Tahoe’s Heavenly chairlift malfunction addressed by Forest Service
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Following a comprehensive assessment by four independent agencies, the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit approved the reopening of Heavenly Mountain Resort’s North Bowl chairlift last month after a chair malfunction caused the closure. The chair was closed Jan. 3, when an equipment failure caused an unoccupied chair to fall from the lift cable during operations. The lift was immediately shut down following the incident, and ski patrol safely unloaded 65 guests using rope-aided evacuation techniques. Boulder chair, which is the same make and model fixed-grip triple chair as North Bowl, was also closed as a precautionary measure. Both were reopened to the public Jan. 16, following significant corrective action.
“This was a very thorough review,” Forest Service recreation special uses program manager Jonathan Cook-Fisher said.
Cook-Fisher administrates Heavenly’s permit to operate on Forest Service lands.
According to Forest Service’s report on the incident, part of the assembly that connected the fixed-grip chair to the lift cable failed, causing the chair to fall. Two screws, which served as part of the connection, sheared off during lift operations when the chair was on the downslope between towers 4 and 5.
“We couldn’t determine the ultimate causation of what sheared the screws,” Cook-Fisher said, explaining that none of the other chairs showed a potential for a similar failure.
After lift service teams from Heavenly, the Forest Service and two independent companies investigated, Heavenly replaced each of the chair connections on both lifts with a different groove pin system, which the Forest Service report described as “not as susceptible to shearing as the existing screw system.”
“It’s a robust cotter pin that replaces the screws,” Cook-Fisher said.
Both chairs will be subject to bi-monthly inspections going forward. All U.S. ski resort chairlifts are routinely examined through multiple annual safety inspections and maintenance, as well as daily inspection by mountain staff, in accordance with special use agreements.
“It’s an extensive process each and every day,” Heavenly spokesman Kevin Cooper said of their lift operations protocol. Speaking to the resolution of the chair incident, he added, “We’ve taken every precaution to ensure the safety of our guests. We investigated it. We worked with outside agencies and the Forest Service to ensure we did it right.”
According to the National Ski Areas Association — a trade association that monitors ski industry statistics — lift-malfunction-related injuries or deaths are incredibly rare. Since 1973, 12 deaths have been attributed to lift-related failure. According to the NSAA, an estimated 16.3 billion lift rides were given by U.S. ski resorts during that time. The last fatality was in 1993.
Based on data from the state of Colorado, falls from chairlifts due to skier error are far more likely, but also not common.
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