Eleven days before two ski lift chairs collided at Granite Gorge, a state inspection of the machine flagged eight issues that needed to be addressed.
The official who heads up the state office for tramway safety later verified those problems had been taken care of, sight unseen, via text message.
Issues identified by the Jan. 20 inspection report were not related to the Jan. 31 chairlift problem, according to W. Briggs Lockwood, bureau chief for the N.H. Tramway and Amusement Ride Safety Department.
But the state's approval of the chairlift, without returning to the scene, raises further questions about New Hampshire's oversight of an industry it both regulates and relies on.
The January incident
On Jan. 31 at Granite Gorge, a problem with the carrier grip on the double chairlift — which connects a chair to the carrying-hauling rope — caused the chair, holding two adults, to slide backward down the lift and collide with the next chair, which held two children. No one was seriously hurt, but the two adults were taken to the hospital for evaluation.
Two days after the incident — the second in less than 12 months to cause a shutdown of the chairlift at Granite Gorge — the Roxbury ski area was reopened after an OK from the state. The January incident remains under investigation.
Fred Baybutt, one of Granite Gorge's owners, said he believes vandalism was at play, and said he's heard of similar issues at other nearby ski areas. He offered no specifics and declined otherwise to comment on what happened at Granite Gorge, citing the ongoing probe. He said he's since installed extra lighting and surveillance cameras at the ski area.
Eric Berube, an investigator with the Office of the State Fire Marshal, declined comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
“I still have some more work to do in this investigation before I can make any determination as to whether or not vandalism could have been a factor,” he said in an email Feb. 17. Berube said last week he would have no further comment until his office issues a news release on the matter indicating the conclusion of the investigation.
Meanwhile, the state has asked Roxbury police to look into the vandalism angle.
“They can’t really determine what happened. One possibility is that it was vandalized,” said Roxbury Police Chief Robert O’Connor recently. "It’s something that wouldn’t just back up on its own. It would probably take some kind of manipulation or an oversight.”
O’Connor has notified state police to be on the lookout while patrolling the area.
Lockwood, whose bureau is a division of the state fire marshal’s office, is also investigating the Granite Gorge incident. Like others, he declined to comment on the specifics of the probe.
He also declined to release the report from the recent incident at Granite Gorge.
But, when asked if vandalism was an issue at other ski areas, he said in an email to The Sentinel: “I am not in a position to confirm or deny rumors. I can confirm that we have no reports in our possession of vandalism.”
Ultimately, he said, he places the onus of lift safety on the ski area owners.
“I can point out, that in general, and not specific to any one of the 170 odd ski lifts that operate in New Hampshire," Lockwood wrote in an email, "that it is the operator’s obligation to make sure that any lift is acceptable to operate for passengers prior to opening each day.”
What steps went into Granite Gorge opening — and then reopening — its lift this year?
State records show Granite Gorge had two state inspections this ski season, the first on Dec. 22, 2015, and the second on Jan. 20.
According to Passenger Tramway Safety Rules, every ski lift must be registered each year, after passing a state inspection. Without registration, ski areas can't run their lifts.
Granite Gorge's chairlift wasn't part of the state's Dec. 22 inspection; so, Baybutt said, the ski area didn't run it.
Lockwood said it's not uncommon for ski areas to opt out of having a particular lift inspected if it's not ready, or if the owner doesn't plan to run it right away. He added that Granite Gorge paid all of its inspection fees Dec. 22 and had its other surface lifts tested that day. That inspection indicated only two items needed to be fixed, and Granite Gorge had 10 days to do so.
“My recollection is also that we verbally all agreed to get everything done prior to opening,” Lockwood told The Sentinel in an email.
Baybutt said he chose not to get the chairlift inspected in December since there was little snow and the weather had been very warm. If there’s no snow, he explained, he doesn’t run the chairlift.
Granite Gorge opened for the season Dec. 22, according to its Facebook page.
By Jan. 20, the chairlift was ready to be inspected. According to the report from the Tramway Safety office, Lockwood inspected the lift and found eight items that needed to be addressed before Granite Gorge could run it.
Some of the issues were "critical," Lockwood said in an email to The Sentinel. The speed switch for a braking mechanism that physically prevents a chairlift from rotating backward, as well as an emergency brake switch, both needed to be adjusted, and in the case of the latter switch, fully functioning. Lockwood stressed that the backward rotation that the braking mechanism prevents is different than the back-sliding that happened in the chairlift problem Jan. 31.
According to the report, Granite Gorge also had to adjust an emergency brake and complete a torque test. Lockwood did not indicate whether this was critical or not, but did note: "It is not uncommon to find a brake that ‘almost’ meets the required holding force, but that needs to be adjusted. We would require that this be confirmed prior to operation.”
Another critical issue that needed to be addressed was ensuring proper functioning of a counterweight switch. This type of switch monitors the location of the counterweight on lifts that use them. Lockwood said that was completed before the end of the inspection.
The other items flagged in the inspection report included the need to repair or replace a leaking pump, ensure a brittle bar on one of the wheels through which the rope slides was the proper length, repair emergency lights in the drive room and post some needed signage. Granite Gorge had 10 days to complete the work.
While neither Lockwood nor Baybutt could say when the chairlift opened, pictures and posts on the ski area’s Facebook page indicate it was running by Jan. 22 — two days after the inspection.
