More often than not, the only times you hear about skiing and snowboarding is when the Olympics is on or there is a horrific accident. While these terrible occurrences are extremely rare, they still happen.
These accidents happen on the slopes most of the time, but there are a few recorded incidents with ski lifts. Ski lifts are statistically one of the safest modes of transport. Accidents with ski lifts are usually the result of skiers not paying attention. Still, there have been a few causes of freak accidents nobody could have predicted.
In this article, we will cover some of the worst ski lift accidents. But, remember, these incidents are very rare and unusual, so don’t be put off hitting the slopes.
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Worst Ski Lift Accidents
- 1. Gudauri Ski Lift Accident
- 2. Devil’s Head Ski Lift Accident
- 3. Heavenly, California, Zip Line Incident
- 4. Jet Fighter Cuts Ski Lift Cable In Italian Dolomites
- 5. High Winds In Grindelwald
- 6. Man Falls From Lift In Chamonix
- 7. Skier Falls From Chairlift In Heavenly, California
- 8. Sölden Helicopter Accident
- 9. Armenian Cable Car Crash
- 10. Skier Suffocated On A Chairlift
- 11. Man Hangs From Backpack
- 12. Fatal Chairlift Fall At Ski Granby Ranch
- 13. Teen Hung From Ski Lift
- 14. The Kaprun Disaster
- 15. Cable Car Crash Kills 20
- 16. Squaw Valley Cablecar Disaster
- Tips For Staying Safe On A Ski Lift
- Final Thoughts
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Image from Georgian Journal
In 2018, the skiing world was shocked at the news of a horrific ski lift accident in Georgia. Footage of the accident went viral as the skiers and snowboarders were flung from the chairs when the lift seemingly went out of control in reverse.
Eleven people were injured when the chairs smashed into each other at the bottom lift station. Most people managed to jump clear before getting caught up in the twisted metal at the bottom of the lift.
Miraculously, nobody was killed, and the injured people all recovered. What caused the accident was never really determined, but it was likely due to a voltage fluctuation or brake issue.
Image from Wiscnews
In 2009, a chairlift in Devil’s Head ski resort in Wisconsin had a similar issue to the one in Georgia. People riding the lift reported that the chairlift suddenly started going in reverse and built up speed.
Skiers and snowboarders had to jump from the fully loaded lift to save themselves, while others were stranded for several hours. A total of 14 people were injured during the incident.
The primary cause of the incident was a catastrophic gearbox failure. This caused the lift’s main braking system to be inoperable. In addition to this, the two backup braking systems failed.
The ski resort has fitted all its lifts with electronically-controlled, automatic anti-rollback devices to prevent this from happening again.
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In 2009, a man died in a freak chairlift accident in Heavenly, California. He fell about 50 feet when a retrieval rope from a zip line next to the lift got entangled with the chairlift.
The rope is used to bring the zipline’s harness back to the top, but it got caught in the chair’s safety bar. It lifted the safety bar while causing the chair to swing and tip forward, sending the unfortunate victim into the rocks below.
The victim’s wife was riding the chair with him. She managed to stay on the chair but suffered leg injuries. An additional four other skiers were evacuated from the lift but were not injured.
Image from Thedailybeast.com
In 1998, a U.S Marine Prowler jet was flying low in the Italian town of Cavalese. The wing caught a cable, severing it, sending the cable car crashing into the valley below, killing all 20 people on board instantly.
Fifteen of the victims were schoolchildren; only one 14-year old girl survived the 700-foot fall.
The plane only suffered minor damage and managed to return to the Italian airbase. The pilot and co-pilot destroyed the videotape that had recorded the flight before investigators could see it.
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In 2008, one person died and three were injured when 90kph winds caused the cable on a chairlift to jump off a guide wheel. The chairs fell to the ground causing minor to medium injuries and one death.
There were another 75 passengers on the chairlift at the time of the incident. But due to the high wind conditions, helicopter rescues were impossible. Mountain rescuers had to evacuate the skiers and snowboarders from the ground.
The accident in Grindelwald was the worst ski lift accident in Switzerland since December 1999, when high winds resulted in a tree falling onto a cable car, injuring three people and killing two.
Image from Seechamonix
In 2008, a man fell out of a gondola when a plexiglass window broke. The incident happened on the Brevent to Planpraz bubble lift, where reports say that the accident resulted from rough play.
Three men sharing the lift with the man had been drinking and were behaving in a way that broke the window. The victim leaned on the window, causing him to fall from the gondola.
Police reports say that the man fell 82 feet and died instantly. A French family walking the Petit Balcon paths under the lift discovered his body.
