Keystone Teller Lift accident meant industry changes then, now |

Keystone Teller Lift accident meant industry changes then, now

Janice Kurbjun
summit daily news
Summit Sentinel file photo

It was the worst day in Jerry Jones’ time in the ski industry – and he had worked with Aspen Skiing Company and Sun Valley before Keystone and then Beaver Creek.

The then-president of Keystone Resort, Jones was in a meeting when the Teller Lift bullwheel dropped from its encasement and sent a wave down the lift’s haul rope, causing people to be flung from their chairs. The lift was about a year old, installed in 1984 when the resort expanded to North Peak. The resort was owned by Ralston Purina at the time.

Jones had called down to the mountain manager to get skier data for his meeting. The secretary there immediately asked, “Where are you?” She quickly informed him of the accident, telling him that 100 people were dead.

It turned out that information was drastically exaggerated. At that point, there were no fatalities, but two people would later die. Forty-eight were injured, many of whom had been tossed – sometimes more than 40 feet – through the air, Jones said. There were about 350 people riding the lift at the time.

The accident is listed as one of the major chairlift accidents worldwide since the 1950s, when alpine skiing started to really grow as a recreational sport and resorts sprung up to accommodate the new activity.

Also on the list is a gondola derailment at Vail in 1976, which caused two gondolas to fall and resulted in four deaths and five injuries.

While the Vail incident was found to be due to lift maintenance staff negligence, the Teller Lift accident at Keystone was traced to a manufacturing defect, present in all of the Yan 1000 lift models coming from now-defunct manufacturer Lift Engineering.

Jones said calls were made after the incident to other ski areas using the lift model. They found that Northstar-at-Tahoe had a similar problem earlier in the year, but workers stopped any problems before they began.

Eventually, all 11 Yan 1000 models across the nation would be inspected, and engineers determined that all would have failed at some point, Jones said.

According to information from the Colorado Ski Museum, settlements between Lift Engineering owner Yan Kunczynski and injured skiers topped more than $7 million for the Teller Lift incident.

“The incident probably enhanced inspection,” Jones said, adding that a report created by Keystone personnel after the incident helped pave the way for crisis management in similar situations. Jones said the resort won awards for the report.

Of the list of 56 major lift accidents worldwide involving at least one death or 10 injuries compiled at, Colorado has the Keystone and Vail incidents. That’s in part due to the regulation of the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board, which is a supervising entity for trams, chairlifts and aerial lift operators in the state.

“Not all states have the Tramway Safety Board,” Jones said, adding that the agency is rather strict and won’t allow a lift to operate if it’s not safe.

Mark Kramer, Copper Mountain’s manager of lift and electrical maintenance, said Colorado’s standards are always evolving. The Tramway Safety Board adopts national standards and builds on them based on constantly expanding knowledge.

At each revision since the 1960s, “the book gets thicker,” said Kramer, who’s been at Copper since the early 1990s.

As for the Teller Lift, it “would have never passed today’s standards,” Keystone spokesman Ryan Whaley said. Today, bullwheels have a sensor that, when tripped, stops the lift and indicates something is amiss, Kramer said.

It’s one of more than 250 similar safeties in place on most lifts, he added. They’re in place to protect the passengers, employees and the equipment itself. Brake systems have also changed over the years. There are four brake systems on most lifts, all of which operate in different ways to keep the lift from rolling backwards.

The wave caused by the detachment of the bullwheel would be minimized with today’s designs, Kramer said. Rope catchers existed in the 1980s, but they weren’t as well-designed or extensive as those currently in place. If a cable derails today, a wave is likely to travel just a few feet before being stopped.

“Everything is designed to bring a lift to a stop safely,” Kramer said, adding, “Everything is considered a fail-safe design.”

And that devotion to safety carries through the manufacturing, installation, operation and maintenance throughout the life of the lift, Kramer said. Two inspections take place each year, the first to award the annual license to operate prior to the lift opening, and one that’s unannounced during the season.

But like everything, it’s not a perfect system.

A major accident has occurred somewhere in the world almost once a year since the 1970s.

“(Accidents) do occur and have been deadly over the years,” Jones said.

If one thing comes from lift incidents – major or minor – it’s shared knowledge, Kramer said.

Jones said the “industry certainly came together” during and after the Teller Lift incident.

Kramer illustrated the point with a 2006 Sierra Chair structural malfunction that caused two individuals to fall to the ground at Copper. They weren’t injured, but the incident was reported as usual and led to changes at other resorts that also used the Yan fixed-grip triple chair.

The Tramway Safety Board monitors its incident database to look for trends. As Copper replaced its chairs, “other areas found similar defects in the carriers before anything happened,” Kramer said.

“We try to learn as much as we can to ensure (accidents) never happen again,” he said, adding that the Tramway Safety Board’s regulation is a collaborative effort between industry professionals, experts and interested citizens. I

Major equipment malfunctions are few and far between these days, Kramer said, and they’re usually due to poor maintenance or lack thereof, poor design or lack of use or abuse. Last year’s brake and gearbox failure at a Wisconsin resort was due to lack of maintenance, Kramer said.

He said minor malfunctions happen more frequently, but they don’t generally impact guests beyond a possible delay in getting the lift running again.

Instead, the most frequent impact to guests is the one they have on themselves.

“Loading and unloading situations are the most common lift-related injuries,” Kramer said, an assertion backed up by the list as well as records at the Tramway Safety Board.

Yan lifts still carry skiers at Copper and Keystone, as well as elsewhere in the country. Lift operations personnel tend to agree that Yan lifts made prior to 1980 are still reliable. Any questionable parts on Yan lift still in operation today have been re-engineered or replaced with parts from other manufacturers, Kramer said. The same is true at Keystone, Whaley said.

The same year Keystone’s Teller Lift sent ripples throughout the ski industry, the resort decommissioned its gondola, also a Yan lift. It was one of two to be installed in North America, and both were decommissioned.

“It was a $7 million mistake,” Jones said of the gondola, which was bought and installed prior to his presidency, but was still a young piece of machinery.

After several mechanical difficulties, he’d asked a Tramway Board inspector to look at the lift, hoping the inspector would say it had to be decommissioned. When the conclusion came that with maintenance and modifications, the gondola could keep turning, Jones made the executive decision to close it down anyway.

“We couldn’t take the risk of hurting employees and guests when we know there’s a problem,” Jones said.

Jones said the current gondola in place is made by Von Roll, and is the same model that’s been operating for 40 years in Disneyland.

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