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Skiing

Slow Going on the Snow Ghost Express

In its second season as Whitefish Mountain Resort's lone six-pack chairlift, mechanical closures have persistently rendered a chair designed to disperse record crowds inoperable

By Micah Drew
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 distillery

Over the course of three hours on the morning of Feb. 1, 2023, ski patrollers and lift operators at Whitefish Mountain Resort used a roped belay system to lower skiers and snowboarders down from the mountain’s Snow Ghost Express chairlift, evacuating the new luxury lift known as Chair 4. Lift operators noticed the chairlift experienced malfunctions with its braking mechanisms, prompting the emergency rope evacuation.

“We know it is not OK to repeatedly ask for patience and support — that is not lost on us at all,” Whitefish Mountain Resort President Nick Polumbus said the following day, referring to a series of early-season lift stoppages that included a separate emergency evacuation of Chair 1. “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.”

The long-awaited high-speed six-pack chair was heralded by resort staff and visitors as a way to disperse ever-growing record crowds on the mountain by linking the Base Lodge directly to the summit of Big Mountain. The mountain’s only six-person lift, which officially opened on Dec. 30, 2022, can bring skiers to the top of Inspiration Ridge, a 2,200 feet ascent, in seven minutes — when it’s working.

So far, Chair 4 hasn’t been spinning this season, initially due to bleak early-season snow conditions that kept most of the terrain the lift accesses closed. More recently, however, the lift has remained offline due to additional mechanical problems, according to Polumbus.  

“Over the holiday period we experienced mechanical issues with Chair 4. The manufacturer sent an engineer who worked onsite for one full week, and now we believe the components that caused the issues have been identified and replaced,” Polumbus said in a statement to the Beacon. “These recent issues are separate from and unrelated to those issues we experienced during the 2022-23 ski season, which have been resolved. During the off-season leading up to this winter, we performed rigorous testing and monitoring throughout our standard inspection and maintenance process.”

WMR spokesperson Chad Sokol said the the issues were related to the electrical control system, but emphasized that “at no point” have resort officials considered the lift unsafe to operate.

“In consultation with the manufacturer’s engineer, we initially planned to run the lift without passengers for 12-24 hours while monitoring it for faults. We’ve continued running it for intermittent long stretches to gain the highest possible degree of confidence that it will run reliably when we open it to passengers,” Sokol said.

Polumbus said the resort expects the chair will reopen to the public at some point next week, adding that lingering conditions from the current winter storm will also be factored in.

On Thursday, the resort ceased all operations by early afternoon and made the decision to close the mountain on Friday, Jan. 12, due to extreme temperatures and high wind speeds. Temperatures recorded at the summit on Thursday reached minus 24 degrees Fahrenheit, while windchill values plunged below minus 50.

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