Death due to malfunction heightens attention on Colorado's ski infrastructure

March 12, 2017 Updated: March 12, 2017 at 12:19 pm
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Quickdraw Express at Sky Granby Ranch. Lance Maggart, Sky-Hi News via The Denver Post

Nearing the end of a Colorado ski season that saw a person fall and die due to a chairlift malfunction - believed to be the first fatality caused by such a glitch in more than two decades - the industry remains confident in how it maintains its infrastructure.

According to industry statistics, it's more dangerous to ride in an elevator, and there have only been two other fatal incidents involving lift malfunction in the state since the Colorado Passenger Tramway Board formed in 1965.

But to critics, the December tragedy at Ski Granby Ranch provides a powerful reminder that potential flaws can lurk at ski areas anywhere, out of sight of visitors who account for the estimated 100 million rides every year up the state's slopes.

Central to their concerns are an aging infrastructure and the idea that lifts are machines and all machines can fail.

The high-speed Quickdraw Express at the small resort in Grand County has been back in operation for more than a month, after its shutdown enforced by the tramway board after the accident.

Kelly Ann Pearce Huber. Photo courtesy of Porter Loring Mortuaries and the Huber family 

The board, made up of engineers who annually inspect and license state lifts for operation, determined that preseason modifications to the Quick Draw Express' electrical drive likely caused a San Antonio woman, Kelly Huber, 40, and her two young daughters to fall from the chair, resulting in Huber's death.

The girls, 9 and 12, were treated at Colorado hospitals. Huber was an executive with Aetna Life Insurance Company, who, according to an online obituary, enjoyed running half and full marathons, participating in triathlons, cycling, and skiing with her girls.

According to a news release, the tramway board load-tested the Granby lift in the days after the modifications and cleared it to run. The Department of Regulatory Agencies announced Quick Draw Express' reopening toward the end of January, following the board's approval of the lift to operate on auxiliary diesel power.

No one from the tramway board was made available for an interview for this story.

Ski Granby Ranch's CEO also declined.

A spokesman for the Department of Regulatory Agencies, Lee Rasizer, forwarded to The Gazette data showing 265 incidents of riders falling from lifts over the span of 14 years through December. The data collection is one role of the tramway board, serving as a unique extra layer of oversight among other skiing states, where insurance agencies mostly cover inspections.

Under the board's program, engineers check each of Colorado's lifts between two and four times a year, as outlined by other documents forwarded by Rasizer. Those documents also illustrated the rarity of December's death. Since its formation, the tramway board reports only two other instances of fatal falls due to lift malfunction: the 1976 Vail Gondola crash that claimed four lives and the Teller Lift failure at Keystone Resort that killed two in 1985.

Before Huber's death, the National Ski Areas Association tallied 12 deaths from chairlift falls around the country since 1973, with the latest due to a malfunction occurring in 1993.

But, said Mark Di Nola, a longtime risk management consultant who specializes in ski-related cases with a national New Hampshire-based firm, the numbers can be a shield to hide behind.

"The direction that needs to be taken is to take a harder look at this and stop pointing to record," Di Nola said. "Although that record is great, as time goes on things are getting older, and the chance for failure increases.

"I am personally concerned that there are so many lifts that are still operating that shouldn't be," he said.

Average age of state lifts: 25 years

Aging infrastructure is a hot topic, generally, and it is relevant to the ski industry. But to some industry officials, it is unworthy of discussion.

Said Melanie Mills, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country, representing 22 of the state's ski areas: "You cannot assess the health of a lift solely based on its original install date, exclamation point."

What matters is how lifts are maintained, she said, making the industry's often-used comparison to an old car that can run for decades, so long as it receives proper care.

Peter Landsman thought that skiers should know how old their carriers were when he created the Lift Blog about 15 years ago. Using information directly from manufacturers, he maintains a database for ages of lifts across North America, including over 270 in Colorado. A spreadsheet he provided to The Gazette shows that the state's lifts average out to 25 years old. The oldest, according to the data, date back to the 1960s, with three from that decade at Monarch Mountain.

Monarch declined an interview.

Landsman declined also, saying that he worked for a major ski resort - Jackson Hole Mountain Resort - and didn't "want to editorialize on safety or oversight," he wrote in an email.

