Not So Happy: Reopening Spout Springs Just Got Tougher

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The Happy chair at Spout Springs, Oregon seen May 28th, 2017 after a rough winter not operating.
I was expecting a typical recently-lost ski area scene as I drove toward Northeastern Oregon this morning.  Located in the Blue Mountains where Idaho, Oregon and Washington converge, Spout Spring Ski Area once featured three Hall lifts: two doubles and a T-Bar. When I arrived at the first lift, called Echo, I was pleasantly surprised at the shape it was in, looking as if it had operated this season with ANSI signs neatly stacked and chairs flipped.  After all, it has only been 15 months since these lifts hauled skiers.

Next I rounded the corner to the base-to-summit Happy double, which looked anything but happy.  Surveying the scene above, I instantly assumed vandals had somehow knocked over the building that houses the 1965 double chair’s bottom drive bullwheel.  But another clue was all around me.  The massive snow load from this winter in the Blue Mountains was probably too much for the almost 55-year old building to handle.  Not only did it fall on top of the terminal, wood got hung up in a chair which bent like a pretzel and caused the light side to de-rope in two places.

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The Echo double is the only lift at Spout Springs remaining in operable condition. Its bottom terminal building is similar to the one that fell on the Happy chair this winter.
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Granby Ranch Investigation Report Released

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The Quickdraw lift at Granby Ranch, Colorado is a 1999 Leitner detachable quad where a “rare dynamic event” last December caused a a chair to contact this tower, killing one and injuring two children.

The Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board released its 151-page final report on last December’s fatal accident at Granby Ranch this afternoon.  The investigative team included seven professional engineers with more than 250 years of combined lift experience with support from Leitner-Poma and Granby Ranch personnel, among others. The team conducted extensive tests on the Quickdraw lift from the afternoon of the accident through January 5th and spent months writing this detailed analysis, identifying contributing factors and making recommendations for changes.  Appendices include witness statements, photographs and prior inspection reports but the core of the document is 13 pages which everyone who works on ski lifts should read.  I’ve done my best to summarize below.

Chair 58 contacted tower 5 at a 40-degree angle that morning due to two contributing factors.  The first was the tuning of a new drive installed last Fall by an independent contractor.  Two specific parameters may have created pulses of energy and rope instability, the report notes.  “It is probable that the combined effect of [these two settings] may have resulted in the drive trying to respond too aggressively to lift demands when changing from ‘Fast’ to ‘Slow’ and back to ‘Fast’ again.”  The second contributing factor was the influence of one or more speed changes leading up to the incident.

Other potential contributing factors were:

  • Control system complexity resulting from the new ABB DCS800 drive’s interface with older Pilz/Leitner low-voltage controls.
  • A control board replacement from February 2016.
  • Possible damage to the electric motor encoder.
  • Unknown electrical cycle shown in data logs that had occurred at a 3.7 second interval over the entire life of the lift.
  • Tension factor(s) that would require more testing to determine.
  • Natural instability of the profile.  “There appears to have been a very unique combination of rope tension, carrier spacing, tower spans, tower height, carrier loading and natural carrier movement that led to the transverse carrier swing that resulted in Carrier 58 hitting Tower 5,” the document states.
  • Natural harmonic response of the haul rope.

Wind was not found to be an outside influence, nor was passenger conduct.  “The incident that occurred on December 29th, 2016 at Granby Ranch was unprecedented,” the investigative team wrote.  “Although many factors may have combined to amplify the effect of the rope instability leading to Carrier 58 colliding with Tower 5, the performance of the new drive is considered to be the primary cause of the incident.”  The report explains electronic drives such as the DCS800 added to Quickdraw last year and used on many lifts are also used in a wide variety of other applications.  The tuning and “fine-tuning” of a drive is complex and unique to each application and lift.  “It appears the new drive was not comprehensively tuned to this particular lift during installation,” the document says.

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Loveland Closes Two Yan Lifts for Unspecified Repairs of Similar Issue

Loveland Ski Area has closed its two oldest chairlifts – Lifts 1 and 6 – following discovery of similar problems at each.  Lift 6 is a 1977 Lift Engineering double chair that closed in the middle of the day on Sunday, January 15th due to a problem at the top terminal.  Lift 1 is a 1981 Lift Engineering triple that operated until an inspection found the early stages of a similar issue today (interestingly, Lift 1 opened as a double chair before being upgraded with larger chairs a few years later.)

