As New Hampshire’s major ski areas geared up for what they hoped would be a lucrative school vacation last week, investigators were still trying to piece together what caused a Granite Gorge chairlift accident last month that sent two people to the hospital.
While officials know what happened at the Roxbury ski area, as of Thursday they still didn’t know why, and neither vandalism, nor potential maintenance issues nor mechanical failure had been ruled out.
The latest incident at Granite Gorge came less than a year after an electrical problem caused an evacuation of the same chairlift, and two weeks before 48 people were evacuated from a tram headed to Cannon Mountain in Franconia that stalled 40 feet in the air.
In fiscal year 2015, encompassing an end-of-November-to-April ski season, more than 1.24 million people visited the nearly 30 ski areas in New Hampshire. Comprised of 16 major resorts and a smattering of municipal lifts, these ski areas total roughly 170 lifts that range in age from 9 to 34 years old and that carry an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 chairs suspended anywhere from 20 to 40 feet in the air.
While industry statistics — virtually the only ones readily and publicly available in the state — paint a picture of safety when it comes to ski lifts, they’re not without incident and injury. Just this month, for example, about two dozen people fell from a chairlift that derailed at Timberline Resort in West Virginia, in an incident that sent two to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, according to West Virginia MetroNews.
This and other cases beg the question: What oversight exists of these mega machines and how are they inspected?
On Feb. 9, The Sentinel reached out to the 16 major ski areas in New Hampshire to find out. Specifically, The Sentinel wanted to learn about the inspection process, what periodic and daily maintenance each ski area does and how much it costs to maintain the lifts.
Four ski areas responded.
On Feb. 10, spokespeople for Cranmore Mountain Resort in North Conway and Loon Mountain in Lincoln — which are not affiliated with each other — each sent identically worded responses to emailed questions. When reached by phone late that morning, Doug Holler, Skiway manager at the Dartmouth Skiway in Lyme Center, repeated the same responses as those found in the emails.
Minutes after the Cranmore email was sent, Jessyca Keeler, executive director with the trade association Ski NH, sent an unsolicited email to The Sentinel.
“A couple of our members brought to my attention that you are reaching out to ski areas throughout the state with questions regarding chairlift inspections and maintenance,” she wrote. “I wanted to pass along to you answers to some of the questions you are asking. The answers are generally true for our ski areas throughout the state, and I should note that I’ve also shared these responses with the ski areas.”
Ski NH, which is a nonprofit group, is funded primarily by ski area membership dues, sponsorship, advertising programs and state funds. When asked, Keeler qualified the state’s interest in the organization by saying state funds “support Ski NH efforts that are in line with the State’s promotional goals” and that based on total revenue, the state contributes just less than 10 percent.
According to Ski NH’s 2014 tax forms, available online, it received $55,000 in government grants, though the nature of those grants was not detailed in the filing.
When asked by The Sentinel why she was answering the maintenance- and inspection-related questions, and not the individual ski areas, Keeler said it was a matter of efficiency since operators were busy getting their sites ready for the February vacation week. She also noted that all of the ski areas are bound by the same rules, regulations and guidelines.
Keeler said ski areas do daily, monthly and annual maintenance according to the American National Standards Institute Aerial Tramway Standards B-77.1 code for lift safety and as prescribed by the schedules recommended by the lift manufacturers.
State inspections cover structural, electrical and mechanical components, as well as lift operating systems, clearances and signage, she said. Inspectors also look at the maintenance logs, according to Keeler, who declined to answer how much yearly maintenance cost. She also did not know the cost of the annual inspection.
Fred Baybutt, a co-owner of Granite Gorge, did not go into specifics about maintenance when reached by phone Friday, but said it’s an ongoing process throughout the year and a very important part of the business. As for the expense of this, he again didn’t give specifics, but said it costs “thousands” per year to maintain his ski lift.
W. Briggs Lockwood, bureau chief for the N.H. Tramway and Amusement Ride Safety Department — a division of the state fire marshal’s office — backed up much of the information provided by Keeler, adding that the preseason inspections by the state usually take place in October and November, and most are completed by Christmas. This year, he said, the inspections came later after unusually warm weather brought the season to a slow start.
Ski areas are required to register with the state each year before they can open for the season; to register, the state must come out and inspect the ski lifts. Lockwood said ski area officials call him when they are ready, and then he, along with another state inspector from his office, performs the inspections.
But they don’t inspect every chair, he said. They ride the lifts and check out the systems, but to examine each of the 8,000 to 10,000 chairs in operation at any given time wouldn’t be possible. That’s left to the regular maintenance and oversight of the ski lift operators themselves.
Lockwood and the ski areas offered different information on how long the inspections take and how many inspectors come out to the sites.
Keeler said the preseason inspection is typically done by three to six people.
Lockwood said there are only two people — himself and one other inspector — who inspect all of the lifts. When asked about the discrepancy, he said insurance providers also send inspectors, independent inspectors conduct annual inspections on wire ropes — from which the state receives a report — and ski areas operating in a designated national forest also see a national forest inspector.
