired) lift inspector from New York, encourages areas to anticipate and plan for all the things that can slow down an evacuation. While annual training at many resorts focuses on rope-handling, Davis urges resorts to train in a more thorough and realistic way: practice walking tower to tower in difficult terrain, setting gear in place, working ropes past carriers—all aspects of an evacuation.
The basics of evacuation are well-known and can be handled quickly in a favorable environment—chairlift above an easily accessible groomed intermediate trail, at relatively low heights, and in good weather—but evacuation time can escalate quickly in other situations. In her workshops, she says, the most common “aha” moment for managers is how long an evacuation can take once you add variables such as hard-to-access terrain, limited staff, and summer operations.
Consider, for example, a lift that’s 75 percent non-ski-under, on terrain that rises over rocks and ledges and is covered with obstacles that are not user-friendly. In the shoulder seasons, there’s a probability of little or no snow cover, which makes access difficult. Train in rope-handling under those conditions, and it’s easy to see the need to mitigate the problems—remove brush (on both sides of the liftline for summer operations), use a cable trolley to reach hard-to-access chairs, increase the number of employees trained in evacuation, increase and update the evacuation equipment.
Davis points out that summer operations add other, often unexpected issues. For example, summer scenic chairlift riders are often less athletic than winter guests. And they are often unprepared for rough terrain (read: wearing sandals), or for being exposed to the weather. And remember, you may have to make preparations for moving evacuees to a safe spot on the hill and provide transportation down to the base.
High spans, especially on gondolas and trams, and for some chairlifts as well, can make the use of braking trolleys the best means of reaching and evacuating guests. The trolleys ride on the haul rope to access the chairs; staff then lower guests to the ground more or less as usual. There are a handful of braking trolleys available (from Petzl and Cascade, for example) for riding haul ropes for evacuations.
Brian Brechwald of ZipRescue says that evacuation via trolley is not always the fastest method, but in some cases it’s the only practical way. And it reduces the number of people involved. Snowbird, for example, uses this technique for its summer ops, when there are fewer employees, especially patrollers, available for evacuation duty.
Speaking of staffing: Davis suggests areas train as many staff as possible, across all departments. One area with multiple lifts and day and night operations, she says, has nearly 500 people trained in evacuation. Their philosophy: you never know who will be available when the bell rings.
Other advantages of involving multiple departments: different perspectives and creative solutions. For example, Davis says, once a snowmaking crew saw how they could aid in evacuation, they were anxious to add this skill set. And they realized how the position of their snowguns could impede evacuation efforts or cause hardship for a guest stranded directly over a gun.
All of this won’t make guests happy about getting stuck on a lift, but it will minimize their discomfort and maximize their safety. Training in evacuation is time well spent.