Monday, July 26, 2010

A Visual Compendium of Ski Lift Accidents

Other then the Olympics the only time that skiing and snowboarding really makes the news is when someone dies. The amount of press coverage is determined by a complex equation using variables such as; how old the people were, how famous they were, and more recently an obsession with whether they were wearing a helmet or not. But the factor that has by far the biggest impact and guarantees a veritable press frenzy is when a large number of people are killed or injured, and the most consistent and successful mass killer of skiers and snowboarders is the ski lift. Today we take a look at over sixty years of ski lift accidents using a couple of infographics…

The Timeline
click on the picture to see the full version...
The biggest accident by far is the Kaprun disaster of 11th November 2000, when 155 people lost their lives as a result of a fire on a funicular. It’s a very harrowing story and harrowing is certainly one thing these accidents have in common. Later there is a full list and description of the accidents if you want all the details, but there are a few that stand out because of their unusual circumstances and we’ve highlighted them in the infographic. 
  • On the 29th January 1983 in Sentosa, Singapore an aerial lift was struck by the derrick of the oil drilling ship Eniwetok killing seven passengers. 
  • A helicopter accidently dropped a 750 kg concrete block onto a lift killing 9 people in Sölden, Austria on the 5th September 2005. 
  • A US Marine Corps Prowler jet severed the cable a lift in Cavalese, Italy on the 3rd February 1998 killing 20. The pilot Captain Richard J Ashby was put on trial but found not guilty because of a lack of evidence after he destroyed the video recording of the flight. He was jailed for four and a half months and dismissed from the Marines for destroying the recording. The crash is known in Italy as the Strage del Cermis (Massacre of Cermis), but it wasn’t the worst crash in Italy, or even in that ski resort, because on the 9th March 1976 42 people lost their lives when a cable broke on the same lift. 
  • Almost forty years before Captain Ashby’s flight to infamy, a French pilot called Bernard Ziegler killed 6 by doing pretty much the same thing. On the 26th August 1962 he flew his F-84F fighter jet into the cables of the Vallee Blanche lift in France. Showing an interesting difference in the attitudes of the time and the country involved no one even considered prosecuting him and he went on to become an air force test pilot and later a senior vice president at Airbus. 

This is the only photo I could find of an F-84F in the French Air Force.

A Few Trends
click on the picture to see the full version...

Fatalities & Injuries
The five accidents with the greatest fatalities only one person was injured, and in the five accidents with the most injuries there were no fatalities. An interesting trend, but I’m not sure there is much to learn from that because you’d really want to avoid both types anyway.

For a tiny ski resort it’s incredibly bad luck that two of the largest accidents have occurred in Cavalese. Cavelese is like volcano waiting to erupt and it must almost be time for the lift to kill again. I’d give the place a wide berth next season.

Another thing to avoid at all costs is any lift with this sign.
The now thankfully defunct Lift Engineering, otherwise known as Yan, was a really dodgy operation. The company had the worst record of any ski lift manufacturer operating in the US. Bad design, poor quality installation and a flagrant disregard for safety resulted in three of the accidents that appear in this list, but there have been a fair few more and after the 2001 Angel’s Flight accident the owner of the company, Yanek Kunczynski, fled to Mexico to avoid prosecution. 

Lift Type
I’ve never covered a topic that has some many different words for essentially the same thing. I’ve spent years riding the various ski lifts and it seems, like most people I end up using a different name each time. For a collective name I ended up using the phrase ‘ski lift’ even though quite clearly a number of the lifts are not anywhere near a ski resort. Unfortunately all of the other possible names just weren’t much more use. To keep things simple I’ve then broken the lifts down into these three types
  • Aerial lift – For anything that in the air that isn’t a chairlift
  • Chairlift – Technically also an aerial lift but it was interesting to separate these out
  • Funicular – A train what goes up hills

The one interesting fact about the types of lift is that I couldn’t find any recorded deaths caused by towropes, T bars and Button lifts. Despite that, I’d still recommend avoiding them under all circumstances.

Austria is the most deadly place to be on a ski lift, but the US leads the way in terms of injuring people and the sheer number of accidents.

