Following on from the horrific footage from the Georgian Ski Resort of Gudauri this past week I was curious how many of these ski lift accidents had taken place since the introduction of skiing and (later on) snowboarding. I was shocked. There have been a LOT of horrific ski lift accidents over time, these things are bloody lethal. Some of the accidents sadly make the weekend’s incident look like a pool party in Malibu.
Snowboarding, or skiing; a sport that sees most participants driving endless hours, at times on slippery AF black iced sections of road, into the coldest places on earth. We put on equipment more expensive than our kidneys and buy lift tickets by exchanging our soul. If you get lost on the mountain you may die, if there is too much snow you will be excited beyond belief because pow is life, but too much snow also equals avalanches……. yet another possibility of death. My ex-stepdad’s ex ex wife (my family history is a mess) slid on ice in a car park and broke her coccyx on her first visit to the snow and will never return again. My stepdad tried to cross country ski and destroyed his shoulder, he is now scared of the snow. Everything else is trying to kill us, why not ski lifts!
A LOT OF THIS ARTICLE IS SOURCED FROM THE FOLLOWING PAGE – HERE.
Please be advised some of these photos contain graphic imagery!
** Video is not related but has some scary footage – I would not want to be on that one!! **
Why do we do this to ourselves? Again, powder is life. But we do the craziest things in the toughest environments just for a perfect line and that sound-dampened joy in the cleanest parts of nature. To feel the board or boards glide through frozen clouds of joy, there is nothing like it. But one of the simplest parts of the boarding/ skiing experience is catching the lift to the top of the mountain, you sit down, have a chat, meet some new people, maybe take a selfie and brag about how awesome your million dollar weekend is going. You never would expect you could die on a moving seat but sadly this has happened since the dawn of the chair lift and/ or gondola.
SKI LIFT ACCIDENTS
The accidents have been grouped as “Ski Lifts” but the transport devices range from chairlifts to gondolas to funiculars. Funiculars are “trains” that basically move up a very steep slope to get from bottom to top of the mountain. The difference with a Funicular is you are above the transport method and mostly on or close to ground level. Any form of lift or gondola you are hanging and gravity is a major cause of injury or death. Gondolas are made of a light structured cabin, fiberglass, aluminum and in older styles, wood. While this is lighter the cabin is attached to the cable by an overhead carriage assembly. In some of these accidents this assembly is described as weighing 3 tons. With that being on top of you plus gravity things rarely end well if the gondola plummets.
Gondolas and chair lifts operate in more places around the world than just ski resorts but I have only listed accidents that occurred at ski resorts.
THE LIST OF SKI LIFT ACCIDENTS
26 Jul 1956: Rowe Mountain, New Hampshire, USA: 1 dead, 7 injured
In what was probably the first fatal chairlift accident one man dies and seven people were injured when the steel cable on a chair-lift up Rowe Mountain snapped while carrying 30 people.
10 Aug 1957: Cogne, Val d’Aosta, Italy: 1 dead 11 injured
A cable car crashes while transporting workers.
29 Aug 1961: Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc, France: 6 dead
The Vallee Blanche Aerial Tramway that connects Courmayeur (Italy) with Chamonix (France) was hit by a French air force F-84F fighter jet. The cable severed and three cabins fell 500ft onto the glacier below killing the six passengers. Another 81 passengers were trapped with the last people being rescued after 20 hours. The aircraft was able to land safely and the pilot Bernard Ziegler went on to become an air force test pilot and later a senior vice president at Airbus.
25 Dec 1965: Puy de Sancy, France: 7 dead, 10 injured
On Christmas day 1965 power failure and strong winds caused the floor of a gondola to tear off and seventeen skiers fell through the void. One boy, Jean-Pierre Audy aged 13, survived when his shoe was caught in a pile of skis leaving him dangling in the air.
9 Jul 1966: Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc, France: 2 dead, 16 injured
A lightening strike causes a pylon to break despite the structure being checked that morning. Three gondolas detach and fall onto the glacier below killing two, injuring 16 and trapping a further 80 people.
8 Dec 1970: Merano, Italy: 5 dead
Unable to find much supporting evidence of this event. Different versions put the accident on either the 6th or the 8th of December. The Guardian places the accident on the 8th.
1 Aug 1971: Alagna Valsesia, Italy: 4 dead
A mid-air collision between two gondolas of the Funivia di Belvedere after one cabin came loose and slid down the rope crashing into the next one.
12 Jul 1972: Bettmeralp, Switzerland: 12 dead, 2 injured
The Bettmeralp aerial tramway was a single cab that could take 120 people at a time up a vertical height of 1,000m. On the day of the accident the cabin was returning to the valley floor when the tow rope snapped, the cabin accelerated down the cable and smashed into the concrete wall of the base station. Of the 14 passengers 12 died and 2 were seriously injured.