This was an appropriate amount of time to complete the required work, according to Lockwood, who described most of the issues as "straightforward."
As for how he knew all the work had been done before giving the OK for the chairlift to run, Lockwood said: “I have confirmation that these items have all been corrected; I received it by text message.”
This is also why Lockwood didn’t have an immediate record as to when the ski lift began running; he said he recently got a new phone.
Asked why he didn't go back to see, first hand, if the repairs had been completed, Lockwood wrote: "There is no requirement to go back. It is up to us. If we think it is necessary, we'll go back."
So how did he give Granite Gorge the official go-ahead to open the lift, and complete the ski area's registration with the state?
“I'm not sure how I responded,” he wrote. “But it was probably by text.”
Incidents at Granite Gorge
The January incident was the second in 12 months involving the chairlift at Granite Gorge. The first happened March 13, 2015. According to the report for that incident provided by the state, the lift stopped due to an electrical malfunction, and over the course of 90 minutes, 20 people were evacuated from the machine. No injuries were reported.
Lockwood said having a chair slide backward — as happened in January — is rare, and he couldn’t remember the last time it happened in New Hampshire. Electrical problems, he said, are not uncommon.
“It’s a piece of machinery that’s a mile long,” he said in an email. “The electric wiring that runs the length of it and all the moving components is subject to a lot of weather and the types of things that not every electrical system is subject to."
About a year ago, officials at Ragged Mountain Resort in Danbury had to evacuate its lifts four times, according to Lockwood.
"There are some considerations for ski lifts that are fairly unique to the industry and it’s not unheard of to have an electrical problem that leads to getting the lift empty to find out what’s going on. That’s not uncommon," Lockwood said in a phone interview with The Sentinel. "Does it speak to (lack of maintenance?) — if you have more than one issue in one area, it could, I guess. I would refrain from giving you that opinion.
“And I suppose you could say that’s a maintenance thing," he said, "because shouldn’t the electrical conditions and the electrical be better? But like I said, these things operate in the worst kind of weather, and I’m not making excuses for them, they should run and they are required to be able to get the standard passengers off. That’s what we require.”
This interview with Lockwood took place before the incident Feb. 14 at Cannon Mountain Ski Area in Franconia when 48 people had to be evacuated from a stalled tram, which was installed in 1980, while heading up to the mountain.
Referring to the March 2015 incident with Granite Gorge's chairlift, Lockwood said that as he recalled, the lift broke down close enough to the end of the season that the ski area shut down the lift for the rest of the season.
As for the Jan. 31 incident, according to a news release issued Feb. 2, the preliminary investigation revealed a mechanical issue with the carrier grip.
“Following a complete assessment and testing of all chairs and systems, the lift was authorized to re-open,” the release said.
However, in a Feb. 4 email to The Sentinel, when asked what Granite Gorge had to do to reopen, Lockwood said, “The grip to the chair that was involved was replaced and tested, the remaining 49 grips were inspected and slip tested according to the manufacturer’s procedure in our presence. When this was complete, on the afternoon of 2-1-2016, we authorized the lift to re-open.”
He made no mention of testing all of the chairs and systems as described in the news release.
When asked about the different descriptions of what happened, Lockwood said, “I would offer this explanation: My statement explaining what we did clarifies the official press release, which uses general terms.”
Baybutt said other than the March and January incidents, there have been no other incidents at Granite Gorge.
“No, not that I know of,” he said. “The chair has been on line for 10 years and it’s an excellent lift, excellent. It’s served the public very well and certainly the Monadnock Region. And you know, by the way, we create more than 50 jobs. We were able to be a guest lecturer at Keene State College and they realize what an asset we are, especially with all the businesses leaving town and so forth. So the lift has been great.”
Lockwood declined to give his assessment on the general condition and upkeep of Granite Gorge and its lifts.
“Well, I’m sure it doesn’t look good,” he said, of Granite Gorge's chairlift incidents. “And I’m going to be pretty careful not to give you my opinion and I will tell you that these guys meet the minimum requirements when we go and do what we do.”
According to reports dating back to 2012, independent inspectors testing various components of Granite Gorge's chairlift, such as the ropes and the grips, listed those components in good condition.
Baybutt said maintenance on the lift is a year-round effort.
“It’s expensive; it’s a major piece of equipment,” he said. “You know, I’m a seven-year board member of Ski NH. It’s thousands of dollars.”
Baybutt said that his mountain manager and two assistants conduct daily maintenance, which includes checking the chairs on the lift.
He said none of his financial issues — which have included a 2012 bankruptcy, lawsuits claiming he stopped paying subcontractors he employed with his now defunct construction company, and three liens against Granite Gorge, have affected his ability to maintain the ski area.
“That doesn’t apply at all,” he said. “Granite Gorge is an excellent asset — fine, financially. If you were to go other areas in the state, there’s no one who hasn’t had an electrical issue. All you have to do is look at Cannon Mountain. ... I think people are really starting to see how important it is to the Monadnock Region and to Keene. It’s gigantic.”
Baybutt offered a reporter this advice:
“The thrust of the story really should be that the ski industry really has buoyed the economy,” he said. “Not only throughout the state, but in the Monadnock Region. Granite Gorge is just a tremendous asset. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there. But it’s one positive in a landscape of many businesses going away from here.”