More Dogs on Main Street
March 11, 2006
When you read the ski magazines’ ratings of resorts, there are categories for almost everything. Food, lodging, convenience of getting on the hill, snow conditions, grooming, terrain — the list goes on and on. Conspicuously absent is a rating for lifts. If there is any mention of lifts at all, it would be along the lines of "and they added three new lifts in the last couple of seasons accessing " Or occasionally you would come across a mention that the fixed-grip double chairs were becoming quaint, which was certainly the case with Alta before the recent upgrade. But conspicuously absent from any ratings of consumer comments or industry rankings is any mention of lift reliability and safety.
We take it for granted. Ski lifts are pretty complicated pieces of machinery, especially the modern detachable systems. They run for hours under the control of some seasonal employee who closed the No-Name Saloon the night before. Routine maintenance gets done after closing, in the middle of a frigid winter night, with the big overhaul stuff done in the summer months. It’s actually pretty unusual to see a lift maintenance guy climbing a tower during business hours. I’m sure they are there, in the motor houses and checking things out, but basically, ski lifts work. Throw something as unpredictable as tourists from Florida loading and unloading into the mix, and it’s really amazing that they work at all.
When you look at them, the potential for terrible things to happen is huge. But terrible things don’t happen. Cables don’t snap, flinging skiers through the air. Chairs don’t spontaneously fall off the cable. When something like that does happen, which is extremely rare, it sends ripples through the industry, and usually results in a resort going under. I remember years ago that Solitude had a chair clamp come loose and let a chair slide backwards down the cable into the chair behind it. There were pretty serious injuries, and the end result was the resort changed hands. In the darkest days of ParkWest, the oldest lifts were beset by clanks and rattles, and stopped in the slightest breeze. Every time the lift stopped, the assumption was that Utah Power had pulled the plug. Again, a change in ownership solved it.
But in the end, ski lifts are so remarkably reliable and safe as a means of transportation that we never give it a second thought. When something does break, it’s a big deal.
That’s what makes PCMR’s sorry experience with the gear-grinding six-packs so unusual. They are now four-for-four when it comes to self-destructing gear boxes. Fortunately, the problems are more in the line of annoyance than safety. The patrol and other employees have become quite expert at rope evacuations of the immobilized chairs. While it wouldn’t be any fun to be stuck up there for a couple of hours, nobody was exposed to any serious danger, and it will provide lots of good cocktail party stories when they go home.
The maintenance crew at PCMR was able to use McConkey’s as a spare parts bin and get Pay Day back in operation in a couple of days. That had to be a huge effort. McConkey’s is still down, but getting Pay Day open was far more important. The employees at PCMR deserve a lot of credit for the way they dealt with the whole situation, from the evacuation to re-routing morning traffic up the other alternate lifts, to getting Pay Day patched and back in business very quickly. It has to have been a very tough time for them, and they pulled it off smoothly.
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But, and there’s always a "but" in these situations, it’s pretty obvious that there is a design or engineering flaw in the six-pack lifts. All four of them don’t fail in the same way, at about the same point in their lives, by coincidence. A representative from the manufacturer told The Park Record last week that their lifts are "100 percent safe, 110 percent safe." He’s right — there is nothing much safer than an immobilized hunk of steel. But are they a reliable means of transporting skiers up the mountain? Umm, maybe they are 50 percent reliable, 40 percent reliable — well, at least nobody died.
The oldest of the six-packs is Silverlode, now in its 10th year. The others date from 1997 and 1998. I don’t know what the reasonable life span of a lift is supposed to be. Jupiter has been there since the mid-1970s, and if I remember right, Thaynes was rebuilt about the same time. Those have surely undergone routine replacement of stuff that wears, just like replacing belts, hoses, water pumps and stuff on your car as the miles add up. Still, they are 30 years old and don’t leave people dangling in the air. But having the transmission grind itself into shavings seems like something that shouldn’t happen at all, ever, let alone early in the lifecycle.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter how lively the nightlife, how zesty the salad dressing, or how smooth the grooming is. In the end, it’s all about the lifts. When a resort is charging $75 a day, the customers have every right to demand safe, reliable lifts. And when the resort pays $4 or $6 million for one of these things, they have every right to demand that the manufacturer provide equipment that doesn’t self-destruct without warning. Doppelmayr-CTEC has delivered a 100-percent failure rate. Not even the Chevy Vega was that bad. As Ricky said to Lucy, "You got some ‘splaining to do."
In the meantime, all of the six-pack chairs are being retrofitted. They are installing a St. Christopher medallion on each of the safety bars.