‘When You Need Them, You Need Them': Vermont Ski Resort Practices Lift Evacuation Skills

Resorts regularly train on evacuations, in case a lift fails — which happened at Stowe Mountain Resort in January

Thursday, ski patrollers practiced techniques aimed at helping them reach stranded guests at Vermont's Sugarbush Resort, should a ski lift there ever fail.

"When you need them, you need them," Sugarbush ski patrol director Colin Cascadden said of lift evacuation skills he and his team work on — but hope they never need to employ. "And you'd better know them well."

Cascadden said Sugarbush hosts weekly evacuation drills for members of its patrol and other employees of the resort — in addition to patrollers' training on a range of safety and first aid skills.

Ski industry sources told necn and NBC 10 Boston that destinations across New England all focus on evac training, though each likely does it a bit differently.

The common goal is preparing for the kind of emergency the Stowe Mountain Resort experienced in late January, when a lift suddenly stopped, leaving 160 skiers waiting for help getting down.

Some were stuck for two hours or more, including mom Keri Crafts of Burlington.

"You don't think it's going to happen," Crafts said in an interview with necn and NBC 10 Boston on January 28. "My daughter was just uncontrollably crying."

In response to an inquiry from necn and NBC 10 Boston Thursday, the Tramway Division of the Vermont Department of Labor, which oversees ski lifts, explained what went wrong in Stowe.

Steve Monahan said an electric blower motor in the Lookout Double lift failed, shorting out the primary source of power to the lift.

Monahan added that a backup diesel motor also failed, because the fuel gelled up in that week's extreme cold — and no winter weather additive had been mixed into the diesel. That meant the lift lacked the horsepower to carry its heavy passenger load, Monahan explained.

A manual ropes evacuation followed the motor failures.

Thursday, the Vermont Tramway Division confirmed that the problems with the Lookout Double have been fixed and that Stowe successfully passed all its required inspections to get the lift up and running again.

In a statement at the time of the lift failure, Stowe Mountain Resort apologized to its guests and said this was the first time in nearly a decade that the resort had an evacuation.

Stowe Mountain Resort spokesman Jeff Wise said the famous destination focuses on equipment maintenance, upgrades and training to ensure the safety and care of guests.

"The safety of our guests and employees is our number one priority," Wise said a written statement provided to necn and NBC 10 Boston on January 28. "There is a very high level of pride and professionalism that the Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol takes in the safety and care of our guests."

At Thursday's evacuation training exercise at Sugarbush, patrollers scaled lift towers and flipped ropes over stalled chairs to practice reaching guests.

Cascadden said patrollers on the ground would guide skiers and riders through the process of putting a sturdy loop around their bodies, up under their armpits.

They'd then hoist a small seat to them that they'd shimmy onto, Cascadden said, so a pair of patrollers could lower folks to the ground using rope belaying.

Cascadden added that he aims for speedy responses, but never at the expense of safety.

"This is our bread and butter," the patrol director said of regular training exercises on rescue skills. "We're professional patrollers, and this is what we do."

The industry has said manual ropes evacuations happen infrequently, relative to the four million or more skier and rider visits that Vermont tends to see each year.

Numbers from the Vermont Tramway Division back that up. So far in the 2018-2019 skiing and riding season, Monahan said there have been six ropes responses to evacuate occupied lifts at ski areas statewide.

Each of those evacuations was performed without a reported injury, Monahan said.

"This is extremely rare," Sugarbush president Win Smith told necn and NBC 10 Boston. "It's not going to happen often at all, but if it happens, we have professionals who are going to take care."

Smith noted that he, too, is trained on lift evacuation techniques, though he said it has been several years since the resort has seen a situation that required the use of ropes to get stuck guests to the ground.

Despite what some of the people were seen doing during the Stowe incident, resorts say it is never a good idea to jump from a ski lift.

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