“We are dedicated to safe lift operations and have decided to close Lift 1 to immediately perform the necessary repairs,” Loveland said in a statement this evening.

While Loveland’s social media posts do not specify what is wrong, they say repairs to Chair 1 should take about two days with Lift 6 taking longer.  Both chairs are bottom drive/bottom tension, so the list of things that could go wrong up top is limited.  In the meantime, the mountain is offering $51 discounted tickets.

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Update 1/20/17:

Quickdraw at Granby Ranch to Reopen Following “Rare Dynamic Event”

For the first time in 24 years (and post-Lift Engineering) an electrical or mechanical problem has led to a fatality on an American ski lift.  The Quickdraw quad at Granby Ranch will re-open Tuesday after the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board reached an interim operation agreement with the ski area.  The news comes almost two weeks after the December 29th accident, in which a mother and her two daughters fell from a chair.  Unfortunately, the agreement notes that a “rare dynamic event” due to issues with the electronic drive/control system caused the riders’ fall. Environmental factors, weather and/or rider behavior were not to blame.

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A chair struck this tower Dec. 29, 2016, causing three members of a Texas family to fall 25 feet.  One died.

The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, which oversees the tramway board, conducted extensive testing in addition to interviewing witnesses and engineers over the past 10 days.  Mother Kelly Huber and her two children were riding chair number 58 when it came into contact with tower 5 due to irregular line dynamics.  The lift had been load tested less than four weeks prior, on Dec. 5th.

The operation agreement with the CPTSB is stringent.  Quickdraw’s electronic drive must be disconnected (this particular lift has two diesels – auxiliary and evacuation.)  Lift mechanics, operators and ski patrollers all must perform a line check prior to operation each day.  Additional visual line and ground checks will be required to be documented every two hours.  For the first three days, the lift will only be permitted to move 600 feet per minute, even though the diesel auxiliary is rated for up to 900 fpm.  After two additional days at 700 fpm, Granby Ranch will be permitted to operate the lift at 800 fpm for the rest of the season.  Presumably this summer the lift will get a completely new drive.

The operation agreement is not a final report and does not identify any acts or omissions leading up to the accident, but merely outlines the conditions under which the lift can re-open.  In a press release dated today, Granby Ranch echoed its condolences to the family of the victims and affirmed its commitment to safety.  “The Quick Draw Express has been operating safely  at Granby Ranch over the 16 seasons since its installation,” the company noted. “Granby Ranch has followed all prescribed protocols in operating the lift.”

We haven’t heard the end of this one.  Hopefully the final report will provide some insight into how this type of event can be avoided in the future.

Update 1/10/17: Apparently a third-party company installed a new ABB drive last summer that ramped up and/or down too quickly, leading to the dynamic event.

Lift Safety in the Spotlight as Family Falls, Mother Dies at Granby Ranch

Tragedy struck yesterday at Granby Ranch, Colorado during what is normally a celebratory week at American ski resorts.  A 40-year old woman and her two daughters, ages 9 and 12,  fell from a chair on the Quickdraw quad at approximately 9:30 am.  Kelly Huber, of San Antonio, Texas died, while one of her children remains in stable condition at a Denver hospital.   The older sister was treated and released.  In a statement today, the resort noted, “All of us at Granby Ranch are deeply saddened by yesterday’s tragic incident at our resort. We extend our heartfelt condolences to the family of our guests. Our focus right now is on supporting those affected by this tragedy.”

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The Quickdraw detachable quad opened in 1999 and serves exclusively beginner and intermediate ski runs.

Quickdraw is one of only three Italian-built Leitner detachable chairlifts in the United States, debuting at Granby Ranch in 1999.  Leitner and Poma merged their North American operations in 2002.  While some reports indicate the lift stopped frequently before the accident, those of us who work around lifts know that is not unusual this time of year and often not due to any mechanical problem.  There’s no indication the detachable grip failed and the fourth spot on the chair was apparently empty.  Quickdraw’s chairs are equipped with both restraining bars and footrests.  The Colorado Passenger Tramway Board is investigating and Quickdraw remained closed today.