“This is probably what they are referring to,” he said.
But they weren’t. When asked why her answer on the number of inspectors differed from Lockwood’s, Keeler said by email: “To clarify, the number of people that come out for an inspection includes the two inspectors and often 2-4 (ski area) staff who are part of the inspection.”
Lockwood and Keeler also gave different accounts of how long preseason inspections typically take.
When asked about the duration of the yearly inspection — is it 15 minutes, an hour, a day — Lockwood said that was a hard question to answer. Some of the smaller areas take less time, while others might take a day, he said.
Emails from Cranmore, Loon and Keeler said the preseason inspection takes two days.
The Sentinel also reached out to the Passenger Tramway Division of the Vermont Labor Department to compare how that state conducts its inspections. Two calls placed to the inspector were not returned.
That state recently requested all of its ski towers be inspected in the wake of the West Virginia incident, leading to the closure of a ski lift at Suicide Six in South Pomfret, Vt., after cracks and stress to parts of two supporting towers were discovered, the Valley News of Lebanon reported.
The chairlift is one of three in Vermont of similar construction to the one in West Virginia, that were produced by the now-defunct Borvig Ski Lifts, according to the newspaper. The other two — at Mount Snow in Dover and Stratton Mountain in Londonderry — have been cleared for use.
New Hampshire responded to the West Virginia case by examining its archive of lift designs and found two that were similarly made using Borvig parts, Lockwood said, according to the Valley News report.
Both have been deemed safe.
One of those two lifts is used in the summer, Lockwood said, and the other had been retrofitted and was re-inspected before being cleared for use. Lockwood declined to tell the Valley News where they are.
According to the website New England Ski History, which maintains listings of ski area closings and the types of machinery found at each ski area in New England, Attitash Mountain, Black Mountain, Pat’s Peak, Ragged Mountain and Granite Gorge all have Borvig ski lifts.
Lockwood acknowledged that these areas have “some Borvig components,” but that only two lifts in New Hampshire have the design component found in the West Virginia lift. As for why he wouldn’t disclose the name of the ski areas to The Valley News, he said, “ When it comes to ‘why’ I do something or don’t do something, the answer will always be that I thought it was the right thing to do at the time. There is not a simple answer to that question.”
In March 2015, the ski lift manufacturer Partek Ski Lifts of Pine Island, N.Y., issued a bulletin that warned operators using Borvig and Partek lifts that there may be concerns over safety components and an electrical switch. The warning was issued in the wake of a major ski lift malfunction at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine, which caused a chairlift to roll backwards 400 feet. Some panicked skiers jumped from the lift and seven were injured.
As a result of the warning, according to a news report from the New England Cable Network, the state of Vermont inspected all of the Borvig chairs operating in that state and “strongly recommended” that the operators of Suicide Six install an extra emergency stopping mechanism.
Courtney Lowe, the director of sales and marketing for the Woodstock Inn & Resort, which owns Suicide Six, told New England Cable Network at the time that Woodstock would be installing a mechanism in the summer of 2015.
As a result of the warning, Lockwood said in an email to The Sentinel: “(Inspectors) re-inspected all lifts that had the rollback equipment that was the subject of the notice. An upgrade was then available to enhance the existing systems... This was installed on lifts in NH.”
Baybutt said Granite Gorge installed the safety updates on its Borvig lift.
When asked if the Tramway Board or Lockwood made any recommendations or suggested a ski area would risk losing certification if it did not complete the safety upgrade, Lockwood emailed this: “The Tramway Board indicated that they wanted the upgrades installed. Areas complied with the request.”
During the May 2015 meeting of the Tramway Safety Board, the board did discuss the braking issue raised by the Partek warning and it was even suggested the board issue an emergency rule addressing the design of the braking system. However, after some discussion of wording and ensuring that any rule change would “have the objective of not re-engineering, or engineering the lifts, but would ensure that the existing equipment will work,” the board abandoned the rule change since the existing standards already state that a chairlift can only roll backward a maximum of 36 inches before a brake initiates.
“The Board recognizes that this provision is satisfactory, and that the focus should be on verifying that lifts meet this requirement,” the minutes said. “If this is done, then there is no need for a rules change.”
The board went on to clarify its policy that these systems be tested during a scheduled seven-year dynamic testing.
“For the period of time until the next scheduled test,” the minutes said, “the Board requires written verification from the manufacturer or a qualified engineer that, under the most adverse condition, the backstop device on each lift will stop and hold the lift before the haul rope travels 36 inches.”
In the following meeting, on June 30, the board specifically addressed the warning, saying that as long as the fixes are installed properly, then the ski areas won’t need to have an engineer sign off on the modification, which they normally would with any modification.
If the board indicated at one of these meetings that it wanted ski areas to make related safety upgrades, it was not reflected in the minutes.
Special Report: What's Ahead?
Monday: Lift inspections: How safe, how transparent?
Tuesday: A closer look at the Granite Gorge mishap.