January 4, 2011

Incidents like these are rare, says insider

BY JOHN CHRISTIE, Special to the Kennebec Journal

(This story was originally published December 29, 2010)

 

Tuesday's chairlift accident at Sugarloaf reminded me of a couple of things:

First, how rare it is — given the complexities of the machinery and the vagaries of winter weather — that incidents like this occur. As a point of reference, I spent nearly two decades in the business, in the operation of three ski areas, and conducted only three lift evacuations.

Second, how little effect this will have on the enthusiasm of every devoted Sugarloaf skier to hop right back on the Spillway lift as soon as the cable is hoisted back, assuming there was no real damage to the running gear.

Although derailments — whether from an unexpected blast of wind or some malfunction — are rare, and infrequently cause serious injury, they are a reminder of one of the dangers inherent in a sport that derives some of its attraction from the very fact that there's a measure of risk involved.

Those of us who get some perverse pleasure from barreling down a mountainside at 50 or 60 mph within a few feet of the trees have long known that skiers and boarders are a somewhat unique fraternity. And the bond is sufficiently deep that when we hear about an accident like the one at Sugarloaf we instantly connect with our kindred spirits who might have been affected.

I spoke with some friends who saw the incident at Sugarloaf on Tuesday. My good friend Bruce Miles, director of the Ski Museum of Maine, said, "You know, John, this stuff happens. But I know the lift crew at Sugarloaf and I'm heading up the hill as soon as they clear Spillway to operate again without a second thought."

That in no way minimizes the concern I have for anyone who might have been injured, or my empathy for the management of the ski area.

I remember well the day in 1965 when a gondola car separated from the cable on Sugarloaf's recently installed lift, injuring a couple of occupants. I was the general manager at the time, so I know full well what the staff at the mountain goes through as it wrestles with the multiple issues associated with evacuation and damage assessment, all with an eye toward ensuring, as much as possible, that a similar problem will not happen in the future.

Every day a ski area operates involves a range of important decisions, balancing business, public relations and public expectations and, of course, safety. Operators spend countless hours perfecting rescues and evacuations, in preparation for the unlikely possibility of a mishap. They know that their customers' safety must always be of paramount concern, but they recognize that they're in an inherently risky endeavor, transporting people up the steep side of a mountain in often challenging weather.

Modern aerial lifts are built with sophisticated sensing and redundant safety mechanisms to reduce the possibility of an incident such as a derailment, and to ensure that in the event of such an occurrence, injury and mechanical damage are minimized.

We skiers, I'm convinced, recognize we are parties to a contract when we buy a lift ticket. We assume our safety is given appropriate consideration by our host but, at the same time, we acknowledge that there's a remote possibility that something unexpected might happen, as a result of our own, or someone else's, actions.

We're fortunate that incidents such as the one at Sugarloaf are as rare as they are, and we feel blessed that there are still business people who will invest time and treasure in building and operating the fabulous facilities that we can all enjoy.

And I say to them, "Don't worry about us—- we'll be back on your lifts tomorrow!"

John Christie, who writes a ski column every other week in the Outdoors section for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, is a former ski racer and ski area manager and owner, a ski historian and member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. He can be contacted at jchristie@fairpoint.net.

 

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