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It’s many skiers’ worst nightmare that they get stuck on a ski lift, late in the afternoon without any sign of rescue. We’ve all experienced the odd stoppage but luckily on very rare occasions, breakdowns do occur a well-rehearsed evacuation plan swings into action.
As part of their health and safety planning, all ski resorts need a trained procedure to rescue skiers from ski lifts in the event of a breakdown. The rescue team lowers skiers on a rope, one at a time, down from the chairlift using a seat and a harness.
Why Do Ski Lifts Break Down?
In most resorts now ski lifts are powered using electric motors, which drive a large metal wheel in the ski station housing. A thick steel cable runs around this wheel and is attached to the ski lift chairs.
As a backup power source, diesel generators are often used. They tend to be more efficient and reliable but have higher emissions than electric motors.
Tip: There are different reasons that a ski lift might malfunction and for each one there is often a backup system that will enable the lift to keep working. For example, if there is a power cut, the lift engineers can simply start the backup diesel engines to keep the lift working.
It would be unlikely that a power cut and then a problem with the diesel engine would bring the lift to a halt. Occasionally, mechanical problems are associated with the wheel, cable, and any other associated part of the lift system.
Failures such as this are more problematic, as damage to the mechanism may occur during the failure, or delayed specialist spare parts may be required to mend it.
The lift mechanics will have the experience to know if they can use an alternative power source or make a repair. If either of these is not a practical solution, then the chairlift cannot operate.
It is the responsibility of the lift mechanics to make a quick and accurate assessment of the situation. Many skiers will be stranded on the lifts during this time, which quickly becomes more stressful the longer the situation carries on.
When The Lift Engineers Can’t Get The Lift Going Again. What Happens?
Ski patrol teams are required to regularly run refresher training plans concerning lift breakdowns. These include how to liaise with lift engineers and how to evacuate skiers from the chairlifts.
Advice: A lift breakdown in any resort is a major incident needing the rescue plan to swing into action. The dedicated rescue staff will know their role, but additional resort staff may also be requisitioned to help.
The training sessions are often scheduled to take place in poor weather conditions. This is so the rescue personnel is experienced for all eventualities in the event of a real rescue.
It’s important the rescue staff are competent, as for stranded skiers the experience can be stressful, so prompt rescue is important for them and the reputation of the resort.
How Does A Ski Lift Evacuation Work?
There are different techniques for evacuating skiers from ski lifts, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages. The first involves climbing the closest ski lift tower and attaching a rescuer, a harness that attaches to the main cable and can be slid across to the evacuee, enabling them to lower themselves to the ground.
The traditional method (below) involves throwing a rope, either by hand or using an explosive charge, to which a chair is attached, and the evacuee lowered.
Process For Evacuation:
1. Ski patrol HQ receives notification from the engineers on the broken lift that it will be out of action for some time.
2. The ski patrol team alerts their rescue teams for rescue, giving information about the location and likely numbers involved.
3. Separate rescue teams head for each section of the lift between two towers where passengers are stranded. Each team consists of a ‘talker’, who communicates with the person to be rescued, a ‘belayer’ who coordinates the lift chair, and a backup ‘belayer’, for additional assistance.
4. One ski patroller skis from the top to the bottom of the ski lift reassuring passengers that help is on its way.
5. The rescue team positioned themselves below the first chair to be evacuated. A long rope with a ball on the end (the lead line) is swung around and released so it flies up and over the haul cable (the thick steel cable the ski lift chairs hang from).
6. A simple chair attached to the lead line is positioned close to the evacuee so that he can slide onto it and place the attached harness over his head for safety. The talker controls a separate thinner rope which is attached to the chair, to stop it from spinning.
7. The talker tells the evacuee to raise the safety bar on the lift and push off from the chairlift with one hand while holding the lead line with his other. The belayer controls the descent of the evacuee and spins him as he approaches the snow, so his skis are across the fall line.
8. With the lead line still in place subsequent evacuees can follow the same procedure to escape.
Important: If reading this article has raised your stress levels take comfort from this statistic from the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) ‘There has only been one fatality resulting from a chairlift malfunction since 1993, nearly a 30-year period.’