Two years after a Texas woman was thrown from a chairlift and killed at Granby Ranch, Colorado has not put in place safety recommendations listed in a state investigation of her death.
The process has been slow and quiet, with the first proposals for change expected late this spring. The Colorado Tramway Safety Board, working behind the scenes with a group of committees, would not give an interview for this story but a spokesman said the board would seek public comment on any proposed changes later this year.
The committees formed last summer — a year and a half after Kelly Huber and her two young daughters were tossed off the Quick Draw Express lift — and include experts in electrical work, drive and cable operations and chairlift design. Their recommendations could impact not only Colorado regulations, but will go to the American National Standards Institute for consideration.
A wrongful death lawsuit against the ski area is ongoing, though a state investigation released about four months after Huber’s death concluded that problems with the drive system that moved the lift’s cable, as well as rapid speed changes, caused the chair to swing into a tower and the three passengers to fall to the ground.
It was the first fatality caused by a malfunctioning chairlift in Colorado since a 1985 death at Keystone and the first nationally since a 1993 death at California’s Sierra Ski Ranch, according to the National Ski Areas Association.
The Colorado Sun reviewed Colorado Tramway Safety Board inspections for 2018, released under public records laws, to better understand how the state ensures chairlifts are operating safely. The board conducts unannounced annual inspections of chairlifts, gondolas and rope tows that carry people at ski hills, over gorges and at other attractions including the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and Water World.
The inspection documents revealed a thorough process detailed enough to require ski resorts to remove trees too close to certain chairs, buy new armrests and replace a specific screw on the rung of a ladder. While there were no violations serious enough to shutter a lift for long, hundreds of safety recommendations were made to ski resorts last year.
Only one 2018 inspection noted “unreasonable safety hazards” concerning enough to result in a closure, and it was a brief one.
Chapman Hill, a small, city-run operation in Durango, voluntarily shut down its “Big Tow” lift after a January 2018 inspection said a bullwheel had failed and the rope tension was out of whack. It turned out the issue on the historic, 70-year-old lift was related to water on the rope, and the lift was opened the next day.
The inspection also noted the tow attendant “walked away from the controls” while the lift was open to the public. The hill’s “Little Tow” had no mechanical issues, but the “operator was listening to earbuds and not paying attention to the tow,” the inspector wrote. “He didn’t even realize that I had stopped the lift by hitting the safety gate.”
“In no way was the rope tow causing harm to people,” recreation supervisor Matt Morrissey said. “Big Tow is very safe to ride and staff works hard to make sure all customers using the hill are safe.”
Chapman Hill was not the only ski operation where state inspectors were critical of lift operators or their training.
At Breckenridge, an inspector noted a lift operator “could not identify the service brake, yet he had signed off on the preoperational inspection of the service brake.” Another lift operator during the February inspection “could not describe or identify the haul rope splice” yet had performed the preoperational line inspection.
Crested Butte was told its ski patrol needed to practice a nighttime lift evacuation.
And at Hesperus Ski Area in southwest Colorado, inspectors wrote that only four people with evacuation training were working the day Hesperus was inspected and two of them were riding up a chairlift together. Regulations require a minimum of three people trained in lift evacuation on the ground at all times.
The Hesperus inspection report also noted lift operators need to review their “responsibilities during a high-wind event.” Operators should “clearly understand that they are responsible to slow and stop the lift when normal operation is in question.”
Beaver Creek Resort got a written lecture on “good housekeeping” after an inspector found trash on the floor of a guard shack. Crested Butte was told to “investigate the clunking noise on the heavy side of tower #2” and repair as necessary.
An inspector told Copper Mountain to have its ski patrol practice evacuating gondola cabins. At Telluride, the resort was told to clear several trees near Sunshine Express, specifically identified with descriptions including “one dead spruce tree near tower #26 on the down-going side of the lift.”
The Funhouse Express Gondola at Water World in Federal Heights needed new windows and repairs to a structural cross brace.
And at Granby Ranch, the lift that malfunctioned in December 2016 resulting in Huber’s death had no deficiencies aside from an unreadable identification number on a tower.
The lift passed inspection ahead of the 2016 ski season and was load-tested about three weeks before Huber’s death, according to the Tramway Safety Board’s report released in May 2017. The 151-page report included 10 recommendations to improve safety, including more detailed testing and the installation of a “black box” on chairlifts that could record stops and speed changes.
That report has served as a blueprint for the ongoing review by the board’s expert committees.
Colorado ski resorts are required to report chairlift falls to the Tramway Safety Board, which counted 67 falls resulting in injury from January 2014 to October 2018, the latest numbers available. None of those falls was attributed to lift-operator error, according to board spokesman Lee Rasizer.
The vast majority of the falls — 63 out of 67 — were coded by the board as “skier error.” The four remaining falls, including Huber’s, listed the cause as “other” or “unknown.”
The data parallels with a 10-year analysis by the National Ski Areas Association, a trade organization based in Lakewood. A ski lift passenger is “five times more likely to suffer a fatality riding an elevator than a ski lift and more than eight times more likely to suffer a fatality riding in a car,” the association wrote in a 2017 report.
The Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board will invite public comment on the recommendations after the committees complete their work, said Rasizer, public information officer for the state Division of Professions and Occupations, which includes the tramway board.
Each committee is focused on a different type of lift or operation — from the drives that propel lifts uphill, to fixed-grip chairlifts and detachable ones. And the groups include engineers, state inspectors and ski area personnel from across Colorado.
The review is time-consuming because of the multitude of different types of chairlifts used in Colorado, each with varied equipment, Rasizer said via email. The board could make changes regarding design, operations or control systems.
Each tramway in Colorado is inspected a minimum of two times per year, and one inspection must happen without advance notice. In the fall, inspectors check mechanical and electrical systems. And in the winter, they make surprise visits to observe the lifts and lift operators.
New lifts — such as gondolas that opened this season at Copper Mountain and Winter Park Resort — also go through “load testing” at 110 percent of capacity before they can open to the public. Inspections of new lifts can take four or five days, Rasizer said.
Copper Mountain’s new American Flyer lift went through 50 hours of testing before it was licensed, he said. During the resort’s own testing in November, prior to state inspection, a gondola cab dropped to the ground, lighting up social media and news reports.
The state employs a tramway engineer who supervises seven inspectors.
The board is “the gold standard in the U.S. for lift inspections and lift safety,” said Melanie Mills, president of Colorado Ski Country USA. “Ski areas in Colorado take guest safety extremely seriously and we are proud of our exemplary record on lift safety.”