Steamboat Springs A mechanical failure shut down Steamboat Ski Area's Storm Peak Express lift just after 9:30 a.m. Friday, stranding about 70 skiers and snowboarders for more than two hours. Ski Patrol crews eventually lowered the riders to the ground with ropes, harnesses and small metal seats.
Cold toes were the only injuries reported as a result of the shutdown. Temperatures at noon Friday were 19 degrees at the mountain's summit and 29 degrees at mid-mountain.
Andy Wirth, vice president of sales and marketing for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., said the problem occurred with the lift's mechanical drive system. As of Friday afternoon, Wirth said ski area maintenance crews still were diagnosing the problem. Wirth said he didn't know how long the Storm Peak lift would be out of operation.
"We're still isolating the problem," Wirth said Friday evening. "The lift staff is on the mountain right now in the cold and adverse conditions.
The shutdown occurred at the beginning of the busy Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. Monday is a federal holiday.
"There's no question that Storm Peak Express is one of the great lifts on the mountain," Wirth said. "But at the same time, our lift system and redundancies put us in a great position to mitigate the situation."
The ski area's Bar UE lift runs roughly parallel to Storm Peak Express. Skiers and snowboarders also can reach the summit of Storm Peak by riding the Sunshine Express or Sundown Express lifts and traversing to the Storm Peak area.
The ski area's gondola also shut down for about two hours Friday morning. Wirth said that closure was because of high winds reported by the National Weather Service, and no riders were stranded as a result.
Doug Allen, vice president of mountain operations, said the last lift evacuation was in 1986. The Storm Peak Express was installed in 1992, when it replaced the Storm Peak triple-chair.
About 20 Ski Patrol members worked the evacuation, while another 30 ski area staff members guided rescued skiers and snowboarders to Thunderhead Lodge for warmth and a complimentary meal. Everyone stranded on the lift also received a one-day ski pass, Wirth said.
Head Ski Patroller John Kohnke said each lift at the ski area has its own evacuation plan, and his crews train for them all.
The first step is to send a patroller down the entire lift line checking for stranded riders with medical issues, disabilities or children while also assessing the number of riders stranded on the lift, Kohnke said. Following the initial assessment, patrol crews are sent to sections of the lift according to the lift's numbered towers.
To lower stranded riders to the ground, patrol crews scale the towers and attach ropes, harnesses and a metal seat to the lift line. Ground crews then move the equipment to riders on the lift, while giving them instructions.
"It was like rappelling," Maryland resident Neil Brodsky, 54, said about being lowered to the ground by Ski Patrol members. "Once I was in the seat and had the rope over me, I was pretty comfortable."
Brodsky said he and family members sat on the lift from about 9:30 to 11:40 a.m., stuck at a spot just before the Burgess Creek ravine and near the landmark tree adorned with undergarments and clothing.
The most challenging part, Brodsky said, was shifting his body from the chairlift to the metal seat held up by Ski Patrol.
"That's a little intimidating," he said. "You're just trusting them down below. But the scariest thing I saw was Ski Patrol climbing the ladder."
Ski Patrol Supervisor John Floyd said the Burgess Creek area was the most challenging part of the evacuation because Ski Patrol crew members had to scale lift towers more than 70 feet tall to attach ropes and seats onto the lift line.
"When we lowered people down, they were in willow bushes or almost in the creek itself," Floyd said. "But it all went very smooth. The Steamboat Ski Patrol is a team of well-trained, professional individuals. I'm proud to be a part of it."
While having lunch in Thunderhead Lodge, Susan Flinn of Sanibel Island, Fla., said Ski Patrol provided a reassuring end to her two-and-a-half-hour wait.
"Ski Patrol was awesome," said Flinn, 42, adding that she had enough skiing for a while. "We were dancing (on the lift), trying to keep warm. I'm done - I haven't been skiing in 13 years, and I'm done for the day. I'm going to the bottom of the mountain, and I'm going shopping."