Howelsen chairlift shuts down leaving skiers, boarders stranded

Over the weekend the Barrows Chairlift was shut down twice, once on Saturday stranding riders for more than an hour and then again on Sunday forcing the downtown ski area to cancel Ski Free Sunday. Howelsen Hill ski area supervisor Brad Setter said the aging chairlift has been repaired.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Howelsen Hill Ski Area manager Brad Setter describes the events at Howelsen Hill last weekend as a perfect storm, but not the kind that he welcomes.

”It was a perfect storm this weekend,” Setter said. “Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong..”

The problems started Saturday, when the Barrows chairlift, the only lift in operation at the downtown ski area, broke down leaving skiers and snowboarders stranded high above the slopes for more than an hour as temperatures hovered in low 20s and a steady wind raced up the steep-pitched face of Howelsen Hill.

“It was slow, like slower than it usually is, when we got on,” said Kendall Harrington who was training with her snowboarding team at Howelsen. “I checked my watch, and it was around 11:15 a.m., or somewhere around there, when we got on the lift. We didn’t get off until like 12:40 p.m.”

Harrington said she did her best to pass the time, talking with her friend seated next to her and singing songs.

“The wind was blowing straight up the face and then just hitting us,” she said. “Luckily, I was with a friend, and we just talked about random stuff, talked about what we were going to do afterward and about how cold it was.”

What to do if you’re stuck
  • Cover up as much exposed skin as possible.
  • Keep moving to some degree just to keep as warm as possible.
  • Know that ski patrol, fire department and other rescue agencies are doing as much as possible to get you down in the quickest, safest way.

“It’s a terrible situation to be in, but you should know that between ski patrol, the fire department and everybody that would be working to get someone down in those conditions — we would  be working as quick as possible, and so more than likely, we’d get them down before anyone is suffering from  hypothermia,” said Chuck Cerasoli, deputy chief of  Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue.

On the ground, crews were working to diagnose the problem. Eventually, those same crews hooked up a second motor and were able to transport those on the lift to the top where they could get off. Harrington said there were only a couple of people in front of her on the exposed face and wasn’t sure how many were behind her. Setter could not say how many people were on the lift when it stopped.

Deputy Chief Chuck Cerasoli said Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue was called out and arrived just as crews got the lift running. He said, at that point, there was no reason for a rope rescue.

“They did call us out just in case, but when we got there, they were able to fire up their backup generators,” Cerasoli said. “They were able to get everybody off that way, and we didn’t actually have to evacuate anybody.”

Cerasoili said cold temperatures are always a concern.

“The immediate dangers are things like frostbite and frostnip. The biggest thing is to try to stay covered and not get any of that,” Cerasoli said. “Generally, people would get cold, but you probably wouldn’t see any extreme hypothermia, although, you could be getting close to it at that point.”

Cerasoli said an ambulance was sent to the lodge where those that had been stranded were served hot chocolate and sent inside to warm up. He said that none of those on the lift were transported by ambulance.

Setter said Saturday’s problems were caused by a problem in the low voltage system, which caused the shutdown. On Sunday, the lift experienced a second, unrelated shutdown caused by a problem with the hydraulic brake, which clamps down when the system is not energized and keeps the lift from moving. In this case, crews were able to isolate the problem and fix it. Nobody was on the lift at the time.

“It took us a couple hours to get it going, and it took a little while to troubleshoot it,” Setter said. “We chose not to load the public on it just in case. … We wanted to run it for a little while and make sure we had all bugs worked out of it before we opened it back up.”

On Monday, Setter was confident the lift was operating properly, and he expects it to be in use when Howelsen Hill reopens for the week. He said the good news is the ski area’s Poma lift should be open soon.

 “We’re about to turn the corner here,” Setter said. “Hopefully, we’ll be running that very soon.”

The lift will got through an inspection at the end of the week, and if all goes well could be certified and in operation later this week or early next week. The Poma has been closed this season as part of a $124,250 refurbishing project that includes replacing the motor, the gearbox and the drive of the most-used lift at Howelsen Hill.

“Magic Carpet Lifts, Inc. out of Denver helped us with this refurbishment, and we contracted with them,” Setter said. “They’ve done a great job so far, and I’m looking forward to getting the public on it.”

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.

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