Friday, March 7, 2014
By J. Hemmerdinger firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
‘CLASSIC, OLD LIFT STUFF’
Ski safety expert Richard Penniman said many of the issues noted in the last two state inspection reports of Sugarloaf’s lifts are indicative of older equipment.
• He pointed specifically to metal fatigue, corrosion and electrical problems – “classic, old lift stuff,” he said.
• He said some of the issues might be expected in the fall, when the state inspections were done, because lifts might get less attention during the summer months, and mice, gophers or other small animals can wreak havoc on wiring.
• He added that old lifts are like old cars: they tend to develop more problems during the cold winter months, even if they recently passed inspections.
• Spokesman Ethan Austin said Sugarloaf’s maintenance department is busy all year. “We have a very skilled lift maintenance staff employed year round and they spend the entire summer maintaining and upgrading lifts.”
SKI LIFT MANUFACTURER HISTORY
The Spillway East chairlift was manufactured by Borvig Ski Lifts and installed in 1975.
The manufacturer made lifts from 1962 to 1991 and closed in 1993.
In 1996, Hagen Schulz, son of Borvig Ski Lifts founder Gary Schulz, founded Partek Ski Lifts. Schulz used a lot of Borvig’s designs when first starting Partek. The New York-based company installed 24 lifts in North America before the company was purchased, along with all of Borvig’s lift patents, by Austrian ropeway manufacturer Doppelmayr CTEC in 2005.
As of December 2009, Doppelmayr/Garaventa Group has designed and overseen more than 14,100 installations worldwide. The company is a world leader in the ropeway sector. Doppelmayr USA, Inc. is based in Salt Lake City.
Sugarloaf now works with Par-Tech, a company based in New York, regarding Spillway East.
Sources: www.skilifts.org, www.doppelmayr.com, Sugarloaf
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.
A spokesman for the Department of Professional and Financial Regulations, which oversees the board, has said Sugarloaf addressed all of the maintenance items that were identified before receiving its 2010 and 2011 licenses.
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, Calif. He has testified as a paid expert witness on ski accidents and lift operations in hundreds of court cases and depositions.
But 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," said spokesman Ethan Austin.
Penniman said the reports noted no significant problems with Spillway East, the lift that derailed.
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 started to slowly restart 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.
Friday night, all known injured skiers had been released from various hospitals.
As for the decision to restart the lift, Penniman said such a move should only be made 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 one-and-three-eighths inches in diameter, is supposed to run through a depression in a rubber liner inside the sheaves.
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