SAM Magazine—Denver, Oct. 6, 2016—In the aftermath of a chairlift incident in West Virginia last February, Outside Magazine's website has cast a skeptical eye on the lift infrastructure at ski resorts in the U.S. The story, published Oct. 4, puts a spotlight on the age of currently operating lifts and questions their safety, even as it acknowledges that “mechanical lift failures remain exceedingly rare in the United States.”
The subtext of the piece appears to be a call for increased regulation and oversight of lift maintenance. The author suggests that inspection and maintenance are lightly regulated in some states, and that standards are updated “sporadically.”
Contrary to some of the concerns cited in the article, many states have strong tramway safety boards; the ANSI B77 standard, which many states reference in their own regulations, is updated at five-year intervals, and has been vastly expanded since its debut in 1956; and there are numerous sources of information and education on lift maintenance.
As the article acknowledges, there hasn't been a fatality from a lift malfunction in 23 years. That, as the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) has said, is the byproduct of the regular inspections, comprehensive maintenance, and regular replacement of vital mechanical parts at resorts across the country, large and small.
NSAA outlined all this in a letter sent recently to its members. The letter puts to the fore existing resources, such as the NSAA Lift Safety Fact Sheet. To help resorts answer customers' questions regarding lift safety, NSAA has compiled a number of statistics and facts about the lift infrastructure in the United States.
“To say that a lift is ‘30 years old' is potentially misleading. Certainly, that may have been the date that concrete was poured or towers installed, but critical lift components are constantly being upgraded and replaced (wire rope, gears, bearings, sheaves, grips, etc.). Thus, a lift's year of original operation does not reflect whether it is safely operated or maintained,” the letter says.
Independent inspections by insurers, conducted by people who have vast experience in lift operations and maintenance, play a major role in the industry's lift safety record. If these inspections were, in fact, only “as in-depth as your annual car inspection,” as the story declares, the safety record of the nation's lifts would likely be far different. Lift manufacturers, regional organizations, insurers, and other industry suppliers provide multiple educational opportunities, including LMS and RMLA, for those responsible for lift maintenance at ski areas.
The article also includes some factual inaccuracies in pursuit of its aims. Among them:
• The writer cites Mad River Glen's famous Single Chair as an older chair that was “extensively refurbished.” That description fails to do credit to the 2007 rebuilding effort, which re-used only the lattice towers and the frame for the top return bullwheel—parts of which had been replaced since the lift was originally built. The entire lift was rebuilt and brought into compliance with the B77 standard for new lifts, with new drives, electronics, chairs, grips, wire rope, sheave trains, brake systems, and tower foundations. The rebuild was designed to give the lift a new 50-year lifespan.
• The ANSI B77 standard was developed in 1956, as reported, but it is updated every five years, with interim updates when necessary. Keeping the standard current is an endless process. The story suggests the standard is perhaps inadequate, and “updated sporadically since its inception.”
To be sure, the two lift incidents examined in the article, at Sugarloaf in 2010 and at Timberline, W.V., last winter, show the need for vigilance with older lifts. But they do not signal the imminent catastrophic failure of hundreds, or even a handful, of lifts across the country.