I am not a ski lift spotter. Like most skiers I suppose, I tend to see lifts as a means to an end and don’t pay much attention to their finer points. But a spate of nasty chair lift accidents recently got me wondering about what is being done about enhancing uplift safety.
Quite a bit it turns out. Chair lift safety is not a new issue (check out this French article about it almost two years ago to the day) and the major ski lift manufacturers have been working on it for a lot longer than that.
So here’s what I found out about some of the innovations to be aware of and look out for:
Automatic safety barriers
I’ve come across a few new chairlifts where the safety bar comes down automatically, stays locked for the journey and opens by itself just before you disembark. The first time I rode one, it was a bit disconcerting because you get to the top and you think it’s not going to open in time to let you off. That was the Plan du Moulin Express chair in Saint Sorlin d’Arves, part of the Les Sybelles ski area. The chairs also have kid stopper fittings (see below).
I hear La Toussuire, also in Les Sybelles, is putting in a new detachable chair with automatic safety barriers next year as well, to replace its Ravières chair which is often used by ski school classes.
Kid stopper fittings
These are the plastic flap type things attached to the bar that close the gap between the bar and your legs, so they won’t let a little kid slip down.
Individual foot rests
Individual foot rests mean each person on the chair sits with their legs on either side of a vertical foot rest bar so, again, you can’t slip down. It didn’t occur to me that that was the reason why when I first rode the new Grand Conche chair in Les Crosets in the Portes du Soleil that has them (and automatic barriers as well), but it seems like a simple solution… as long as you sit in the right place on the chair.
Telemix or combi lifts can be seen in a handful of French ski resorts now and are gaining in popularity because of the flexibility they offer. Basically you can have both chairs and cabins on the same lift so families and ski school kids, pedestrians and beginners can easily take the cabins and more experienced skiers and boarders can choose to save time and take the chairs. Here’s what Doppelmayr, one of the big three manufacturers (the others are Poma and Leitner), says about them:
“Thanks to its high flexibility, this system is the ideal choice for tourism areas with winter and summer operation. Depending on the season, weather conditions or the customer requirements, the ‘mixing ratio’ of the carriers can be flexibly modified. In the summer, cabins can be used to transport wheelchairs, pushchairs and bicycles. In the winter, families highly appreciate the comfort of the cabins, while swift winter sports enthusiasts prefer to use the chairs where they do not have to take off their skis and snowboards.”
Les 7 Laux has one of the first combi lifts – Le Grand Cerf – which has been in operation since 2004, winter and summer.
Montgenèvre and Orcières both have two telemix lifts each and La Clusaz has one and is obviously happy with it as they are planning to put in another one next year.
Stick ’em on
All this new technology is great stuff, but there’s no way every resort can whip out all their older chair lifts and replace them with brand spanking new ones overnight – not at double figure millions of euros a pop. So another option is to retrofit existing chairs with magnetic fittings.
Every single chair lift in the 3 Valleys reportedly now has a magnetic closure that keeps the safety bar locked closed for the duration of the trip, only releasing just before you disembark. You still have to lower the bar yourself when you get on but there is a safety shutdown mechanism if you don’t lower it, and the lift stops.
Quite a few resorts now also have one or two seats per chair with a magnet in the back rest and all little kids in ski school classes wear magnetic vests (that double as a back protector) that stick them to the back rest so they are held in place for the journey and cannot come loose. The mechanism automatically releases them at the top.
Damien Laymond of Sommital, the company that sells this Magnestick® system (and is a subsidiary of 3 Valleys lift company S3V), told me you can retrofit a chairlift with the magnetic bar locking device for 1800 euros a chair – still not exactly cheap, when you consider an average chairlift has 70 chairs, but a heck of a lot less than installing a new chair.
Besides upgrading where possible, my view is probably the most important thing resorts and ski lift companies can do – and are doing – is train their staff and raise awareness among lift users. Domaines Skiables de France, which represents French ski resort operators, issued a statement last week reiterating the safety regulations for children on chairlifts and good practice guidelines for all chairlift users. The basics are no kids 1.25m or smaller on chair lifts, a kid should always ride right next to an adult and, of course, lower the safety bar and keep it lowered till just before you arrive.
Several times I have had a small kid from a ski class shoved in next to me on the chairlift, and it can definitely be a worry. You yank them as far back into the seat as you can, but their little legs don’t reach to the foot rest and they look like they could easily slip under the bar, so you watch them like a hawk all the way up and hang on to them as much as possible.
We live in a society that increasingly seems to try to regulate and soothe us into thinking we’re safe, and some people end up abdicating responsibility. But, as these accidents have so tragically reminded us, there is no such thing as zero risk.