double chairlift covered in snow
Photo credit: Kurt Wehde via Shutterstock

Multiple Skiers Injured, 1 Severely, After 2 Chairlifts Fall in a Month

After two chairlifts from the same manufacturer fell off their cables, one key component has come under close inspection.

For many downhill skiers, the idea of a chairlift falling from the cable will send shivers down the spine. It’s extremely unlikely, but horrifying nonetheless.

Within one month, chairlifts at two different ski resorts in the U.S. detached and fell. The first incident occurred on Dec. 5 at 49 Degrees North Mountain Resort in Chewelah, Wash., when a double chair fell. Then, a second chairlift — this time a triple chair — fell on Jan. 9 at Indianhead Mountain in Michigan.

According to Lift Blog, both cases involved occupied chairlifts. The two people who fell at 49 Degrees North suffered minor injuries. But one occupant in the Indianhead Mountain incident was severely injured.

Chairlifts Fall: Different Resorts, Same Components

While they occurred at different resorts, the incidents involved the same type of lift. At 49 Degrees North, it was a 1972 SLI double chair with Riblet insert clips. According to Wikipedia, there are fewer than 20 of these chairs left in operation in the U.S.

And at the Indianhead Mountain ski area in Michigan, the lift was a 1964 Riblet triple chair with Riblet insert clips. There are roughly 90 Riblet triple-chairs still in operation.

Some background: SLI (Ski Lift International) is an Austrian chairlift company whose North American division went bankrupt in the early 1970s. Riblet, another lift manufacturer, bought some of SLI’s inventory in a bankruptcy auction.

While not the same model of lift, the chairs share the same exact components that could have caused the detachments. These chairlift models have inserted clips, as opposed to clamped external grips, that attach the chair to the cables. Most of these lifts have since been replaced by high-speed lifts.

A chairlift at 49 Degrees North Resort

49 Degrees North issued a statement the morning of the accident. The resort also issued a full report on Dec. 11 after the incident detailing what went wrong in terms of the components of the lift.

“Our Lift Operations and Lift Maintenance teams closely [inspected] the chair/carrier involved in the incident. They were able to determine that this chair detached from the line because … a cotter pin had failed or was missing from its clip,” the resort wrote. The resort also reported that it replaced and inspected all the pins on Chair 1 just before the start of the season.

Today, 49 Degrees North’s Director of Marketing confirmed that the resort has since retrofitted the chair, using “a redundant system of chair retention.” Washington’s Department of Parks and Recreation Commission Tramway Inspection Program authorized the resort to open the chairlift for operation.

Indianhead Mountain has not released a statement, but a representative did confirm that the lift would be re-inspected. It’s unknown if the detachment at Indianhead also occurred because of a missing or broken pin related to the Riblet clips. GearJunkie reached for comment but received no response from Indianhead Mountain.

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Safety Requirements for Chairlifts

The American National Standards Institute has legal requirements for the construction and general operation of chairlifts on a national level (section B77.1, Standard for Passenger Ropeways). But after that, managing safety on lifts varies by state.

Both states where these incidents occurred, Washington and Michigan, have agencies that regulate safety on gondolas, chairlifts, and tow lifts. Michigan’s Ski Area Safety Program board currently oversees the operation of 157 surface and chairlifts. Washington’s Parks and Recreation Commission monitors Washington’s lifts, of which it has 79.

Both of these states require inspections once per year by certified or contract inspectors.

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Mary Murphy

Mary is the Managing Editor of GearJunkie and is based in GearJunkie's Denver, Colo. office. She has a degree in English and journalism, and has a background in both newspaper and magazine writing. Her outdoor interests span from running to sport climbing, from landscape photography to skiing to pack-paddleboarding. If she's not writing, you can most likely find her at the top of a fourteener, or in a local bakery.