According to the NSAA, the last fatal fall from a U.S. chairlift occurred on December 18, 2011 at Sugar Bowl, when a 7-year old boy fell 60 feet.  Non-deadly falls are more common, however, with 227 reported in Colorado alone between 2001 and 2012.  86 percent of those were found to be a result of rider error, with 4 percent due to medical problems and just 2 percent attributed to operator/mechanical issues (the rest were never classified.)  Yesterday’s accident was the first deadly chairlift fall in Colorado since 2002, with 1.7 billion safe rides in the years between, according to Colorado Ski Country USA.

Nevertheless, as I write this, a family is in mourning and the story occupies the fourth spot on CNN.com.  With more holiday weeks to come, let this terrible accident be a reminder that no matter how statistically safe they are, ski lifts can become dangerous in an instant.  Already this year, we’ve seen falls from chairs at Mt. Hood MeadowsSeven Springs and Whistler with near misses at Sundance and Mt. Ashland.  Many more never make the news.  Be safe out there – especially with kids on lifts.

Sunday River Lift Severely Damaged as Terminal Falls

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A Borvig return bullwheel lies in ruin Tuesday after a strange series of events in Western Maine over the weekend. Photo Credit: Sunday River

A truly bizarre incident came to light tonight when Sunday River revealed the top terminal of its Spruce Peak Triple chairlift slid downhill and flipped on its side over the weekend. Scott Crowell, the resort’s lift maintenance manager discovered the damage on Sunday. From the pictures, it appears the foundation and return bullwheel moved together, with the tension of the lift and gravity sending the line to the ground. Thankfully, the lift does not operate in the summer and no one was injured.

According to Weather Underground, Bethel, Maine received nearly an inch of rain in the four days leading up to the discovery of the damage.  Sunday River said the lift in question was last load tested in Fall 2015.

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Photo Credit: Sunday River

Spruce Peak is one of two Borvig triples remaining at Sunday River and its second oldest lift, built in 1986.  Chairkit added a loading carpet at the bottom station in 2014.  Spruce is 4,382 feet long and rises 1,211 feet with 17 towers and 177 chairs.  In a statement, Sunday River noted, “Decisions on repairing or replacing the lift have not been made at this point and will depend on several factors, including the results of the investigation. The resort is committed to moving forward as quickly as possible.”  The mountain is working with its insurance company, Willis MountainGuard, and state investigators.  Presumably there is still time to get a brand new lift built in time for the coming 2016-2017 winter season if the order is placed soon.  Alternatively, a lift manufacturer could come in and replace just the top terminal and any damaged chairs. Continue reading

Chair Falls from Timberline’s Magic Mile

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Photo credit: Oregonlive.com

Timberline Lodge & Ski Area on Mt. Hood posted the following statement on Facebook Thursday afternoon after an empty chair fell from one of its high speed quads.

At approximately 1:45pm today there was a mechanical malfunction on the Magic Mile chair lift. A chair detached from the cable on the downhill side of the lift. The chair lift was not occupied. No customers or staff were involved in the incident. All guests were offloaded in a timely manner. The Magic Mile will be closed until further notice, pending a thorough investigation involving the lift manufacturer and a 3rd party lift engineer. Timberline Lodge thanks all guests on the lift for their patience and apologizes the inconvenience. We are compiling all details of the incident, which will be posted as soon as possible.

Poma built the Magic Mile in 1992 to replace a Riblet double.  The lift is 5,472′ long, rises 1,089′ and has Poma’s TB-41 grips. Much of this lift operates above tree line, so both its terminals are housed inside buildings that can be buttoned up during storms.  Magic Mile also has indoor parking for all its chairs and grip maintenance bays at the bottom terminal.

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The Magic Mile operates year-round serving Timberline’s summer ski operation.

Almost exactly a year ago, an empty chair fell from a Doppelmayr detachable quad at Mt. Bachelor in a similar incident which was later blamed on component failure.

Update 4/2/16: Magic Mile has re-opened and Timberline posted the following update this afternoon.

This is a communications update regarding the Magic Mile chairlift malfunction, which we reported on March 31. The lift has been inspected by an independent chairlift engineer along with representatives from the US Forest Service. It was determined that failure of a key component of a carrier grip occurred, resulting in the detachment of an empty chair on the downhill side of the lift.

