PORTLAND — In the wake of a cable derailment at Sugarloaf ski resort this week, a ski safety expert who reviewed the last two years of state inspection reports on the resort’s chairlifts said he was surprised at the number of problems the documents highlighted.
He also questioned the wisdom of re-starting the lift with skiers aboard once the cable began tracking outside the guidance system.
“There is a lot of stuff here, a lot of things that (the inspector) has keyed in on. It doesn’t look like a healthy lift maintenance (program). There is something wrong with nearly every lift,” Richard Penniman of Truckee, Calif., said of the inspection reports by the Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety.
Penniman has been assistant operations manager and mountain manager at ski resorts and has trained staff on lift operations. He also taught ski area operations and safety at Sierra College in Truckee. He has testified as a paid expert witness on ski accidents and lift operations in hundreds of court cases and depositions.
However, a spokesman for Sugarloaf Mountain said all of the problems mentioned in the most recent inspection were routine maintenance issues.
“All of our lifts, before they are opened, are licensed and inspected by the state; and are deemed safe to operate,” spokesman Ethan Austin said.
No problems involving Spillway East, the lift that derailed, were noted in the reports.
Among the problems listed that Penniman highlighted were a faulty part on an emergency brake, broken stop switches and problems with the sheaves (the wheels atop the tower that support the cables).
“That is big stuff,” Penniman said. “You should have your ducks in a row. There are a lot of significant things that need attention.”
On Tuesday morning, the 35-year-old Spillway East derailed as two lift mechanics were trying to fix a misaligned cable. After two unsuccessful attempts to realign the cable, they decided to shut down the lift. As they slowly restarted the lift to offload passengers, the cable derailed. Sugarloaf employees and emergency response workers spent the next two hours assisting skiers who were injured in the fall, and using a rope-and-pulley system to remove skiers who were stranded on the lift. The lift had been carrying about 150 people.
As for the decision to restart the lift, Penniman said such a move should be made only if the misalignment is minimal.
“It can be slightly misaligned, but it can’t be grossly misaligned, when it is touching the metal and off to one side. That is not good,” he said.
Austin agreed — the degree of misalignment determines the safety of running the lift.
“It is common practice at Sugarloaf and throughout the ski industry to run the lift at a slow speed when there is a slight misalignment, in order to run passengers off of the lift. When this happens, lift technicians work in tandem, with one operating the lift and the other on top of the tower to monitor the misalignment,” he said.
According to the Sugarloaf news release, the cable was “observed to be running toward the outside of the rubber liners” of the sheave train.
The cable was “not running straight, dead center down the middle,” Austin said.
Penniman said the lift cable, which is 1 3/8 inches in diameter, is supposed to run through a depression in a rubber liner inside the sheaves. A misalignment happens when the cable runs outside the center of the depression.
In cases of misalignments, ski resorts can unload passengers by running the lift slowly, or stop the lift and lower skiers by rope.
“They were trying to run people off the lift, … but if the lift is not safe to run, it is not safe to run,” Penniman said. “If they went, ‘Oh my God this is about to fail,’ and let it run anyway, they made a mistake.”
Chairlifts do have safety measures designed to avert derailment.
For instance, so-called “deropement switches,” also called “brittle bars,” are supposed to stop the lift if the cable derails. Also, cable catchers are supposed to keep a derailed cable from falling. On Tuesday, the cable catcher didn’t work.
“Part of the investigation will be to see why those didn’t stop the lift from falling,” Austin said.
A similar chairlift derailment happened at Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in upstate New York the day after the accident at Sugarloaf, but a cable catcher prevented the cable from falling to the ground.
Inspectors from the Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety suspect high wind contributed to the Sugarloaf accident, according to a Sugarloaf news release; but they have not ruled out other reasons for the failure of the 35-year-old lift.
According to Mike Cempa, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service, a weather balloon launched from Gray at 7 a.m. on the morning of the accident reported wind at 45 to 50 mph at altitudes of 2,000 to 4,000 feet, with higher gusts. Wind speeds declined later that morning, though gusts continued.
Penniman said the lift that failed, a double-chair model made by now-defunct Borvig Ski Lifts, are lighter than newer models and therefore generally have lower wind tolerances.
He said 40-mph wind, depending on the wind direction, may be near the lift’s safe operation limit.
He said gusty wind is more likely to cause problems than steady wind, because it can cause chairs to swing and knock against the towers.
Austin, the Sugarloaf spokesperson, said “there is no specific wind speed which dictates when a lift must shut down.”
The decision to stop a lift, he said, is based on a variety of factors, including wind speed, wind direction and how much the chairs are swinging.
“Our lift maintenance staff makes case-by-case determinations based on these criteria.”
That’s the same policy at Mt. Abram in Greenwood and Shawnee Peak in Bridgton, officials there said. Austin added that crosswinds are more likely to cause problems than wind blowing straight up or down the mountain.
The Sugarloaf resort faces north-northeast and, according to the National Weather Service, the wind Tuesday blew from the northwest, across the Spillway East lift.
Penniman said the Borvig ski lift is an older style that has been replaced by newer models at most large ski areas.
For the most part, he said, only smaller family-oriented mountains and night-skiing resorts operate the older Borvig two-chair models.
However, older lifts, like older airplanes, are safe if well maintained and operated within safety limits, he said.
Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Emma Bouthilette contributed to this report.