‘An extremely rare event:’ Safety board says wind twisted chair coming into Breckenridge lift terminal, leading to fall
Witnesses describe seeing chair fall from Peak 8 SuperConnect lift at Breckenridge Ski Resort on Thursday
Summit Daily News
Blustery winds whipped, making it hard to see or hear much of anything as Brynne Goldberg ascended Peak 8 alone on a chair on the SuperConnect lift at Breckenridge Ski Resort, Thursday, Dec. 22.
But, suddenly, as Goldberg neared the top, she noticed the chair in front of her detach and fall from the lift.
“The thing I remember the most is when I looked straight ahead and the chair was dangling and twisting around. That really freaked me out because there was somebody on it,” Goldberg said in a phone interview later that day. “Then it just dropped, and he was still in the chair.”
Despite a 13-foot fall, the single rider of the chair was uninjured, according to a statement from the ski resort. The incident happened around 10:35 a.m., ski patrol responded immediately, found no injuries and the guest declined further care, the statement said.
Goldberg remembers a friend on a chair behind her shouting to get the attention of ski patrol, who were nearby but hadn’t noticed the lift fall. For about 20 minutes, she said she swung in the wind, “trying to stay calm because I was so panicked.”
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Though Goldberg was afraid that ski patrol was going to have to do an emergency evacuation of the lift, it soon began moving again. She said she was impressed by the response.
“The most ironic part of this whole day is when I woke up I saw on Breckenridge’s website it said ‘dangerously windy,'” Goldberg said. “I kept looking to see if they had put out any other warnings then when I got there.”
The resort had closed other lifts due to the weather, she said, but the Peak 8 SuperConnect had remained open that morning.
‘An extremely rare event‘
Breckenridge Ski Resort said in its statement that the wind direction was “predominantly favorable” for the operation of the SuperConnect when it opened at 10 a.m. Thursday. However, an abnormal wind gust, in addition to the chair coming into contact with components of the upper terminal, led the chair to be dislodged, the resort said.
“”This could not have happened anywhere,” Sara Lococo, a spokesperson for Vail Resorts, said in an email response to a question from Summit Daily about whether the chair could have come dislodged anywhere along the tow. “This event was specific to the abnormal wind gust and the chair coming into contact with components of the upper terminal.”
Vail Resorts owns Breckenridge Ski Resort. The SuperConnect lift first opened in 2002 and was designed by Poma, according to past reporting.
The resort closed the lift around 11 a.m. Thursday and, after a full inspection, reopened it Friday, Dec. 23, around 12:30 p.m., according to Lococo.
The resort’s lift maintenance team was on site at the time of the incident, which was reported immediately to the Colorado Tramway Safety Board, the resort’s statement said. The report filed with that board states the lift was down for 11 minutes before it got running again for evacuation only.
“First and foremost, the safety of our team members and guests is at all times our highest priority,” Breckenridge Ski Resort Vice President and COO Jody Churich said in a statement to staff shared with Summit Daily. “In addition, we’ve worked in the ski industry for a long time, and can say without a doubt that our lift maintenance and patrol teams are some of the best in the business. They prioritize the safety of our teams and guests every single day.”
The Colorado Tramway Safety Board is overseen by the state’s Department of Regulatory Agencies. Lee Rasizer, a spokesperson for that department, said Friday that a mechanic was at the top of the quad chairlift when there was a strong gust of wind.
The SuperConnect is licensed with the Tramway Safety Board as a detachable chairlift. Detachable chairlifts have powerful spring-loaded cable grips that detach at terminals, allowing the chair to slow for loading or unloading.
The mechanic immediately stopped the lift but a grip was dislodged from the cable, causing the chair to fall, according to the department. The skier fell with the chair into a steep embankment of snow below the terminal and landed on his feet, Rasizer said.
“A gust of wind at the top terminal caused the chair to twist at the terminal entrance and this action popped the grip off the rope which sent the chair to the ground,” the report filed with the state safety board says.
The terminal and cable were inspected and no damage was found, Rasizer said. The carrier was pulled from service and replaced by a backup.
“It is an extremely rare event that a grip becomes dislodged from a cable,” Rasizer said in an email. “But the incident was resolved quickly and appropriately in this instance and no one was injured.”
‘A ferociously strong jet stream’
On Thursday morning, wind speeds in Summit County started to increase from 5-7 a.m. and peaked between 10 and 11 a.m., according to David Barjenbruch, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.
“It was a really windy — extremely windy — day up there, especially in those higher elevations,” Barjenbruch said. “We had just a ferociously strong jet stream above us.”
A weather station at 12,998 feet at the top of Peak 8 recorded sustained winds between 50 and 60 miles per hour and clocked gusts in excess of 80 and 90 miles per hour, he said.
Another weather station at 11,900 feet on Peak 8 recorded sustained wind speeds between 30 and 40 miles per hour with gusts in excess of 70 miles per hour, according to Barjenbruch. He said the winds Thursday morning were predominantly from the west and northwest.
“During that time from about 8 a.m. through about noon we had this huge core of winds, a tube of very extremely strong winds, moving along Summit County,” Barjenbruch said.
The resort and SuperConnect lift are on the eastern face of the mountain range, so it likely would have been protected from the direct brunt of the wind. According to Lococo, its terminal is at 11,005 feet.
The topography of the mountain range makes it extremely hard to predict the exact wind speeds at any given location on that eastern face of Peak 8, Barjenbruch said. But he noted that wind speeds tend to decline with elevation.
‘Notorious for its wind‘
Jared Rolan, who was just one chair behind Goldberg at the time of the incident, recalled the chair nearest to the terminal falling after a “gnarly gust.” Roland, a snowboarder, said it felt like the wind was about to rip the bindings out of his board.
“It was just really windy. It was like a crazy gust,” Roland said. “One just got him at a bad time and knocked the dude off.”
Estimating that he was at least 30 feet in the air in his chair as he waited for the lift to resume, he said he felt he had to hang on in order to not be knocked off. He briefly thought about jumping off because he didn’t want to fall in a sitting position with the lift.
“I thought that ours was going to fall off next because the wind was so crazy,” Roland said.
But, Roland said he knows there’s always some level of risk to riding a chairlift on a windy day.
“It was my fault,” he said. “It was windy the whole day.”
Goldberg, who grew up skiing in the northeast before moving to Colorado in 2012, agreed, adding that “Breck is notorious for its wind.”
“I’ve ridden a lot through the wind,” she said. “You inherently take that risk into your hands.”
Still, Goldberg said, “I think moving forward, I’ll definitely be taking that into stronger consideration.”