This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Existing members, click here to learn how to upgrade)
A growing chorus of parents with skiing kids are urging Colorado lawmakers to add teeth to the legislation renewing the Colorado Passenger Tramway Board into 2030, asking that the panel be given broader leeway to safeguard the state’s chairlifts.
With the recent injury of a 6-year-old girl who fell from a chairlift at Eldora and the death of a Texas mom who was thrown from a chairlift at Granby Ranch in 2016, ski safety advocates and parents like Larisa Wilder are pressing lawmakers give the board that governs chairlift safety more oversight in tracking lift-caused injuries and disciplining ski resorts that fail to meet safety standards.
“What we are really asking for for the parent community is safety for our kids. More safety bars. Better training,” said Wilder, who hopes her group, Parents For Safe Skiing, can grow into a consumer agency promoting chairlift safety.
Wilder, a Boulder parent with a 5-year-old son who takes lessons at Eldora Mountain Resort, testified last week before the Colorado Senate’s Local Government Committee as it studied the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies sunset review of the tramway board. She supported DORA’s recommendation that legislation reauthorizing the board for another 11 years drop the requirement that the most serious discipline of lift operators requires proof of “willful and wanton” misconduct. She also urged the lawmakers to require lift operators to record injuries during loading and unloading, not just falls from chairlifts.
Wilder was told her requests were beyond the scope of DORA’s sunset review.
“This is so infuriating I can hardly breathe when I say this: Ski resorts only report falls that result in injuries that happen outside the loading and unloading zone. The way they define injury is it requires immediate attention, so ski patrol has to be called. Then they report to us that chairlifts are so safe because they have these statistics that show so few injuries. But they are limiting their data so significantly,” Wilder said. “The loading and unloading is the most dangerous and everyone knows that and it’s especially dangerous for children. So include the loading and unloading and gather real data and then we can talk legislation.”
Last fall, DORA’s sunset review of the tramway board, which oversees 378 passenger chairlift licenses in Colorado, noted 542 incidents on those lifts and tramways between the 2012-13 season and the 2016-17 season. The board identified 9,474 deficiencies during 3,876 inspections in that five-season span and took a total of 20 disciplinary actions, 16 of which were “letters of admonition.” The board collected $5,500 in fines from operators who violated rules in those seasons.
The previous sunset review of the board, in 2007, noted that 3,621 inspections yielded 8,891 deficiencies and 18 disciplinary actions for the five seasons from 2001-02 to 2005-06. In that review DORA recommended three largely administrative changes that would help resorts more easily file paperwork showing how they fixed problems identified in inspections.
Like DORA’s 2007 analysis, last fall’s review supported legislators renewing the board for another 11 years. But this year the agency recommended a more substantial amendment, calling to remove the provision that requires the board to prove “willful and wanton misconduct” when disciplining a lift operator.
“Doing so will enable the board to take disciplinary action, when necessary, if a licensee is negligent in the operation or maintenance of a passenger tramway, regardless of whether the act was ‘willful or wanton,’ which will serve to strengthen the statute and enhance consumer protection,” reads DORA’s sunset review recommendation.
The removal of “willful or wanton” did not make the legislation renewing the tramway board.
The reworded bill is supported by Colorado Ski Country, the trade group that lobbies for a majority of the ski resorts in Colorado. Melanie Mills, the longtime head of Ski Country, said the tramway board, which formed in 1965 and is widely recognized as a national model, “is the gold standard of state tramway safety authorities.” She pointed to the board’s incorporation of 59-year-old federal aerial tramway standards along with its inspections as sharing credit with the industry “for the outstanding safety record of traveling via lift or passenger tramway.”
“With an estimated 100 million to 120 million lift rides per season in Colorado, it’s the safest form of transportation we know of,” Mills said. “The board should be reauthorized as proposed in the bill. It works.”
A wrongful death lawsuit against Granby Ranch is ongoing after a state investigation into the death Kelly Huber, the San Antonio mother who fell to her death. The investigation found that problems with the drive system that powered the lift played a role in sudden speed changes that caused the chairlift Huber was riding with her two children to strike a tower, throwing them to the ground. It was the first death caused by a Colorado chairlift since 1985.
On Feb. 24, a 6-year-old girl was injured after falling from Eldora’s Sundance lift while she was in a lesson. There was no adult with her on the chair, which did not have a safety bar. Two parents of 5-year-olds taking lessons at Eldora — Wilder and Leigh Fiske — launched an online petition asking the resort to install safety bars on all chairlifts and to require an adult to ride with all ski school students age 6 and younger. The petition has been signed by more than 1,000 people in the last two weeks.
Eldora has not changed the policy that holds kids 6 and younger — or 48-inches tall or shorter — will ride with an adult “when adults are available.” Eldora spokesman Sam Bass said since the accident the resort has increased the number of adults at lower mountain lifts and instructors are working “extra hard” to make sure kids don’t ride alone on the chair. Younger students wear bright safety vests with straps on the backs so lift operators and instructors can help with loading the chair.
“We’ve always tried very hard to make sure those kids ride with adults, but we cannot guarantee they will in every instance,” Bass said.
Wilder said her son, who has weekend lessons at Eldora, has not ridden the chair without an adult since the accident and many of her fellow parents of Eldora ski-school kids say the same.
“I think it was hard for the parent community to realize that what Eldora was doing — letting kids under 6 ride without an adult — was totally legal,” said Wilder, whose husband grew up skiing at the Boulder County resort. “That was super frustrating. But Eldora has responded so well. Whatever they are saying about policy, it doesn’t look like any little kids are riding chairs without adults anymore.”
Jim Chalat joined the group of parents in lobbying for amendments to the board’s authorizing legislation. He’s an attorney who has long represented skiers injured at resorts. His arguments often blast the ski resort industry’s reliance on waivers, which just about every skier must sign to secure a season pass or even a day lift ticket.
Chalat sent a letter to lawmakers weighing the renewal of the tramway board asking them to consider an amendment that rejects ski resorts’ liability-waiver requirements. Chalat argues that waivers that release a resort from liability in the case of an accident undermine safety systems imposed by both the tramway board and the Colorado Ski Safety Act, both of which require resorts to assume some responsibility for safety.
“Ski areas are claiming they have no liability and they have blanket immunity because of a waiver somebody signed. That’s pretty much typical in every ski accident case,” Chalat said. “In any claim against a ski area, now you are confronted with a waiver that resorts say gives them absolute immunity, even from the duties outlined in the Colorado Ski Safety Act. It’s like taking on the tobacco industry or the gun lobby.”