Image from sierrasun
In 2007, a 19-year old skier lost his life after falling from the Dipper Express chairlift. This was at the Heavenly Mountain Resort. He fell 30 feet after leaning too far forward to relieve an aching leg.
He was riding the lift with another skier, but they had not lowered the safety bar. The skier was not wearing a helmet, and the impact with the ground killed him as he fell in an area with no snow coverage to break his fall.
This incident is a prime example of why you should always lower the safety bar while riding chairlifts. There really isn’t any excuse for not doing so, and accidents like this should be a thing of the past.
Image from People
In 2005, a helicopter dropped a 750kg concrete bucket onto one of the gondolas in Sölden, Austria. The gondola was ripped to pieces, but a second gondola was affected by the vibrations through the cable. This resulted in nine skiers being thrown to their death, six of whom were children.
The accident investigation team determined that the accident was caused by a technical fault. A metal bur in the helicopter’s cockpit activated the release mechanism on the joystick, dropping the concrete bucket.
The bucket landed on the gondola and cable from a low altitude, causing the devastating accident. The pilot and co-pilot were cleared of no wrongdoing and the helicopter was maintained correctly.
Experts determined that the accident was a tragic coincidence. Sadly, some things you just can’t control.
Image from Azatutyun
In 2004, a cable car killed seven passengers and injured seven others in Yerevan, Armenia.
The incident saw the cable car come off the track and fall 15 meters into the backyard of someone’s house. The operator lost control of the cable car moving in the opposite direction. Luckily the second cable car did not crash, saving its three occupants.
At the time of the accident, experts suggested that the car carrying 11 people could have been derailed by the cable snapping as it pulled it up the hill.
A prosecutor claimed that the aging Soviet-era mechanical equipment had not been adequately maintained. The cables were supposed to be replaced the previous year but were not.
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In 2020, a skier was suffocated in a bizarre accident on a chairlift at Vail Ski Resort in Colorado. The 46-year old man was getting onto the Skyline Express chairlift when he slipped through a gap in the seat.
His ski jacket got caught and wrapped around his neck and over his head as he fell. It put his head in a position that prevented him from breathing.
Eyewitnesses said that the chairlift’s seat was upright as the skier went to sit down. The seat’s position meant that he had nowhere to sit down, but he did not notice, causing him to fall through the chair.
The seats can be flipped upwards for maintenance and to prevent snow from forming on them when the lift is not operational. The seats are supposed to be folded down, ready for skiers and snowboarders to sit down.
Fellow skiers attempted to resuscitate the skier using CPR but unfortunately failed.
A similar incident happened on the same lift about 10 years previous. A skier fell through the gap and was suspended upside down with his ski pants ripped off.
Image from The Denver Post
In 2007, a man had to be rescued from a chairlift in Arapahoe Basin after falling from his seat. His backpack got caught on the chair and caused him to hang by his neck.
Luckily a professional slackliner who had the skills to climb the lift tower was on the chair behind him. He slid 30-feet along the cable and was able to cut the man free with a knife that was thrown to him by ski patrollers.
An ambulance took the man to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center and transferred him to St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood.
Reports say that the man was attempting to unload from the chairlift when his backpack got caught. He was dangling from the chair and was taken around the bullwheel at the top lift station. This meant he was taken back down the mountain before the lift operator managed to stop the lift.
Before the daring rescue, bystanders attempted to create a human pyramid to get to the victim but kept falling down. The slacklining hero got to the man in about five minutes before cutting him down, resulting in him falling 10 to 15 feet.
While this was a freak accident, it can be beneficial to remove your backpack and hold it on chairlifts. This can be awkward, especially if it is a large pack with lots of straps, but at least it won’t get caught.
Image from The Denver Post
In 2016, a woman from Texas and her two young daughters fell from a chairlift in Ski Granby Ranch. Unexpected electrical drive control system problems caused the family’s chair to hit a lift support tower.
The impact caused them to fall from the chair about 25 feet onto hard-packed snow. Unfortunately, the mother died from blunt force trauma to her torso and a traumatic rupture of her aorta. Her daughters were also injured but survived.
Reports state that the chair occupants did nothing to contribute to the accident. Also, the weather conditions did not play a part.
The accident was the first of its kind in the resort’s 22-year history. The lift was installed when the resort opened and has operated without incident ever since.
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In 2007, tragedy struck Powder Ridge, Minnesota, when a teenage girl attempted to jump from a chairlift.
The ninth-grade student was riding the chairlift when she jumped off the lift before it reached the top. She was following her friend, who landed unharmed. But her helmet got tangled in the lift and was taken up the mountain for about five minutes before she was rescued.
Even though rescuers responded immediately, she was unresponsive when they got her down.
