Anyone who’s ridden Whitefish Mountain Resort’s “East Rim” chair lift is familiar with the butterflies that flood one’s stomach as the lift ferries passengers above steep, rocky cliffs — with legs dangling in space, terra firma suddenly feels especially distant.
It’s a dizzying, vertigo-inducing experience for the uninitiated, and even seasoned locals are inclined to lower the safety bar to ease the rush of anxiety. But the safety record on East Rim is impeccable, thanks in large part to superlative lift technology and maintenance, and in equal part to the expertly trained ski patrollers tasked with responding to an incident in the unlikely event that something does go wrong.
On Dec. 29, something indeed went wrong when a mechanical failure prompted the resort’s management to evacuate the East Rim lift, or Chair 5, lowering approximately 140 passengers off of the lift and down to safety.
But how did they do it?
From its lower terminal, Chair 5 rises 805 vertical feet amid rocky cliffs to its upper terminal, where it deposits advanced skiers and serves numerous double-black diamond chutes and steep drops. Intermediate and beginning skiers also have options down some popular runs, but the beauty of the East Rim chair lies in its service to steep, powder-choked terrain that, prior to the lift’s installation in 2017, required skiers and riders to descend all the way down to the Village if they were keen on repeating their turns.
The eight-minute lift ride is unspectacular save for the 30 white-knuckling seconds that skiers and riders are suspended over the cliff bands known as East Rim, a precipitous series of cliffs that glower up at chair lift passengers and glow maraschino red beneath a blanket of snow.
So when a problem with the liner of the lift’s bullwheel (the big wheel that turns the lift cable) required maintenance teams to stop the lift, it was inevitable that passengers on chairs between lift tower four and five, which span the cliffs, were in for a memorable experience.
“It was a difficult process because we were lowering people into East Rim; we weren’t dropping them onto Toni Matt or Whitetail,” Kate Atha, assistant ski patrol manager who served as Incident Commander on the evacuation, said. “Fortunately, we were prepared for precisely that scenario.”
When Chester Powell, director of mountain operations and a 40-year veteran on Big Mountain, made the decision to evacuate the lift, reasoning that maintenance could drag on for many hours, personnel from all corners of the resort leapt into action.
“We marshaled staff from the terrain park, events, everywhere so that we could respond as efficiently as possible,” Ski Patrol Manager Dave Stephens said. “It was definitely a team effort.”
Fortunately for the passengers stranded on Chair 5, Whitefish Mountain Resort provides funds for ski patrol to not only train regularly by simulating emergency scenarios, but also gives them money to buy the best equipment available. As recently as Thanksgiving, ski patrollers engaged in a two-day lift-evac training on Chair 5, with particular attention paid to the rocky span between towers four and five.
In ski-patrol speak, that span represents a “high-risk, low-frequency” situation.
“It’s a situation that doesn’t happen very often, but there’s a high degree of risk if something does go wrong, both for our staff and our guests,” Stephens said. “It’s not commonplace, but we train as though it was. Fortunately, that training paid off because the evacuation went flawlessly.”
Faced with the need to evacuate a chair lift, Big Mountain ski patrollers have three options — climb the lift tower and deploy a rescuer; use a “dummy launcher” to blast a rope over the lift cable and ascend with the help of a belay; or use a “cable glider.”
The latter is a specialized piece of equipment that allows rescuers to travel along the lift cable to passengers in need and safely lower them to the ground. It proved instrumental in rescuing the passengers between the four and five span, particularly given the weather conditions, which saw temperatures hit the low teens with high winds blowing around 10 miles per hour.
“When we train for this situation, we train in that kind of weather,” Stephens said. “We don’t expect our equipment to malfunction on a sunny, bluebird day. We expect it to be windy and rime covered.”
Ski patrol began the process of rescuing passengers around 1 p.m., bringing them blankets, hand warmers and hot beverages, and finished the evacuation at 3:37 p.m., with no injuries.
“That was the best news,” Stephens said. “I don’t think anyone had a scratch. All the building blocks came together for a successful evacuation.”
Despite the high degree of consequence involved in riding a chairlift, the rate of injury and fatality in the U.S. is extremely low.
“There is no other transportation system that is as safely operated, with so few injuries and fatalities, as the uphill transportation provided by chairlifts at ski resorts in the United States,” according to a report by the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), which compiles and updates a ski lift safety fact sheet annually to provide ski areas and the public with the most current information on the ski resort industry’s commitment to overall lift safety, financial investment in lifts and lift maintenance, industry education and training.
Fatalities from lift malfunctions in the United States have occurred rarely over the past several decades. Since 1973 (when NSAA began compiling industry statistics), there have been 13 deaths attributed to chairlift malfunctions, a 44-year span during which the industry provided more than 17.1 billion lift rides to skiers and snowboarders. Notably, the U.S. ski resort industry has only experienced one fatality resulting from a chairlift malfunction since 1993 — a 24-year period.
“In this 44-year span, the ski industry has transported guests more than 8.55 billion miles in lift rides — that is more than 90 trips from the Earth to the Sun over more than four decades,” according to Dave Byrd, director of Risk and Regulatory Affairs for the NSAA.
As of the 2016-17 ski season, which is the most current data available, the annual fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled on ski lifts was 0.146 — far more safe, in comparison, than annual fatality rates of riding an elevator or in automobiles. That means a passenger is five times more likely to suffer a fatality riding an elevator than riding a ski lift, and eight times more likely to suffer a fatality in a car than from a ski lift.
“And bear in mind, chairlift transportation is done several dozen feet above the ground, typically in the open-air, during the cold winter months,” Byrd said.