The death of a Texas mother who fell from a Ski Granby Ranch chairlift last year has prompted state inspectors to recommend changes to lift systems across Colorado and mull taking regulatory steps to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
Larry Smith, Colorado’s chief chairlift inspector, says he is working with resorts and colleagues across the country and beyond — who are keeping close tabs on how the state moves forward — to share what has been gleaned from investigations into the accident.
He said the possible changes to the state’s chairlifts will be small and ones that riders likely won’t notice, but that drastically reduce the chances of another improbable death like 40-year-old Kelly Huber’s.
“The chances of that occurring again are extremely small without making any changes,” Smith said in an interview Monday with The Denver Post. “But now that we’ve learned from that and go forward and make the changes, it’s going to reduce that probability again to the point where it hopefully doesn’t ever occur again.”
Smith said the complex set of circumstances — mechanics, electronics, lift design and chair load — that lined up to lead a chair carrying Huber and her two young daughters to hit a tower were so rare the probability was “like getting hit by lightning inside a building.” However, alterations to old lifts and requirements for new lifts moving forward should keep them from lining up again.
Mainly, the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board and Smith are looking to implement a system that creates a delay between when lift operators slow and accelerate a chairlift’s speed. That should eliminate or dampen so-called dynamics in a lift’s line that can make a chair dramatically bounce up and down and sway side to side.
Quickdraw Express at Ski Granby Ranch.
“It’s easy to make the changes in the control system and put the delays in,” Smith said. “It’s not expensive, it’s something that we can do and it takes care of all the potential problems with other lifts.”
State investigators have blamed the Ski Granby Ranch’s drive control system as the main culprit in the events leading up to Huber’s death on Dec. 29, 2016. Also contributing to the accident, however, were speed input changes made by an operator who was following normal procedure that sent more energy into the cable.
When the energy from the accelerations and decelerations reached the lightly loaded chair carrying Huber and her daughters — combined with several other factors that day — it caused the chair to bank at a 40-degree angle just at the time it was passing a tower.
“It is unfortunate that Mrs. Huber was in the chair at that particular time,” Smith said. “When you think of the swing of the chair, that tower is only is about 30 inches in diameter, that her swing at that particular time was such that it caught the tower. It’s like getting hit by lightning inside a building. What are the odds of that?”
Investigators say that had the chair carrying Huber not been near the lift tower, the swaying would have simply dissipated.
A Ski Granby Ranch ski patroller wrote in an incident report that he was on a chair just in front of Huber and her girls. He said he heard a rumble on the lift’s line and that he felt the “largest vertical motion I had ever felt in a line” as he grabbed the side of his chair.
The patroller looked back to see Huber and the girls falling to the ground. “The mother was visibly holding one of the children in what appeared to be an attempt to protect the child from the impact of landing,” he wrote.
Adding seconds-long delays when an operator makes speed-change inputs, Smith says, should cancel out those conditions.
“You can’t put any more energy into the cable. For that eight or 10 seconds, or 12 seconds, it runs at a constant state and the dynamics dampen out,” Smith said of how the delay system would work. “You don’t notice that it’s happening when you ride, but engineering- and physics-wise, that’s what occurs.”
The Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board is set to consider adding a requirement for the delay system, as well as other regulations. Officials say they are also planning to bring their findings to the American National Standards Institute, which creates guidelines for chairlift safety and inspections across the U.S.
Investigators, in a final report on Huber’s death released last week, made 10 total recommendations in light of their findings, mainly that chairlifts undergo more detailed testing to include different simulated load parameters. Investigators also urged installation of a “black box” on all chairlifts that can record stops, starts and speed changes.
State investigators found recent changes to a control system on the Quickdraw Express, high-speed detachable lift and rapid speed changes made by an operator were the main reasons chair 58 carrying Huber and her daughters slammed into a lift tower, throwing them 25 feet to the ground.
Huber was pronounced dead the day of the fall at Middle Park Medical Center in Granby. Her daughters were taken to hospitals for care. Huber, who lived in San Antonio, was vacationing in Colorado.
Huber’s death was the first in a Colorado chairlift fall since 2002 and the first from a chairlift malfunction in the U.S. since 1993.
On Thursday, Granby Ranch officials said they were reviewing the report. “This is a 151-page report that deserves careful review. Granby Ranch continues to comply with all Tramway Board directives. We would again like to offer our condolences to the Huber family for their loss. Granby Ranch is committed to the health and safety of its guests.”