Skiers and snowboarders jump from chair lifts for the thrill or to access untouched powder. But this is an extremely dangerous thing to do, but it usually results in broken limbs and not death.
Image from Railsystem
On 11 November 2000, the worst disaster in skiing history took place in Kaprun, Austria.
One hundred sixty-one skiers and snowboarders and one conductor boarded Kaprun’s funicular to hit the slopes. But before the train left the lower station, an unattended electric fan heater caught fire in the train’s cabin.
The fire cut plastic pipes transporting flammable hydraulic fluids from the brakes. This increased the intensity of the fire while releasing the fluid’s pressure, causing the train to stop in the tunnel (a standard safety feature).
The train conductor noticed the fire several minutes after it had broken out. He reported it to the control center and tried to open the doors, but they were operated by hydraulic pressure, so they could not be opened.
Due to the power cable running along the track being burned through, the conductor lost contact with the control center. Also, the lack of power caused a total power cut throughout the whole ski resort.
Meanwhile, the passengers attempted to break the shatterproof windows to escape the flames. Twelve people managed to get past the fire and below the train after successfully breaking a window and climbing out.
Many of the trapped people had been overcome by toxic fumes, rendering them unconscious. But the conductor managed to manually unlock the doors, and people started to climb up the tunnel away from the fire.
Unfortunately, the tunnel acted like a chimney sending poisonous smoke and intense heat upward. Passengers and the conductor were asphyxiated by the smoke and incinerated by the fire.
It didn’t take long for the smoke to reach the downward train, which was also stuck in the tunnel. The smoke killed the conductor and his one and only passenger, who were heading down the mountain.
Two employees noticed the smoke when it reached the top of the tunnel and alerted employees and passengers before escaping through an emergency exit. But they left the doors open, increasing airflow to the fire, making it more intense.
The Alpine Center at the top filled with smoke, but the four people inside managed to get out. One survived, but the other three died of asphyxiation.
A total of 155 people died in the disaster.
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In 1999, a cable car gondola in Saint Etienne, France, crashed to the ground killing the 20 people onboard.
The cable car was carrying workers up to the Pic de Bure space observatory when it happened, so no tourists were harmed. The victims fell 262 feet onto a rocky slope, making the incident the worst cable car disaster in France’s history.
A spokesman of the cable car union stated that the cablecar was built in the 1980s, had passed a recent safety inspection, and was in full working order.
Image from Moonshinink
In 1978, a heavy storm hit Squaw Valley ski resort, now known as Palisades, Tahoe. The red tram transporting 44 occupants down the mountain was dislodged from its support cables by high winds.
This caused the tram to plummet 75 feet before the remaining cable became taught, bouncing it back up into the sky like a bungee jumper. But, as this happened, the outside cable was loose and jumped over one of the support towers, which came loose from its foundations.
The tower fell over, and its sharp metal sliced through the tram. But the 17-ton cable pinned the 12 occupants to the tram’s floor, immediately killing three men.
The three men’s wives were riding the tram with them. One of the wives had her skis pressed into her chest by the cable, while another became uncontrollably hysterical at what had just happened.
Four people died that day and the rest of the tram’s occupants had varying levels of injury.
Obviously, some of these accidents were unavoidable, especially by the innocent skiers and snowboarders riding the lifts. But what can you do to stay safe on a ski lift?
In Europe, the lift operators stop the lift if you don’t lower the bar. But U.S. ski resorts are less strict about it, so it is often up to the discretion of the skier.
Lowering the safety bar on a chairlift is the safest way to ride the lift. It prevents you from slipping off and gives you something to rest your feet on.
Keep the safety bar lowered until you get to the unloading zone at the top.
Also, don’t be tempted to jump off. Even if you make it to the fluffy snow below, you don’t know how deep it is. There may be a big pointy rock or even a crevasse or stream below you.
Many ski lift accidents happen because the skier or snowboarder isn’t paying attention. Look behind you as the chair comes around to time it right for sitting down.
In addition to this, pay attention to the lift operator. They are there to help and to keep you safe. They will give you instructions that will prevent you from getting into an accident.
This goes hand in hand with paying attention. Clear the unloading area so the people behind you have somewhere to go and do not have to ski into you.
Some low-profile backpacks with minimal straps are fine for riding chairlifts. However, larger ones with lots of straps can cause problems.
A larger backpack pushes you forward on the chair, which could cause you to slide off. A pack with lots of straps is more likely to get caught on the chair.
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Thes horror stories are terrible, but they have only affected a fraction of the millions of skiers and snowboarders that head to the mountains every winter.
Skiing and snowboarding have their dangers, but riding a lift should not scare you. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the view.