As Safe As Ski Lifts
After spending the length of time I just have concentrating on lift accidents you start to get a skewed view of the dangers. To give all these events some context here’s some stats from the US in the average year:
  • 350,000,000 - Ski lift rides
  • 12,000,000 - Skiers/snowboarders
  • 38 - Skiing/snowboarding fatalities
  • 0.33 - Ski lift fatalities

I’ll take those odds.

The Full List of Accidents
For this article I was hoping to find a ready made list of lift accidents. There are a few short and incomplete lists around the place but they missed out a lot and they were not well referenced, so to get the fullest and most accurate list we had to make our own. For this list, and this is a weird distinction to have to make, we limited it to accidents with at least one fatality or if there were no fatalities to at least ten injuries…

9 Apr 1947: Monte Serrate, Santos, São Paulo, Brazil (funicular): 1 dead, 6 injured [scenic]
At 1.45 in the afternoon, twenty years after it was constructed the cable snapped on the Monte Serrate funicular that was carrying 30 people at the time killing one woman and injuring 6 other people. There are references on the internet to a crash killing 31 people on the 29 August 1956 but I can’t find evidence to support this.

26 Jul 1956: Rowe Mountain, New Hampshire, USA (chairlift): 1 dead, 7 injured [ski resort]
A 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 (aerial lift): 1 dead 11 injured [ski resort]
A cable car crashes while transporting workers.

15 Aug 1960: Monte Faito, near Naples, Italy (aerial lift): 2 dead [scenic]
The Funiva del Faito connects the railway station at Castellammare di Stabia with Monte Faito. In 1960 the cable detached and one of the cabins crashed onto the railway tracks below killing two.

29 Aug 1961: Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc, France (aerial lift): 6 dead [ski resort]
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.

5 Sep 1965: Lincoln, Nebraska, USA (aerial lift): 2 dead, 48 injured [scenic]
Two people were killed and at least 48 injured when two steel towers supporting the “Sky Lift” gondola ride collapsed into a crowd during the Nebraska State Fair.

25 Dec 1965: Puy de Sancy, France (aerial lift): 7 dead, 10 injured [ski resort]
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 (aerial lift): 2 dead, 16 injured [ski resort]
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.

15 Jun 1968: Raton Pass, New Mexico, USA (chairlift): 1 dead, 7 injured [scenic]
A large group of schoolchildren turned up at the chairlift and the attendant loaded every chair. The chairlift became overloaded and started roll back. In the panic a shoe was used as a improvised brake, the cable wrapped up and brought the ride to an immediate stop, shaking off some of the passengers.

8 Dec 1970: Merano, Italy (aerial lift): 5 dead [ski resort]
* 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 (aerial lift): 4 dead [ski resort]
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 (aerial lift): 12 dead, 2 injured [ski resort]
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 based station. Of the 14 passengers 12 died and 2 were seriously injured.

26 Oct 1972: Les Deux Alps, France (aerial lift): 9 dead [ski resort]
During the testing of the aerial tramways two cabs collided killing nine people.
* Unable to find much supporting evidence of this event other than listing in Wikipedia. 

1 Jan 1973: Unknown Resort, Idaho, USA (chairlift): 17 injured [ski resort]
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 Jul 1974: Ulriken, Norway (aerial lift): 4 dead [scenic]
A gondola approaching the top station of the Ulriksbanen slid down the cable before dropping off  and falling straight down the mountain killing four.

9 Mar 1976: Cavalese, Italy (aerial lift): 42 dead, 1 injured [ski resort]
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 (aerial lift): 4 dead, 5 injured [ski resort]
Two gondolas derailed and fell from an aerial ski lift as a result of a fayed 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 (chairlift): 11 injured [ski resort]
11 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 (aerial lift): 4 dead, 32 injured [ski resort]
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 three instantly. There’s a very good article on the accident including interviews with the people involve here. 

5 Apr 1981: Heavenly, California, USA (chairlift): 17 injured [ski resort]
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.

29 Jan 1983: Sentosa, Singapore (aerial lift): 7 dead, 1 injured [scenic]
During the Singapore Cable Car Disaster two cabins fell 55 meters into the sea after the ropeway was struck by the derrick of the oil drilling ship Eniwetok. 13 other people were trapped and had to be rescued by helicopter.