26 Oct 1972: Les Deux Alps, France: 9 dead
During the testing of the aerial tramways two cabs collided killing nine people.
1 Jan 1973: Unknown Resort, Idaho, USA: 17 injured
Very little information in this accident, and it’s made the list because of some good quotes from ski lift inspector Howard Anderson who clearly explains the cause of the problems are the passengers, “Most lifts are built well, maintained well and are basically structurally sound. What makes them unsafe is people.” Then he blames the snow “Snow is the worst enemy of the chairlift.” Before he finally throws the blame on gravity, “Very simply put, gravity is the enemy of the chairlift.” Chairlifts have a lot of enemies.
9 Mar 1976: Cavalese, Italy: 42 dead, 1 injured
Known as ‘The Cavalese Cable Car Disaster’, this was the single worst aerial lift accident. The steel cable broke as the car was descending from Cermis in the ski resort of Cavalese. The cabin fell 200 meters down the mountain and during the fall the three ton overhead carriage assembly crushed the car. Of the 43 passengers the only survivor was a 14 year old girl called Alessandra Piovesan.
26 Mar 1976: Vail, Colorado, USA: 4 dead, 5 injured
Two gondolas derailed and fell from an aerial ski lift as a result of a frayed cable. The fault was found to be caused by a pattern of negligence in the maintenance of the lifts at the resort.
20 Jan 1977: Jiminy Peak, New England, USA: 11 injured
Eleven skiers were hospitalized and several dozen had to be rescued after the brakes failed on a chairlift causing it to rollback at high speeds.
15 Apr 1978: Squaw Valley, California, USA: 4 dead, 32 injured
At 3.45pm during blizzard conditions the cable of the Squaw Valley Aerial Tramway came off its saddle on Tower 2. A car containing 44 passengers was derailed and fell 75 feet at which point the lose cable struck the cabin and sheared through the roof and wall pinning 12 people against the floor and killing 3 instantly.
5 Apr 1981: Heavenly, California, USA: 17 injured
A number of passengers where thrown off the lift and others crashed into the support towers after the cable dropped 10 feet. The accident was believed to be caused by some of the passengers swinging the chairs.
13 Feb 1983: Champoluc, Val d’Aosta, Italy: 11 dead
One cabin came lose and slide down the rope the impacts two others. Shortly after the initial accident the lift is restarted which resulted in three cabins falling from the cable killing 11 passengers.
4 Feb 1984: Big Powderhorn, Michigan, USA: 1 dead, 8 injured
A lift operator was killed when he got entangled in the cable of a chairlift when he tried to fix the mechanism without first checking that the lift was turned off. 8 passengers were injured when they were thrown of the chairs.
14 Dec 1985: Keystone, Colarado, USA: 2 dead, 48 injured
A faulty weld breaks on the main pulley of the Teller chairlift built by the now infamous Lift Engineering (Yan) company. 50 people were thrown from the lift.
1 Mar 1987: Luz-Ardiden, Huates-Pyrénées, France: 6 dead, 87 injured
6 deaths and 87 injuries (41 of which were serious) were caused when the anchor pylon of the chairlift broke, throwing 50 chairs to the ground.
13 Jan 1989: Alpe d’Huez, France: 8 dead
A cabin detached from the cable during testing of the newly constructed Vaujany lift killing eight technicians. Three executives of the Pomagalski company that built the lift were found guilty of manslaughter and given suspended sentences and fines.
23 Dec 1989: Maple Mountain, Michingan, USA: 1 dead
A 6-year-old boy was strangled in a ski-lift mechanism after his clothing got caught in the machinery.
29 Jan 1992: Nassfeld, Austria: 4 dead, 9 injured
The cable jumped of the guide wheels and the resulting ricochet threw the passengers from the lift.
4 Apr 1993: Sierra Ski Ranch, California, USA: 1 dead, 1 injured
A 9-year-old boy was killed and a 14-year old injured when they were thrown off the Slingshot chairlift when the chair in front of them suddenly stopped and their chair ran into it.
23 Dec 1995: Whistler, British Columbia, Canada: 2 dead, 10 injured
Four chairs detached and fell from the cable in another incident involving a lift built by the Lift Engineering (Yan) company. The cause was found to be poorly designed grips that hold the chair to the cable. The grips had failed as the result of a sudden emergency stop.
6 Dec 1996: Snow Valley, Ontario, Canada: 1 dead, 1 injured
A ski instructor was killed when the chair he was riding crashed into a 10-metre-high lift tower after derailing from the lift’s pulleys.
A broken axle in the base station of the Moosfluh lift caused three gondolas to hit the ground.
