Ski resorts, industry say chairlifts are safe, provided riders take personal responsibility
On Nov. 28, Ryan Moore, 19, died after he fell 30 feet from the Dipper Express chairlift at Heavenly Mountain Resort. His death raised the visibility of local chairlift safety.
Tahoe-area ski resorts take measures to ensure their guests’ safety, but ultimately it is up to skiers and snowboarders to remain safe, said sources at several local resorts.
Using safety bars on chairlifts is not required in California, according to Heavenly officials, although every chairlift at the resort is equipped with them.
“They’re designed for comfort and convenience,” said Russ Pecararo, Heavenly’s director of communications. “It’s akin to a helmet. People have a choice if they want to use them or not.”
Kirkwood Mountain Resort spokesman Daniel Pistoresi agrees. “They are used for safety and comfort,” he said. “A high percentage of people use the bars. We do encourage the use of the bars on signs around the lift.”
Geraldine Link, director of public policy at the National Ski Areas Association, said a 2002 Denver Post story noted that falls from lifts happen just as much when riders use safety bars as when they don’t.
“It’s a matter of educating people on how to use the lift safely,” Link said.
Pecoraro says Heavenly takes every precaution possible. “We do everything on our end that makes skiers have a safe and fun experience,” he said. “Guests can’t have fun unless they are safe. These accidents happen. We do everything we are required to do by state laws and more to make sure our guests are safe.”
Savannah Cowley, media and public relations manager at Squaw Valley, said getting on and off chairlifts can be dangerous.
“I do know that accidents having to do with lifts have to do with loading and unloading and not falling off,” Cowley said.
Cowley said safety bars can give skiers and snowboarders a false sense of security.
“You can still slide off the chairlift with the bar down,” she said. “I think that with people who have vertigo and don’t like heights, it makes them feel more secure.”
Cowley said she supports riders using safety bars. “I think it’s great to have the bar available to use,” she said. “We ask our guests to put the bar down.”
Cowley said it’s a personal choice whether people want to use the bar. “Some people don’t put the bar down on the windiest day on the highest chairlift,” she said.
Lt. Les Lovell of the El Dorado Sheriff’s Office said that as a whole, skiing and snowboarding are dangerous sports.
“Skiing is inherently dangerous,” Lovell said. “When you have speed, ice issues and obstacles such as trees or other people, it’s a dangerous sport.”
Lovell said ski resorts use precautions with chairlifts. “By using safety devices that ski resorts use and taking personal safety precautions, chances of significant injury are lessened,” he said.
According to a National Ski Area Association fact sheet, 12 deaths have been attributed to ski lifts in the United States since 1973. During that time, the industry provided more than 12.89 billion lift rides and transported guests 6.45 billion miles, according to the fact sheet.
California Ski and Snowboard Safety Organization co-founder Stan Gale said skiers and snowboarders can’t rely on the snow beneath them to prevent injuries or death.
“Chairlift safety is independent of snow surface,” Gale said. “Falling into fluffy snow may not save you.”
Gale also said chairlifts periodically pass over nongroomed areas with rocks and other hazards, so fresh powder may just hide dangers beneath. Gale added that safety bars are important features on chairlifts.
“With the bar in front of you to hold onto when the wind is blowing, the bar is an important device for chairlift safety,” Gale said. “I’d like to see all chairlifts have restraining bars. People lean onto them. The rider assumes responsibility to ride the chairlift properly.”