Mechanical Issues Prompt Evacuation of New Chairlift on Big Mountain

During the mountain's second evacuation of the season, skiers were removed from the six-person lift over the course of 3 hours

By Denali Sagner
Whitefish Mountain Resort's new chair lift, the Snow Ghost Express begins at the base lodge and tops out on Inspiration Ridge, pictured Dec. 3, 2022. Hunter D'Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Skiers on Big Mountain were removed from Chair 4, the Snow Ghost Express, over the course of three hours on Wednesday morning after the chairlift experienced malfunctions with its braking mechanisms, prompting an emergency evacuation. The resort ceased operation of multiple chairlifts during the evacuation to free up staff for assistance, leaving less than half of the mountain’s lifts in operation for a period of time on Wednesday, a major hindrance to operations on one of the busiest powder days of the winter. The evacuation of the mountain’s newest chair marked its second of the season, after malfunctions on Chair 1 required an emergency evacuation on Dec. 28. 

Chad Sokol, public relations manager for Whitefish Mountain Resort, released the following statement on Wednesday: “It’s been another tough day on the mountain with multiple chairlift stoppages, and we know it’s been a frustrating experience for many of our guests — on a pow day, of all days. Chair 2 didn’t run today, and we were forced to stop Chair 4 around 9:40 a.m. due to an unrelated mechanical issue. Out of consideration for guests’ safety and comfort, we again made the call to perform a rope evacuation and our dedicated ski patrollers sprang into action along with other resort staff. We also paused Chairs 7, 8 and 11 and the Bigfoot T-Bar so additional staff could assist with the evacuation. All guests were safely removed from the lift line by approximately 12:35 p.m. and we’re committed to trying to remedy their situations.”

Whitefish Mountain Resort President Nick Polumbus on Thursday afternoon sent out a statement to guests that included more detailed information about the breakdown.

“We know it is not OK to repeatedly ask for patience and support — that is not lost on us at all,” Polumbus said.

Polumbus wrote that the decision to evacuate Chair 4 came after an issue arose with the lift’s breaking mechanism.

“Chair 4 is a brand-new piece of machinery and so I can assure you there are no deferred maintenance issues of any kind. It is a relatively complex chairlift that was manufactured and installed by an industry leader during one of the most difficult years (labor shortage, supply chain issues, etc.) in anyone’s memory in the chairlift construction industry,” Polumbus said.

Chair 4, the mountain’s newest and only six-person lift, opened for the season on Dec. 30. The six-person chair brings skiers from the Base Lodge to the top of Inspiration Ridge.

“The difficulties of the lift installation season are well documented as some very big household resort names have experienced many of the same things we have. These challenges hampered the comprehensive support and training our manufacturer is accustomed to providing upon opening a chair,” the resort president added. “However, they are committed to providing that support and two of their engineers are on their way here as I type this note. This should mitigate many of the issues and challenges we have faced thus far with that chair.”

Polumbus also addressed concerns over the closure of Chair 2, which has faced malfunctions and shutdowns throughout the season.

“That chairlift is in need of a comprehensive mechanical upgrade which we plan to complete this summer. It is not the kind of project that can be undertaken during the season,” Polumbus said. “That lift will run throughout this season but has and will continue to require a great deal of time and energy on the part of our lift mechanics.”

The statement also emphasized the work of the lift mechanics, who Polumbus said “are excellent at their jobs” and “take a great deal of pride in providing lift access to all of you.”

“We have had to make a number of difficult decisions this season and I will stand behind all of those decisions and the teams that have had to implement them,” Polumbus said. “If you are looking for a place to point a finger, I’m your guy. Not our lift mechanics, not our guest service staff, not our ski patrol or lift operations team or anyone else.”

As of Friday morning, Chairs 4 and 10 remain closed, and the remainder of the lifts on Big Mountain are in operation.

This story was updated to reflect additional statements from Whitefish Mountain Resort.