How safe are Colorado’s chairlifts?

Chairlift deaths are very rare, but an investigation by Outside magazine year raised questions about current regulations.

staff photo

Investigators are still working to determine why a Texas woman and her two daughters fell from a chairlift at Ski Granby Ranch. The lift was shut down after the incident, which killed the woman and injured her children, just to make sure everything was working properly.

Chairlift deaths are very rare, but an investigation by Outside magazine earlier this year raised questions about how well regulated this often aging equipment is.


(Dondy Razon/Flickr)

Evocatively titled, “Is your local chairlift a death trap?” and featuring an even more evocative photo illustration, the magazine found that roughly half of the nation’s chair lifts are 35 years or older, an age at which it makes more sense to install new chairlifts instead of continuing to repair old ones. Yet many ski areas can’t afford that expense.

The Denver Post has a summary of chairlift deaths and major injuries in Colorado over the last few decades:

The last chairlift fall death in Colorado is believed to have occurred in 2002.

According to an October report by the NSAA, the last death on a chairlift attributed to a malfunction was in 1993. As of the 2015-16 ski season, the annual fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled on ski lifts was 0.14.

In 1976, two cars from Vail’s 7-year-old gondola – each carrying six skiers – plummeted 125 feet, killing four people in one of the most deadly lift incidents in the United States. In 1985, a bullwheel at Keystone Resort failed, sending waves down the line that threw 60 people off the Teller Lift, two of whom later died from their injuries.

In April 2009, a Rhode Island man with no significant medical history died after losing consciousness on a chairlift in Breckenridge. Attempts to revive him at the top of the lift were unsuccessful.

In January, a skier pushed a snowboarder off an Aspen Highlands chairlift. Thomas Proesel, who was accused of first-degree assault in the case, was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The snowboarder was not seriously hurt.

Colorado is actually one of the better states for monitoring chairlift safety. According to Outside magazine, Colorado is one of just a few states that require resorts to report injuries from lift falls.

“In the past five years, 74 people were injured falling from lifts in that state, according to numbers provided to Outside by the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board. The agency classified three of those as the lift operator’s fault.”

Colorado is also one of just nine states with a tramway safety board that either conducts inspections or hires contractors to do so.

“Colorado is the only state to go so far as to conduct unannounced inspections on every lift every year,”According to Liftblog. “CPTSB has three full-time staff members and eight contract inspectors.”

The question raised by Outside is whether we’re doing enough to make sure chairlifts remain safe. The whole thing is worth a read.