The aging concern is relevant, said Davey Pitcher, owner of Wolf Creek Ski Area in southwest Colorado. Of the 12 ski areas - big and small - that The Gazette attempted to contact to discuss lift safety issues, Pitcher was one of only three representatives willing to respond.

0317ELDORA1.jpg Skiers ride the lift up the mountain to ski at Eldora Mountain Resort in Nederland, Colorado. Photo by Mark Leffingwell Staff Photographer March 17, 2015 For more photos go to www.dailycamera.com 

"There is something to be said for metal fatigue, something to be said for design changes over time, something to be said for designs up to modern code," said Pitcher, who counts on nine full-time mechanics to oversee nine lifts. "It can be hard to argue sometimes that (a lift) must be replaced."

He gave the example of his decision 10 years ago to replace a lift that was installed in 1972.

"The writing was on the wall," he said, referring to tramway safety board inspectors who were "requiring more and more testing, more and more midseason inspections." Pitcher put up $2.8 million for the new lift.

No Chevy parts in a Ford

Those kinds of price tags can make operators hesitant, said California-based Richard Penniman, who long worked in ski area operations before moving on to consulting work. In his time within the industry, he saw lifts age and be retrofitted - equipped with custom-made parts no longer on the market.

It can be a task to get the parts, said Paul Rauschke, professor of ski operations at Leadville's Colorado Mountain College and a past president of the Rocky Mountain Lift Association, the education and training organization that holds annual spring conferences in Grand Junction. "You know," Rauschke said, "it's kind of like, if you have a Ford, you can't put Chevy parts in it."

Full-on lift replacements can be especially daunting for operators, Penniman said.

"With the bigger operations, it's a choice. In the smaller resorts, replacing a lift is an enormous financial outlay," he said. "Maybe they can get the loans, maybe not."

Not likely, said Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs for the National Ski Areas Association.

"Local banks look at ski areas as what I would call questionable risks," he said, citing many resorts' seasonal-only revenue streams. "If a ski area were to go belly-up, what do they do with that lift? How do they repossess that?"

Chris Corliss, vice president for mountain operations at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, feels good about the budget for maintenance at the midsized Colorado operation - about $750,000 this season, he said.

"I don't mean to kick on little areas, but I know the budget I'm lucky to have here might differ from others," he said.

And Corliss is proud of his chairlift fleet, with "all kinds of vintages," he said. The one from 1969 was not running in February, as he said it was due for an upgrade. But others from 1971, 1979 and 1983 "are still performing admirably," he said. He talked about his team's daily routine checks and said: "I don't hesitate to run older lifts."

Needed: Better job at prevention

The industry cautions against generalizing over a lift's age.

"Sometimes the story isn't as sensational as it might seem," said Byrd, who last year for a session at the Rocky Mountain Lift Association's conference spoke of aging chairlifts as an increasing media focus, along with "self-induced mechanical malfunctions" and "kids repeatedly falling from lifts."

"(Our) industry needs to do a far better job of preventing these events from happening and managing the fallout when they do," his introduction read, "because the media's initial reaction only leads to eventual legal and regulatory headaches."

The sun shines over a chairlift at a Colorado ski resort in January, 2017. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Whether lift age had anything to do with Huber's death at Ski Granby Ranch is uncertain; the Quick Draw Express was installed 16 years ago, according to press releases at the time - in line with the age maintained by the Lift Blog.

And age wasn't a factor listed in a standard unannounced inspection by the tramway board near the end of February that led to Hesperus Ski Area closing its hill outside Durango.

Hesperus's one lift - with a 1988 install date, according to Lift Blog's data - shut down after an inspection report cited inefficient training by lift managers and recommended chair clips be replaced. The area reopened last week.

Hesperus did not make anyone available for an interview.

Transparency is what concerns critics.

"Is there transparency?" Di Nola, the consultant, asked. "To the extent that the ski resorts and industry want to release information and manage their image, yes."

And the ever-booming industry does that well, Penniman said. Lifts are machines that - like all machines - fail, he said, but it's not something talked about; the conversation fades, like that news of the Granby accident. Industry representatives did not want to discuss it.

"For the ski resorts to start bringing the subject up and bringing it up to the attention of the customers is self-defeating in terms of their business model," Penniman said. "Ignorance is bliss."

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