A Maine state report released a day before Thanksgiving confirmed that mechanical failure caused a chairlift accident that injured seven people at the Sugarloaf ski area last winter.
The accident happened in March 2015 when the lift was carrying more than 200 skiers, causing many to jump off. It was the second lift malfunction in five years to cause injuries at Sugarloaf.
The Office of Professional and Occupational Regulation’s report confirmed findings of a team of engineers that released a preliminary review and investigation following the accident. Investigators determined that the mechanical failure on the 27-year-old King Pine quad was caused by a broken drive shaft in a gearbox that allowed the lift to begin moving backward. A faulty switch prevented an anti-rollback system from locking the lift in place, and then the emergency braking system failed to automatically activate.
The Borvig-manufactured lift traveled about 400 feet in reverse, prompting some skiers to bail out, before it stopped three to five seconds later. Three of the seven injured skiers were taken to a hospital.
The report concluded that ski lift owners and operators “need to work with manufacturers to determine what system updates/upgrades may be available for their lifts that would increase lift safety and reliability.”
The state report also said the accident scene was not maintained as it should have been, as some of the lift’s components were adjusted or removed before the investigation. That made it impossible to completely recreate the conditions of the accident, the report said.
According to the National Ski Areas Association, there have been only six mechanical failures resulting in injuries in the past 15 years in the U.S., and the last fatality linked to a mechanical problem was in 1993 in California.
Five years earlier, high wind contributed to another lift accident in which some chairs on Sugarloaf’s Spillway East plummeted 25 to 30 feet onto the snowy surface below, injuring eight skiers and trapping others in the air for more than an hour. That 35-year-old lift was replaced entirely with a new model.
Sugarloaf reports spending $1.5 million to make improvements after the malfunction.
Both of Sugarloaf’s accidents involved older lifts that are part of an aging infrastructure at many resorts. Nationwide, most lifts were installed during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, and hundreds of old lifts remain in service, industry officials say.