Despite recent high-profile accidents, Colorado has among the safest, most inspected ski lifts in the world

Taylor Sienkiewicz
Summit Daily
Skiers and riders board the Black Mountain Express lift on Friday, Oct. 11, at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. The lift opened for winter after passing its seasonal inspection by the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board. The safety board also will conduct an unannounced inspection this winter.
Liz Copan/Summit Daily

FRISCO — Lift malfunctions and accidents are statistically rare, but Colorado resorts have had a rash of high-profile issues in the past three years, including one that killed a visitor at Ski Granby Ranch in December 2016.

In 2017, a Loveland Ski Area employee was killed while working on a magic carpet lift. Last winter, an empty gondola cabin fell off the line at Copper Mountain Resort during testing of the new lift. And this summer, Vail Mountain’s gondola broke down, leading to the evacuation of 74 employees.

Despite the recent incidents, Colorado is one of the safest places when it comes to riding lifts at ski resorts. According to an article by Outside Magazine, Colorado is one of 20 states that has a tramway safety board or some sort of third party regulatory agency for ski lifts. In addition, Colorado is considered to have one of the two most extensive safety boards in the country. At European ski resorts, the lift malfunction fatality rate is nine times higher than at U.S. ski areas.

The Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board is the state’s regulatory agency for lifts at ski resorts. The board conducts two to four inspections on each lift annually, depending on the scope of activities the ski area provides. Two are licensure inspections, which give resorts permission to operate their lifts ahead of the winter and summer seasons, and two are unannounced. One unannounced inspection occurs soon after winter operations have begun, and a second is conducted in summer for ski areas that operate lifts for hikers and bikers.

The inspections are done by one of eight contract engineers, according to the Tramway Safety Board.

The safety board also is responsible for tracking accidents. It requires ski areas to report injuries resulting from lift accidents and publishes its findings following an investigation.

According to records provided to the Summit Daily News by the safety board, there have been 34 lift accidents that resulted in evacuation or injuries in Summit County since 2014:

  • Arapahoe Basin Ski Area: six lift incidents. All were classified as skier error or skier medical issues. 
  • Breckenridge Ski Resort: eight lift incidents. One incident was due to electric malfunction while the other incidents were due to skier error, a power surge or wind. 
  • Copper Mountain Resort: 14 lift incidents. Nine were due to electrical malfunctions or other lift malfunctions. The remaining five were due to weather, a child falling after the bar was raised, or causes that are unknown or still under investigation.
  • Keystone Resort: six lift incidents. All were due to skier error, weather or medical issues.

The Tramway Safety Board already has completed its seasonal licensure inspections at some of Summit County’s resorts.

At A-Basin’s inspection, Slopes Maintenance Manager Louis Skowyra said the safety board was concerned about the potential of large trees blowing over in a big wind storm, which could compromise lift safety. A-Basin crews worked to cut or trim a few trees before receiving their license, something Skowyra called a relatively easy fix.

The next inspection of each lift is the unannounced early winter inspection, which is intended to take a hard look at the lift operators and their training, Skowyra said.

“The tramway inspector will come up, look at every lift and spend a lot of time with the lift operators, giving them a pop quiz,” Skowyra said. “We could lose our license if a liftie blows a series of questions, so it’s pretty serious. Every year, the questions are different, but they’re really getting into the training of our employees.”

Skowyra also gave credit to the extensive work of the lift maintenance crews.

“Internally, we all staff lift maintenance crews, and these guys and gals are among the most skilled in the ski industry,” Skowyra said. “They put a ton of time into what they do. They’re constantly training and re-certifying themselves. They are literally looking at lifts every day. They’re going through exhaustive checks. There are weekly inspections and monthly inspections that go even deeper than the daily inspections.”

The lift mechanics are especially busy in summer as they are working toward the seasonal inspection, Skowyra said. To ensure lift safety, ski area employees pull a percentage of the chairs off the line to take them apart, look at each component and do testing. 

According to Skowyra, A-Basin has plans to replace two of its lifts next summer: the Pallavicini lift and the Molly Hogan lift. While the lifts passed the safety board inspection this year, Skowyra said the 1978 lifts are simply due for an upgrade. 

Regulation by the safety board is something Skowyra embraces, calling it “good government regulation.”

“There is a lot of sensitivity right now that we can all appreciate,” Skowyra said. “We’re not shy about saying this, that aerial tramway passenger safety is our top priority. Our guests’ safety at Arapahoe Basin is our top priority, and chairlift safety is a big part of that.”

Skowyra also expressed complete faith in other Colorado ski areas, even addressing the recent gondola incident at Vail. 

“I trust their systems and their people and their procedures,” Skowyra said about Vail. “Like anything, machines break down from time to time and parts fail, and that’s why we have these checks.” 

In a statement sent to the Vail Daily, Vail Resorts said it has implemented “new safety checks, above and beyond industry standards” as a result of the incident.

“You can feel safe loading any aerial tramway in this state,” Skowyra said. “There’s nothing more scrutinized in this industry than lift safety.”