RLK and Company chairlift technicians followed the recommendations of the chairlift engineer and performed comprehensive inspections and testing on the entire chairlift. It has been determined that the chairlift conforms to industry standards, and is now operating.

Update 5/1/16: We’ve learned Magic Mile’s safety systems worked as designed and this incident was a combination of component failure and operator error.

Chair Parking Barn Burns at Alyeska

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A chair parking barn adjacent to the Glacier Bowl Express smolders following an early morning fire on March 17, 2016.  Photo credit: Alyeska Resort

Alyeska got lucky early this morning when a fire broke out at the Glacier Bowl Express chair parking facility but did not spread to the lift itself.  Girdwood Fire Department and Alyeska crews responded at 5:27 am, accessing the scene by snowcat and using the mountain’s snowmaking system to fight the fire.  “We are actively investigating the cause of the fire and will know more details later today when investigators can access the scene,” said Mountain General Manger Di Whitney in a statement. “We are grateful for the speedy response and support from Girdwood Fire Department which did a fantastic job putting out the fire.”

The Glacier Bowl Express is a 2013 Doppelmayr detachable quad built to replace another high speed quad installed in 1988.  Considering the barn is at the drive station, this fire could have been much worse.  The lift’s operator house is a separate building on the other side of the terminal.  Alyeska re-opened much of the mountain at 1pm today and says it will have the Glacier Bowl Express back in action soon.

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The parking barn that burned was originally built for the Spirit of Alyeska lift which had bubble chairs for most of its life.

Update 3/25/16: GBX is still down.  Alyeska’s snow reports notes, “we have initiated a plan to resume operations of Glacier Bowl Express this season. The fire investigation and preliminary mechanical inspections have been completed, and equipment and tools to make the repairs have arrived. Experts are on site today to assist with repairs, and inspectors will be in place to confirm successful repairs and oversee the return to safe operations.”  From the below post on Instagram, it looks like the fire damaged the haul rope, requiring repair.

Getting to the core of the matter. #splicer #liftmaintenance #skiing #ak #alyeska #alaska #spiked

A post shared by Eric (@geewoodak) on

Bromont’s Lift 5 Re-Opens Tomorrow Following Fire

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A new operator house arrives from Utah. Photo credit: Ski Bromont

The Versant du Lac detachable quad at Bromont, Quebec will carry skiers tomorrow morning for the first time since Feb 3rd.  That’s when a fast-moving fire started in the bottom operator house and spread to the return terminal before being put out by firefighters with help from Bromont’s snowmakers.  The operator building housed a snowmaking compressor and lighting equipment, which may have led to the fire.  For the past three weeks, the resort has been working with Doppelmayr to get the lift back in service as quickly as possible despite the lack of snow in Quebec.  If there’s a silver lining, that bad weather was the reason no guests were riding Lift 5 the night of the fire.

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Bromont teams load testing Versant du Lac Thursday, Feb. 25th.  Photo credit: Ski Bromont

Doppelmayr fabricated and painted a new operator house in Salt Lake City which arrived in Quebec on Feb. 19th, just two weeks after the fire.  The lift was load tested on Thursday and while terminal damage is still visible, some burned out windows at the return won’t prevent operation for the final month of the season.  Presumably, Doppelmayr will return this summer and replace the remaining fire-damaged components.  The exact cause of the blaze is still under investigation but in the meantime, congratulations to Bromont crews for getting this key lift back up and running in 24 days.

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Temporary repairs as seen on Saturday, February 22nd.  Photo credit: Zoneski.com

Falling Crossarm Injures Nine at Timberline, WV

Nine people were injured and 100+ others evacuated when a crossarm fell completely off a tower at Timberline Four Seasons Resort around 9:15 this morning, causing skiers to contact the snow.  Thankfully, only two of those people required hospitalization despite the fact that numerous chairs fell 10-20 feet during public operation. The lift in question is called Thunderstruck and was built by Borvig in 1986.  It has Leitner chairs and is just over 4,100 feet long with 17 towers. Tower 12 is the one that failed. The pictures are harrowing and this incident could have been much worse.  Sugarloaf’s two recent high-profile accidents involved Borvig lifts – a de-ropement with chairs contacting the ground in 2010 and rollback in 2015.