3 Feb 1998: Cavalese, Italy: 20 dead
The second Cavalese Cable Car Disaster occurred when a US Marine Corps Prowler jet struck and severed the cable of the aerial lift. 20 people in the cabin of the descending from Cermis fell over 80 meters to their deaths. The jet which was damaged but managed to land safely was apparently trying to fly under the cables. The pilot Captain Richard J Ashby and his navigator Captain Joseph Schweitzer were put on trial for involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide but were found not guilty because of a lack of definitive evidence. Immediately after landing they had removed and destroyed the video recording of the flight and for this they were found guilty of obstruction of justice, they were dismissed from the Marines and Captain Ashby served four and a half months in jail. The crash is known in Italy as the Strage del Cermis (Massacre of Cermis).
26 Dec 1999: Crans Montana, Switzerland: 1 dead, 4 injured
During a fierce storm with winds hitting 95 mph an uprooted tree crashed into the cable of a ski lift causing a gondola with 5 people in to fall.
6 Jul 2000: Oberstdorf, Germany: 32 injured
The two cabins of the cable car were still in the top and bottom stations when an electronic failure caused the system to break heavily slamming the cabins into the concrete walls.
11 Nov 2000: Kaprun, Austria: 155 dead
A fire on the ascending train of the Gletscherbahn 2 funicular lead to the deaths of 155 people. The fire started at in an electric heater in the conductor’s cabin at rear of the train and it melted through the braking system which caused the train to come to a halt. The doors on the train failed to open leaving passengers trying to smash the break-resistant acrylic glass windows to escape. 12 passengers at the rear of the train managed to break out and made their way downwards past the fire to escape. Despite the conductor managing to unlock the doors and some of the passengers being able to start making their way up the tunnel all the other people on board as well as the conductor and one passenger on the descending train died of smoke inhalation as the poisonous smoke travelled up the tunnel. The funicular was sealed off after the accident and it was replaced by an aerial lift.
4 Jan 2001: Powder Ridge, Minnesota, USA: 1 dead
A 14-year-old girl died of asphyxiation when se tried to jump off a chairlift while in transit. The girl was snowboarding at Powder ridge with a friend when they decided to make the jump. Her helmet got caught between the set and the safety bar and she was strangled by the helmet strap.
27 Jul 2004: Abisko National Park, Sweden: 1 dead, 3 injured
A chair came lose and slid down the cable to hit the following one.
5 Sep 2005: Sölden, Austria: 9 dead, 10 injured
A helicopter carrying materials to a mountaintop construction site accidently dropped a 750 kg concrete block onto the lift, knocking one gondola off and causing the others to swing so violently that their passengers were thrown out.
24 May 2007: Zillertal, Mayrhofen, Austria: 1 dead, 2 injured
During testing before the summer season a gondola from the Penkenbahn lift came lose and fell 40 meters with three workers inside.
28 Nov 2007: Heavenly, California, USA: 1 dead
A 19-year-old snowboarder fell from the Dipper Express Chairlift when he leant forward because of leg cramp. The safety bar was not down on his chair.
2 Mar 2008: Chamonix, France: 1 dead
A man fell out of a gondola after he leaned on and broke the plexiglass window. The man and his three friend who were with him on the lift had been drinking.
3 Jan 2008: Grindelwald, Switzerland: 1 dead, 3 injured
During 90 kph winds, the lift cable jumped of a guide wheel causing several chairs to fall.
16 Dec 2008: Blackcomb, British Columbia, Canada: 10 injured
Ten people at the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort were injured and others left stranded after a tower supporting the Excalibur gondola lift collapsed.
2 Mar 2009: Sierra Nevada National Park, Spain: 17 injured
A cable slipped off the runners dropping a number of chairs to the ground.
1 Sep 2009: Heavenly, California, USA: 1 dead, 1 injured
One of the guide ropes from the nearby Heavenly Flyer zip line caught on the chairlift cable upending a chair with a honeymooning couple on it. The woman was caught in the wire and was able to hold on but the man fell to his death.
17 Dec 2009: Devil’s Head, Wisconsin, USA: 14 injured
A massive failure of the lift’s gearbox resulted in the lift brake failing and the weight of the people on the ascending chairs caused the lift to suffer a rollback. The passengers were injured when they were thrown or sometimes chose to jump from the accelerating lift. If you want to know what a roll back looks like here is a video of a test. There is a good article on the accident with a very interesting comments section here.
23 February, 2011: Chatel, France: 1 dead
Kieran Brookes, a pupil at Torquay Boys Grammar School, was killed after getting tangled in a ski-lift in the resort of Chatel on 23 February, 2011.
The 14-year-old was with a group from his school on a spring half-term trip to France when his backpack snagged in a chair lift, restricting his airway and causing him to choke.
16th March 2018: Gudauri Ski Resort, Georgia: 11 injured
For more on this filmed and harrowing rollback incident check out our article HERE.
Thoughts to everyone lost on the mountains participating in one of the greatest sports of humanity. Please drive safe, ski safe and board safe, and keep in mind the mountain is not only a soft cloudy haven, but can also be deadly. One negative side to writing this article is that I now have a fear of riding on a chair lift, I will now be petrified!