James F. "Jeff" Crowley is chairman of the Massachusetts Recreational Tramway Board, which regulates recreational tramways in the Bay State. He also is president of Wachusett Mountain Associates, operator of Wachusett Mountain Ski Area in Princeton, Mass. with an adult lifetime of experience with chairlifts.
His take on chairlift safety: There's a greater likelihood of getting hurt on an escalator than on a ski lift.
"Perception is one thing; it seems scary, the whole idea of riding a mechanical device, but the safety record of ski lifts is close to stellar," Crowley said.
The record bears this out. Statistics compiled by the National Ski Areas Association show 12 chairlift fatalities in North America since 1973, when data collection started. The statistics also show chairlifts are safer than cars, escalators, or elevators.
Crowley's family owns Polar Beverages of Worcester, Mass., largest independent bottler in the United States, and by the time he turned 18 he knew the third shift intimately, having worked 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. for enough years to also know he wanted to do something else for a living.
He sought and found a job with Lift Engineering, a company that managed the construction of chairlifts, and in 1978 worked on building a fixed-grip triple chair at Mount Snow. That lift - now called the Summit Local - was then state-of-the-art; it is now the resort's aging summit backup that is on the boards to be replaced.
The next years saw Crowley moving from resort to resort with Lift Engineering's helicopter crews, installing lifts from A-Basin in Colorado to Mt. Bachelor in Oregon. The wealth of knowledge he amassed about installation, operation, and maintenance of chairlifts lends great credibility to his assessment that chairlifts are among the safest modes of transport in use.
The fact remains, however, that chairlifts do break down, given that they are mechanical devices, built by people, with many moving parts prone to wear and tear.
"Lifts go down," Stephen Kircher, president of Eastern Operations for Boyne Resorts, said. "We have 120 lifts in the system, and if there's not a lift down every day or every other day, I'd be surprised."
Safe operation of lift systems requires constant monitoring, upkeep, maintenance, inspections, and testing, all of which happen on a regular basis, but which often go unnoticed by skiers and snowboarders.
Kircher said lift evacuations - when a lift breaks down and riders have to be lowered from chairs by ropes - might happen five times a year within Boyne Resorts.
For example, 160 people were evacuated from the South Ridge Express Quad at Sunday River on Saturday, Feb. 19, when a bearing failed. That failure was not due to inattention or lack of maintenance; the bearing was new, and had a manufacturing defect.
Earlier this month high winds derailed a lift at Big Sky Resort in Montana. The catcher caught the cable, and nothing hit the ground, but passengers had to be evacuated.
On Dec. 28, eight people were injured at Sugarloaf in Maine when a cable derailed on the Spillway East Chair, and five cars hit the ground. Other passengers were evacuated from that lift, which has since been repaired, tested, and put back into service.
A quad chair at Spirit Mountain in Minnesota was evacuated after breaking down Dec. 30.
These are just some of the mishaps of this season.
Kircher estimated that perhaps 50 evacuations might happen nationwide each winter. It's why ski patrols across the country practice lift evacuations as they gear up for winter.
Stoppages are one thing, evacuations another, and lift-related fatalities something else entirely.
The National Ski Areas Association statistics show the 12 deaths on ski lifts since 1973 were out of 14.23 billion lift rides. NSAA statistics also show that car fatalities are eight times more frequent than chairlift fatalities per mile ridden.
Kircher said there are ways to be safer on chairlifts and to minimize the chance of problems, and most are common sense: Don't swing the chair; don't sit on the outside of a chair and make it tilt toward a tower; never amplify a swing, or engage in horseplay on a lift.
People do fall out of a chair from time to time. Most of these falls happen when riders are raising the bar, and most involve children.
Case in point: A father and 3-year-old child fell from a chair at Okemo Mountain Resort on Saturday, Feb. 19, when they raised the bar as they approached the unloading station.
"It was an unfortunate accident," Okemo's Bonnie MacPherson said. "You should always remain alert on a chairlift. You're riding a moving device."
In another incident, a 10-year-old girl fell 15 feet from a chairlift Dec. 29 at Hidden Valley Four Seasons Resort in Pennsylvania while raising the bar as the chair approached the unloading area.
Injuries are never funny, but fortunately injuries in these incidents appear to have been minor.
Besides, humor often is the best medicine, and we close with this paragraph from a column by Dave Barry that appeared in the Miami Herald in 1996:
"Skiing is an exciting winter sport, but it is not for everybody. For example, it is not for sane people. Sane people look at skiing, and they say: ‘Wait a minute. I'm supposed to attach slippery objects to my feet and get on a frozen chair dangling from a scary-looking wire, then get dumped off on a snow-covered slope so steep that the mountain goats are wearing seat belts, and then, if by some miracle I am able to get back down without killing myself, I'm supposed to do this again?' ''
We reply, "Well, yeah. Just keep your wits about you."