80 riders evacuated from Aspen’s Tiehack chairlift
For the third consecutive ski season, a mechanical issue has disabled a chairlift at an Aspen Skiing Co. ski area during the busy holiday period.
An estimated 80 passengers were evacuated by ski patrollers Wednesday from the Tiehack Express high-speed, four-passenger lift. There were no injuries. A mechanical issue disabled the chairlift at about 11 a.m. Company officials made the decision to evacuate the lift about an hour and 10 minutes later, according to Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan.
Once the decision was made, 16 patrollers from Buttermilk mobilized and were joined a short time later by six patrollers from Snowmass, four from Aspen Highlands and two from Aspen Mountain. Two-person teams were belaying passengers down from their perches by about 12:30 p.m. and had everyone off by about 2:30 p.m.
The ski patrol at each of the four mountains practices lift evacuations “every month,” said Rich Burkley, Skico vice president of mountain operations. While there have been lift stoppages for extended times, evacuations have been rare.
“In my career we’ve never done one — 27 years,” Burkley said from the Tiehack base. Ski patrollers at the base concurred that they hadn’t been called on during their careers to evacuate passengers.
A lift cable derailed on the old Tiehack chairlift in the late 1980s or early 1990s. The exact year wasn’t immediately available. There were no major injuries in that incident, but some passengers were evacuated.
Electrical issue at Tiehack
Skico said in a statement that a mechanical issue disabled the Tiehack Express lift and mechanics responded immediately. The lift experienced a faulty emergency circuit relay and there was a problem with the back-up diesel. The relay was changed; the diesel issue is being studied. The diesel is tested weekly, according to Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle. Kaplan skied part of the lift line Wednesday and stopped to talk to some of the stranded passengers. He apologized to the last woman waiting on the lift, three towers up from the bottom station.
When the woman asked what was taking so long, Kaplan explained that the mechanics get the lifts operating in the vast majority of the times. In this case, it became apparent after about one hour that the repair could take an extended time, he said, so Skico decided to evacuate the lift.
The lift is expected to be running Thursday.
In a statement, Skico said, “We have been in constant communication with the passengers and kept them informed on the issues and evacuation process.”
However, a woman who was stranded on the lift called The Aspen Times at 12:30 p.m. to complain that she wasn’t getting enough information. She had her cell phone with her and called the number for the ski patrol about 20 minutes into the wait, she said. She was told the problem was being assessed and the lift would be repaired. She called back an hour into the wait to request information about the progress and to note the cold conditions. She was informed that they were starting evacuations and she would receive lift ticket vouchers.
“I don’t want to be compensated. I want to be evacuated,” she said at about 12:30 p.m.
She credited Skico’s responsiveness. After her second call, a ski instructor skied beneath her chair and attempted to throw hand warmers up to her. Alas, the distance was too great.
Question about protocol
The woman was assisted off the lift at about 1:20 p.m. She was highly complimentary of the ski patrol but said she still had questions about Skico’s procedures for such situations.
“There is no protocol for how long they let their customers sit in the cold,” she said. The woman said she feels mechanics and executives should confer earlier in the process and determine if an evacuation should be started.
“The frustration level is difficult to understand unless you were on the lift,” she said.
Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle reiterated that the mechanics almost always get disabled lift operating, so they don’t want to call for evacuations too quickly. There is no set time for a lift closure to trigger an evacuation.
“I don’t think there is a rule of thumb,” Hanle said.
Weather conditions play into decisions. When there are worse conditions than on Wednesday, the call would likely be made earlier to evacuate, he said.
Temperatures were in the 20s and skies were partly cloudy Wednesday late morning and early afternoon. Winds were breezy at higher elevations. A snowstorm blew in about an hour after the evacuations were complete.
Roaring Fork Valley resident Kelly Hayes was also on the chairlift and credited all facets of Skico’s handling of the incident. “It really was a very benign experience,” he said.
Calm, efficient response by patrol
A patrolman skied beneath the chair where he and his nephew were stranded after about 15 minutes and said mechanics were working on the lift. After about an hour, a ski instructor conversed with them, but it wasn’t immediately apparent they were going to be evacuated, Hayes said. They were close to the top terminal, so they witnessed the evacuations start a short time later.
A woman patroller climbed the tower in front of their chair at about 12:45 p.m., clipped into a harness and worked her way across the cable to their chair. She delivered a canvas seat that was attached to a rope held by another patroller on the ground. His nephew, Ryan Gage, worked his way into the seat and was secured by ropes beneath is arms and across a shoulder. He worked his way off the edge of the seat and was gently lowered down.
An Aspen Times reporter and photographer watched ski patrol teams undertake that same efficient procedure multiple times. The patrollers talked to the stranded passengers, calmly explained the procedure, got them to the ground and moved to the next chair. Multiple teams undertook the evacuations.
Hayes said most passengers in chairs within sight and hearing distance of him seemed to take the experience in stride. The exception was one man who was irate that he would be late to pick up his child from ski school. The man seemed to “scream himself out,” Hayes said.
Burkley and Skico Chief Operating Officer David Perry were greeting skiers and riders at the Tiehack base after the passengers were evacuated. “We didn’t get anyone that wasn’t totally cool about it,” Burkley said.
Other Skico workers took the names of stranded passengers and gave them vouchers for two lift tickets. They will get credit for a future visit if they cannot immediately use the vouchers.
Holiday lift woes
The incident at Tiehack was the third consecutive season there has been a late December lift closure to hamper Skico’s operations when holiday crowds are around.
In 2013, the Silver Queen Gondola on Aspen Mountain was closed on Dec. 30 and 31, two of the busiest days of the season. Bearings went out on the bull wheel in the upper terminal.
Last year, Lift 1A was knocked out of commission for nearly three weeks after a broken gear tooth was discovered on New Year’s Eve.
The Tiehack lift suffered an unspecified electrical issue this year.
“It’s unfortunate timing,” Hanle said, adding they are unrelated machines and mechanical problems. All Skico chairlifts receive regular maintenance and pass regular inspections, he noted.
“Everything’s kept up,” Hanle said.
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