03/24/2015 - US News: 'Lifts aren't designed to last forever," said Mark Di Nola, a ski safety consultant in New Hampshire


PORTLAND, Maine - 'Lifts aren't designed to last forever," said Mark Di Nola, a ski safety consultant in New Hampshire who serves as an expert witness in ski-related lawsuits.

Four years ago, skier, Rick Tonge was riding a chairlift at Sugarloaf ski resort in Maine when his chair and four other chairs dropped 30 feet to the snowy ground below, injuring him and his son.

Then over the weekend, another chairlift at Sugarloaf malfunctioned by going backward, prompting some frightened skiers to exit them and raising questions about the safety of aging infrastructure at ski resorts of New England.

Tonge said "It's got to bring it to people's attention that something's got to be done,"This is an old mountain. It's been around a long time."
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Sugarloaf spokesman Ethan Austin said in an emailed statement that a preliminary investigation found that a gearbox on the lift malfunctioned and had disabled two brake systems. A third backup brake also did not deploy properly and a lift attendant pulled an emergency brake to bring it to a halt after chairs slid about 450 feet,

Seven skiers were hurt at the resort, which is hosting the U.S. national ski championships starting this week with top skiers like Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin.

Two of the three injured skiers transported to a hospital 40 miles away were treated and released; the third was transported to another hospital, a hospital spokeswoman said Sunday. The condition of the third skier was not known, but the resort said the injuries were not believed to be life threatening.

The ski industry points out that riding a chairlift is safer than riding an elevator, and there has not been a death due to mechanical malfunction since 1993.

However, according to the National Ski Areas Association there have been at least four other malfunctions causing injury since 2000 nationwide, though but the ages of those lifts were unknown.

At Sugarloaf, the December 2010 incident involved a 35-year-old double chairlift -- since replaced -- that was being worked on while skiers were on board. Thge incident on Saturday involved a 27-year-old quad chairlift.

The King Pine lift that malfunctioned over the weekend had passed its annual state inspection and a dynamic load test that's required every seven years last fall, Austin said.

The gearbox that failed, effectively blocking two of the three brake systems from deploying, had just received preventative maintenance the day before, he said, adding that it's too early to know if procedures will be changed.

Tonge, whose back was hurt in 2010, worries that the resort has been slow to upgrade aging equipment. "They have plans in the works to replace lifts. There have been plans right along. But they're late," he said.

Older lifts aren't necessarily unsafe if they're properly maintained, but they become functionally obsolete because skiers reject them as too slow and as they become too expensive to maintain.

"Lifts aren't designed to last forever," said Mark Di Nola, a ski safety consultant in New Hampshire who serves as an expert witness in ski-related lawsuits.

The incident has not shaken the confidence of the U.S. Ski and Snowboarding Association as Sugarloaf prepares to host the national championships.

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