How Safe Are Ski Lifts? We Found Out

After several incidents of chairs dropping off of lift cables, we spoke to an expert to learn more about the safety behind it.

Photo: Courtesy Henrik Trygg / Getty

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Do you know that stat that people like to tell nervous fliers, about how flying is infinitely safer than driving? Well, we wanted to find out if the same applies to ski lifts.

After an incident at an Australian ski resort where a chair fell off of the lift cable, injuring three riders, and the third of its kind at the resort (twice with riders, once empty), and a skier died after falling 25 feet from a chairlift in Breckenridge in March, we began to wonder how common these accidents really are. Are ski lifts actually safe? So we spoke with an expert to find out (and maybe calm a nerve or too). 

“For the most part, I would say people have little to worry about when riding a lift of any kind.  Like any other form of transportation, such as automobiles, airlines, etc. lift safety has improved through the years,” Sean Doll, a professor of Mountain Resort Management Concentration at Vermont State University, told SKI. “The industry is currently in the throes of replacing and updating a significant number of lifts in North America with the most up-to-date advancements in lift technology and safety features.”

However, despite new advancements in lift technology, much of North America’s ski infrastructure is rapidly aging. Borvig, a lift company that has since gone out of business, was the manufacturer of the lift involved in the near-death chair fall at West Virginia’s Timberline Mountain Resort in 2016. At the time of the incident, the lift was 31 years old. Many of the Borvig lifts are still in use at resorts across the East Coast, Mainly Timberline Mountain, Sugarloaf, and Sunday River. 

Several days after Timothy Yates and his daughter were injured in the Timberline Mountain incident, Vermont’s Suicide Six Resort closed a 40-year-old Borvig lift after there were concerns with cracks spotted in infrastructure, according to an original Outside report. 

Two years after this particular accident, the National Ski Areas Association shared a statistic in their Annual safety report: “A passenger is five times more likely to suffer a fatality riding an elevator than a ski lift and more than eight times more likely to suffer a fatality riding in a car than on a ski lift.”

The most recent survey from the NSAA reported 46 skier or snowboarder facilities from the 2022/2023 season, reported 46 skier or snowboarder facilities from the 2022-’23 season, with the survey noting the vast majority occurred with “male skiers on more difficult “intermediate” terrain. The survey also found that the fatality rate was less than one in one million riders. 

“Fatalities from the chairlift and aerial ropeway mechanical malfunctions are rare,” according to the NSAA’s most recent chairlift safety fact sheet. “There have been 14 fatalities stemming from mechanical malfunction incidents from 1973 through 2020.” It went on to say that 86 percent of passenger falls from lifts are attributable to passenger behavior and only two percent were the cause of a mechanical or operator error. 

According to Doll, there are over 2,800 lifts at over 470 ski areas in just the United States, and despite reports that make local and even national news, lift incidents are few and far between. 

I do not believe people should be worried about lifts,” Doll said. “These lifts operate daily with a relatively low number of incidents, and most of those incidents are minor, such as stoppages and the like.”

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