Forest Service: Ski area followed safety rules in chairlift incident

The Mount Ashland ski area followed safety rules after an empty chair was torn off at the top of the Ariel ski lift, a U.S. Forest Service engineer who oversees ski lifts in Oregon and Washington said on Monday.

Buffeted by winds on Dec. 23, the chair tangled in a guide cable or ice on the cable and was ripped from the haul rope that carries chairs on the ski lift, ski area General Manager Kim Clark said.

The incident worried some mountain users who wondered why the Ariel lift remained in operation that day, and whether skiers should have been evacuated off the lift.

But Marcos Romero, regional ropeway engineer for the Forest Service, said Mount Ashland personnel followed all safety measures.

At about 10:45 a.m. Dec. 23, the chair was blown by wind and hit a guide cable or ice near the area where skiers get off chairs and the chairs rotate around to begin their descent down the mountain, according to Mount Ashland logs.

The ski lift operator pulled the fallen chair out of the way and did a visual inspection of the haul rope, which is covered in metal cables. Seeing no damage, the operator ran the ski lift to get the empty spot on the haul rope down to the bottom of the Ariel lift, ski area logs said.

Mount Ashland's lift maintenance workers then slowed and stopped the Ariel lift to conduct their own visual examination of the haul rope. Seeing no damage, they allowed the lift to continue operating, ski area logs said.

"What's required is a visual inspection," Romero said.

He said if enough strands were damaged to harm the structure of the haul rope, that would have been visible from the outside.

During windy weather, he said empty chairs can sometimes start swinging in a figure-eight pattern. On rare occasions, they can catch on something at the top or bottom of a ski lift and be torn free, he said.

"It's not common, but it's not uncommon," Romero said, noting that in his two years on the job, chairs have been torn off of ski lifts twice before in the region.

Clark said in his six years at Mount Ashland's helm, chairs have come off at the ski area twice.

"Both times, they were empty. It's virtually impossible for a chair to come off when it's full," he said.

An empty chair that starts swinging needs to catch on a structure in order to be pulled off, he said.

Safety features keep chairs from swinging into towers when they are high in the air, and the weight of skiers in occupied chairs minimizes swinging, Romero and Clark said.

For added safety, ski lifts are halted when winds are strong enough, Romero said. On Dec. 24, the Ariel lift was on hold because of high winds.

Logs show that Mount Ashland personnel used a de-tensioner to push the haul rope together where the chair had come out, which caused the rope and its cables to spread out. They were able to look at the interior of the haul rope, at each cable strand, and see that none were broken. Workers then installed a new chair in the empty spot.

They needed to use the de-tensioner to install a new chair anyway, but inspecting the inside of the haul rope and its cables was an added safety step that Mount Ashland workers were not required to take, Romero said.

"They don't have to use the de-tensioner at all, but it was good to do that," he said. "I'm confident in the Mount Ashland crew. They are well-versed in inspections. They know what to look for when a chair comes out."

Clark said if workers had seen damage to the haul rope, the ski area would have called in its licensed, certified rope repair man, who lives in Missouri. He said the ski area also would have evacuated people off the chairlift if that had been necessary.

Clark said because there was no damage, the ski area was not required to report the incident to its insurance company or the Forest Service regional ski lift engineer.

The engineer answered questions about Mount Ashland's response to the chair lift incident at the request of the Daily Tidings, which had fielded calls from people who feared the ski area had not handled the situation safely.

Clark said the ski area did voluntarily report the chair incident to Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District Recreation Specialist Steve Johnson, who administers the ski area's permit. The ski area is on Forest Service land.

"I feel very confident that they did everything necessary to ensure public safety," Johnson said, noting that the ski area has a good safety record and follows American National Standards Institute standards for ski lift safety.

Concern about chairlift safety has risen in recent weeks after a ski lift cable derailed in Maine in December, causing five chairs to fall 30 feet to the ground. Eight people were treated at hospitals.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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