13 Feb 1983: Champoluc, Val d'Aosta, Italy (aerial lift): 11 dead [ski resort]
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 (chairlift): 1 dead, 8 injured [ski resort]
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 (chairlift): 2 dead, 48 injured [ski resort]
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 (chairlift): 6 dead, 87 injured [ski resort]
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 (aerial lift): 8 dead [ski resort]
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 (chairlift): 1 dead [ski resort]
A 6-year-old boy was strangled in a ski-lift mechanism after his clothing got caught in the machinery.

1 Jun 1990: Tbilisi, Georgia (aerial lift): 21 dead [scenic]
The hauling rope broke causing a cabin to slide at high speeds down the cable, ramming a parallel cabin on its way before hitting a pylon and breaking in half. Passengers fell from the cabin onto the buildings and streets below. The second cabin then slid down the cables and was destroyed when it crashed into the base station wall. The gondolas were overcrowded at the time of the accident and a short time before larger gondolas had been installed without any adjustments to the cables and structure. I cannot find details of the number of people who were injured.

24 Nov 1991: Pico Espejo, Mérida, Venezuala (aerial lift): 2 dead [scenic]
The accident on the highest cable car in the world happened when the cable broke on the last pylon of the forth section. One cabin fell from the lift killing the two passengers. 5 people were previously killed during the construction of the cable car back in 1958

29 Jan 1992: Nassfeld, Austria (chairlift): 4 dead, 9 injured [ski resort]
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 (chairlift): 1 dead, 1 injured [ski resort]
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.

28 Aug 1993: Monte Solaro, Anacapri, Italy (chairlift): 1 dead, 10 injured [scenic]
A forest fire started under the scenic chairlift in the Italian island of Capri. Some passengers jumped to avoid the smoke and flames and 1 died as a result. The last passengers were rescued from the stricken chairlift 40 hours later.

23 Dec 1995: Whistler, British Columbia, Canada (chairlift): 2 dead, 10 injured [ski resort]
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.

12 Oct 1996: Quebec, Canada (funicular): 1 dead, 15 injured [scenic]
The Funiculaire du Vieux Quebec or Old Quebec Funicular crashed into its base station with 16 tourists aboard when its cable broke and brakes failed.

6 Dec 1996: Snow Valley, Ontario, Canada (chairlift): 1 dead, 1 injured [ski resort]
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. 

14 Dec 1996: Riederalp, Switzerland (aerial lift): 1 dead, 18 injured [ski resort]
A broken axle in the base station of the Moosfluh lift caused three gondolas to hit the ground.

3 Feb 1998: Cavalese, Italy (aerial lift): 20 dead [ski resort]
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).

1 Jul 1999: Saint-Etienne en Devoluy, France (aerial lift): 20 dead [ski resort]
20 workers died when the gondola detached from cable and the struck the ground. The lift was used to supply the Bure observatory and was not open to the public.

26 Dec 1999: Crans Montana, Switzerland (aerial lift): 1 dead, 4 injured [ski resort]
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 (aerial lift): 32 injured [ski resort]
The two cabins of the cable car were still in the top and bottom stations when and electronic failure caused the system to break heavily slamming the cabins into the concrete walls. 

11 Nov 2000: Kaprun, Austria (funicular): 155 dead [ski resort]
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 (chairlift): 1 dead [ski resort]
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.

1 Feb 2001: Angels Flight, San Francisco, USA (funicular): 1 dead, 7 injured [scenic]
One of the carriages, nearing the upper station, reversed direction and accelerated downhill to crash into the other carriage. The Lift Engineering (Yan) company was largely responsible for the poor design and construction that resulted in the crash and the founder of the company Yan Kunczynski fled to La Paz in Mexico to avoid prosecution.

3 Jan 2003: Arthurs Seat, Melbourne, Australia (chairlift): 18 injured [scenic]
A pylon collapsed injuring 18 people and leaving 65 stuck on the lift. The accident was the first of three failures that happened in a three year period. The owners were prosecuted and the chairlift is currently closed.

19 Oct 2003: Darjeeling, India (aerial lift): 4 dead, 11 injured [scenic]
Three carriages of the Darjeeling Rungeet Valley Ropeway came off the cables and fell 100 feet into the field below.

