The ski lift stalls, and then the backup engine doesn’t work. When that happens, Plan C involves ropes, the ski patrol and lots of inconvenienced skiers, according to those involved in the New Hampshire ski industry.
That happened this past weekend in Stowe, Vt., when some skiers waited more than two hours to be rescued after a lift’s electrically powered and auxiliary backups failed, according to media reports.
Lift evacuations, which usually involve rescue ropes, are rare but happen a handful of times every year, said W. Briggs Lockwood, chief of recreational rides and lift safety for the New Hampshire Department of Safety.
“I’m waiting for the year when we don’t get any. I think that’s a possibility, but it hasn’t happened yet,” said Lockwood, who has worked on lift safety for the state for 17 years.
Lockwood and ski industry officials say each of the state’s approximately 170 lifts get inspected in the summer or fall before the ski season starts. There are also periodic inspections during the winter, and mountains are required to have at least one maintenance person on site whenever lifts are in operation.
“They’re very complicated, they’re long and they operate in alpine conditions in wind and winter weather,” he said.
And when they don’t work, evacuations become necessary.
For example, on Dec. 4 the double-chair Lower Meadows lift broke at Waterville Valley Resort.
Waterville spokesman Matt Hesser said a safety circuit would not reset, and a cylinder was firing poorly on the gasoline-powered backup engine. It took an hour to evacuate 19 skiers from the lift, which services beginner terrain.
He said Waterville Valley has a year-round staff of five lift maintenance people and adds two more during the winter. They train on lift operation and their job is to work on lifts strictly.
“It’s everything. It’s from the top to bottom. It’s motors, grips and seats. It’s quite a complicated machine,” Hesser said.
Lifts and lift installation run into the millions. When Waterville opened its Green Peak expansion two winters ago, most of the $2 million endeavor was devoted to relocating and rebuilding its World Cup Triple, a fixed grip ski lift. Detachable lifts, which transport skiers faster, can be more than double that amount, Lockwood said.
Lockwood said a well-built lift, if properly maintained and upgraded, could operate indefinitely. But other factors can lead to obsolescence — the expense of an operational replacement or upgrade, skier desire for faster lifts and the inability to find spare parts.
New Hampshire has one “orphan lift.” Its manufacturer is out of business and has no supplier for parts. It’s a Constam T-bar at the Veterans Memorial Ski Area in Franklin, Lockwood said.
Last season, the state recorded two evacuations; both were at night, Lockwood said.
The evacuation of the Penny Pitou quad at Gunstock took place in rainy conditions on Jan. 25, 2018, and involved 27 skiers. It involved the failure of the top terminal bullwheel liner retainer.
The evacuation of the Summit Triple chairlift at Pats Peak involved 23 skiers on Jan. 29, 2018. The cause was a failed driveline coupling, Lockwood said.
Lift evacuations usually involve placing a rescue rope over the lift cable, putting a harness and chair on the skier and lowering them down.
“With proper maintenance on the chairlift, we want to make sure that we never get to that point (of rope evacuation),” said Jay Gamble, the newly named general manager at Ragged Mountain, and a veteran manager of ski areas.
A ski area trains on rope evacuations.
Every day, a resort must start the auxiliary power system and run it for 15 minutes. Weekly, it engages the backup as a primary driver for 20 minutes. Probably a couple of times a year the primary power system fails and a ski area has to use the backup system to clear a lift, Gamble said.
When someone is waiting on a lift for several minutes, it’s likely that something mechanical has gone wrong, the ski area officials said. At that point, maintenance workers are weighing whether it can be quickly repaired or if the backup should be turned on.
“The least ideal situation is to use backup power and run everybody off,” said Gregory Keeler, a spokesman for Cannon Mountain. The mountain can’t keep operating the lift without a backup system, he said. And skiers waiting to board the lift must go elsewhere.
Two seasons ago, Cannon’s tram stopped operating on Valentine’s Day and the skiers had to be evacuated. The actual evacuation took an hour at the most, but more time was spent by maintenance workers trying to fix the lift, Keeler said. Skiers got a meal and lift tickets.
Keeler said publicity about the breakdown and the mountain’s effort to promote visits resulted in a boost in winter sightseers buying tickets to ride the Tram to the top for a glimpse of the mountains and a visit to the summit restaurant.
That traffic has remained steady — about 100 to 150 visitors on Saturdays, he said.