TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — In a study spanning a decade, the National Ski Areas Association recently found that more than 90 percent of all falls from a chairlift were attributed to human error or medical conditions, while 2 percent were the result of mechanical or operator error.
Simply put, practicing ski and snowboard safety is not only important when one is descending down the mountain; it’s essential when one is on his or her way up.
Chairlift safety is an integral function of ski resort operations, and many have initiatives in place to further educate riders.
Nevertheless, incidents happen — an unfortunate fact that has recently reared its head in the Truckee-Tahoe region.
On Saturday, Jan. 2, an 8-year-old Northern California girl was injured after she fell roughly 40 feet from the Big Blue Express chairlift at Squaw Valley Ski Resort.
According to Squaw, the girl wore a helmet, but the restraint bar on the chair wasn’t used; further, her mother was with her on the lift when she fell.
A day later, no one was hurt when an unoccupied chair fell from the downhill line on the North Bowl chairlift at Heavenly Mountain Resort on Tahoe’s South Shore. Ski patrol safely unloaded all 65 stranded guests using a rope-aided evacuation techniques.
“Any time there is an incident, especially in Tahoe, we’re very sorry to see that,” said Paul Raymore, marketing manager at Diamond Peak Ski Resort in Incline Village. “It serves as a reminder to pay attention to all the safety aspects, and make sure they are riding the chair safely.”
Dos and don’ts of riding a chairlift
First and foremost, Raymore said, being attentive while loading, riding and unloading a chairlift is the most crucial facet.
According to KidsOnLifts.org, a website Raymore recommends as a resource, while waiting to load the chair, skiers should take ski pole straps off their wrists and snowboarders should check to make sure the leash is attached.
“If you’ve never ridden a lift before, don’t just skate right up and jump on,” Raymore said. “Watch how other people are approaching the lift.”
If one is still unsure what to do, Raymore said riders should ask lift operators for assistance, adding, “they’re there to help — they can slow the lift down, if needed.”
Specifically, one should always grab the chair as it approaches — there are “wait here” and “load here” markers in the chairlift line — and sit firmly in the chair as far back as possible, facing forward. Once properly seated, lower the safety bar, also known as a restraint bar, letting fellow riders know it’s being lowered, and don’t lean forward.
Raymore also stressed that sitting still — meaning, don’t squirm in the chair, swing legs or clap skis together — is important to remember.
“We really discourage any kind of horseplay,” he added. “We take chairlift safety seriously every day of our operation, and strive to have zero accidents.”
The Safety bar
Keep in mind, though, not all chairlifts are equipped with safety bars. Moreover, just because a lift has a safety bar doesn’t mean one is immune from falling out of the chair.
In fact, the aforementioned NSAA study concluded that 71 percent of all falls actually occurred on chairlifts with a safety bar — meaning only 29 percent were on chairs without a safety bar — further exemplifying the fact that human error is typically the contributing factor in most incidents.
“Each chairlift is different,” said Brinn Talbot, director of marketing at Tahoe Donner. “It is important that all riders are aware of the chairlift they are getting on and how to get on and off.”
Many ski resorts, such as Tahoe Donner, recommend that first time skiers and snowboarders take a lesson for enhanced education on not only skiing and snowboarding, but also chairlift riding.
Tahoe Donner even has a practice chair located near its Snowbird lift.
“Tahoe Donner is known as ‘the best place to begin’ so we focus heavily on safety and education to all our guests,” Talbot said.
Talbot also said that children riding along are encouraged to load on the inside chair near the lift operators.
Notably, many resorts — like Tahoe Donner and Diamond Peak — recommend that all children 51 inches and under ride a chairlift with an adult.
Unloading a chair
Lastly, in preparation to unload a chairlift, one should keep the tips of their skis up. Also, check for loose clothing and equipment.
Next, gently raise the safety bar, if there is one. At the “unload here” marker, stand up as the flat unloading platform beings to ramp downward. Then, glide down the ramp and away from the chair, making sure to keep the unloading ramp clear for others to use.