2 Apr 2004: Yerevan, Armenia (funicular): 3 dead, 6 injured [scenic]
On its way to Nor Nork from downtown Yerevan one of the trains derailed.

27 Jul 2004: Abisko National Park, Sweden (chairlift): 1 dead, 3 injured [ski resort]
A chair came lose and slid down the cable to hit the following one.

5 Sep 2005: Sölden, Austria (aerial lift): 9 dead, 10 injured [ski resort]
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 (aerial lift): 1 dead, 2 injured [ski resort]
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 (chairlift): 1 dead [ski resort]
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 (aerial lift): 1 dead [ski resort]
A man fell out of a gondola after he leaned on and broke the plexiglass window. The man and his three who were with him on the lift had been drinking.

3 Jan 2008: Grindelwald, Switzerland (chairlift): 1 dead, 3 injured [ski resort]
During 90 kph winds, the lift cable jumped of a guide wheel causing several chairs to fall.

16 Dec 2008: Blackcomb, British Columbia, Canada (aerial lift): 10 injured [ski resort]
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 (chairlift): 17 injured [ski resort]
A cable slipped off the runners dropping a number of chairs to the ground. 

1 Sep 2009: Heavenly, California, USA (chairlift): 1 dead, 1 injured [ski resort]
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 (chairlift): 14 injured [ski resort]
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

Ski lift statistics were sourced here and here.

Related Articles...


  1. Someone *must* have died on a toe rope.

  2. There are a lot of assumptions here, and comments put in a manner to represent facts from someone who knows little about Lift Engineering and the people who worked there. Oh well, I hope you feel beter. If there were not so many untrained mechanics working on Yan lifts, history would be treating Jan very differently.

  3. There is one enemy of aerial transports stronger than gravity: human stupidity. Idiots in charge of dangerous machinery is a guarantee for disaster.

  4. And regarding Lift Engineering, looking at your world list of accidents, they were hardly the bad guys you misrepresent them as. They sold equipment to operators that then failed to perform required maintenance and inspections. Ski areas don't want to pay for qualified personnel, citing narrow profit margins. Since they sold more lifts than any other US company, the odds were obviously against them.

  5. Also the actual cause of the whistler accident was the rope angle along that section, the grip force was sufficient for the original design angles, however, this installation exceeded those specifications. LE was actually an innovator and to this day has numerous lifts still running perfectly, including a detachable lift in a different country (I think South America somewhere but it's slipping my mind at the moment) that has the original grips (same as whistler) and runs fine.

  6. There was at least one lift-related fatality at Sugar Loaf in Michigan, lift option got tangled in the cables and basically got cut in half. Sounds similar to the one at Big Powderhorn and also in the 80's or early 90's...

  7. Does anyone have clue about a ski lift death of two persons, probably in the Alps somewhere, around 1970 give or take a couple of years. The ski lift operator sent last two skiers up and the they ended up 30-50 meters from the top when the other operator closed the line and went home. I know there's a movie Frozen that has kinda same vibe to it but these two skiers were left there the whole night and froze to death. It was a clear and extremely cold night.

  8. Hilarious, it seems that people are a little to quick to judge these days. You read an article produced by a person an bam jump on the wagon. I'v worked on two YAN lifts for the last sixteen years. Yes they aren't the most technical machines but they were and still are a reliable work horse of the ski industry. I do agree they need to be mechanically checked and maintenanced regularly by qualified mechanics. But to says that they were a sketchy company is a little like saying ford was a little sketchy building cars without seat belts. Their both innovators in there own right paving the way for bigger and better.

  9. There was a death on a tow rope back in the '80's in Munising, MI. Also there was a near-death on a tow rope at Bittersweet, MI earlier this year. The kid is ok though I think.

  10. That Munising accident would be the 23 December, 1989 entry above.

  11. the facts summed up here aren't all true In July 2008 ,there had some power issues rater then the mechanical in the lifts .i have worked with the people who saw that incident themselves .according to them there was some fluctuation in the power which caused that damage.

    installing elevators Ontario


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

© 1896. Design by Main-Blogger - Tinkering by Zhang - Colouring in by Illicit