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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Examination of 49 Degree North’s chairlifts found nothing out of the ordinary prior to December accident

Spring break skiers ride up the mountain on Chair 1 in 2008, at 49 Degrees North. Chair 1 was closed Dec. 5 after a chair fell off the lift, causing minor injuries to two skiers.  (JESSE TINSLEY)

An examination of 49 Degrees North’s six chair lifts found nothing out of the ordinary this fall, according to inspection reports provided by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

Despite that clean bill of health, the resort’s Chair 1, built in 1972, fell from the overhead cable in December. Two people sustained minor injuries. According to the resort, a cotter pin either failed or was missing.

“The chairs on this lift are held in place via a cotter pin placed inside the clip shaft, then bent at an angle to keep the pin in place,” stated a resort news release from December. “We have been unable to find the pin for this chair to verify if the pin had broken or had somehow come out of place.”

On Dec. 11, the chair reopened with new redundancies installed where the chair connects with the cable. Chair 4, which is a similar design as Chair 1, was also retrofitted, according to a resort news release from that time.

The resort, when contacted this week, declined to comment, referring to the December news releases.

Chair 1 is a 1972 SLI double with Riblet insert clips and spans 6,600 feet.

Riblet Tramway, which was based in Spokane until it closed in 2003, started building aerial tramways in the early 1900s and shifted to ski lifts in the 1930s. The company built or installed roughly 500 chairlifts in North America and was at one time the largest ski lift manufacturer in the world.

Unlike other lifts, Riblet clips insert into the cable instead of clamping on to it. Lifts designed or outfitted by Riblet aren’t uncommon in the region. Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard park has five Riblet chairs, with the oldest built in 1956. Silver Mountain, in Idaho, has one Riblet chair built in 1967 and Lookout Pass has three.

As a whole, the United States ski infrastructure is aging, although accidents remain rare.

“While mechanical malfunctions of lifts resulting in death or injury are rare, I don’t want to downplay what happened to those guests,” said Adrienne Saia Isaac, the director of marketing and communications for the National Ski Association. “We as an industry closely investigate these incidents with the goal of preventing them from occurring in the future. The ski industry – including lift mechanics, engineers, manufacturers, ski area operators and personnel, etc. – work tirelessly to mitigate risk and keep our guests and employees safe. So despite the rarity of an incident like this one, we take it extremely seriously.”

Investigatory procedures vary state-to-state and the National Ski Areas Association only reviews final investigative reports when they are completed. In Washington, tramway and ski lift inspections must be carried out in the winter and summer, with one scheduled and one random unannounced inspection. The findings of those inspections are delivered to the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

On Jan. 10, a chair fell at Indianhead Mountain in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, severely injuring one occupant. That chair, like the 49 Degrees North chair, was of a Riblet design and had Riblet insert clips.

Since 1972, lift malfunctions have killed 12 people and injured 73, according to an Outside article from 2014. The NSAA could not provide updated numbers because they are “re-evaluating our historical numbers from the 1970s.”

The last chairlift fatality, due to mechanical malfunction, was in 2016.