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The Thousands Of Colorado Ski Injuries That Resorts Don’t Tell You About

From 2011 to 2017, there were approximately 100,000 emergency room visits and hospitalizations across Colorado for ski- and snowboard-related injuries.
COURTESY WILLIAM BUTTON

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On a Sunday afternoon in February, a 6-year-old girl fell 29 feet from a chairlift at Eldora Mountain Resort and was rushed to the hospital with injuries.

The incident prompted two moms in Boulder to launch an online petition demanding safety improvements. About 1,000 people signed it. Eldora responded, but their claim that such incidents are “extremely rare” did not sit right with the moms.

“It said thank you for your feedback, but we basically stand by our public statement that says we’re reviewing all of our policies,” said Leigh Fiske, one of the moms. “But the problem with that is we don’t know how rare it was because we can’t get the data.”

Though the girl was attending ski school, the moms claim she wasn’t properly loaded into her chair. This led Fiske and others to ask more questions about safety at Eldora, like why small children may ride lifts alone and what’s being done to prevent future falls. But the moms said they couldn’t even find out how many other similar chairlift incidents there were at the resort.

All of this transpired as KUNC was in the midst of its own two-month investigation into safety at ski resorts, which led to the discovery of little-known data held by the state that documents thousands of ski- and snowboard-related emergency room visits and hospitalizations across Colorado each year. But scant specific-injury numbers are available from resorts.

 

The only resort-specific injury information KUNC could find was a small sliver of the overall injuries — those that occur on chairlifts.

‘When I dropped I thought I was dead’

The state agency that oversees lifts — the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board — provided a spreadsheet after KUNC filed an open records act request. It happened to answer one of the questions the moms in Boulder have been asking. It showed two other recent chairlift falls at Eldora, both in 2015, with one involving a child.

It also provided an overview of chairlift incidents in recent years. Between January 2013 and March 2018, there were 74 falls or slips from chairlifts at resorts around the state. About a third of those were children.

KUNC tracked down some of those injured through incident reports that resorts file with the board after someone is injured on a chairlift, including 12-year-old Jacob Keeping of Castle Rock. He was dangling from a chairlift at the Granby Ranch resort in February 2018.

Aimee Keeping and her 12-year-old son, Jacob, who fell from a chairlift at a Colorado resort last year. CREDIT MICHAEL DE YOANNA / KUNC
Aimee Keeping and her 12-year-old son, Jacob, who fell from a chairlift at a Colorado resort last year.
CREDIT MICHAEL DE YOANNA / KUNC

 

“I was yelling at the top of my lungs,” Jacob Keeping said.

He said he held onto the back of the chair in a stretched out position for several minutes as another boy on the lift, about his age, encouraged him to hang on.

“When I dropped I thought I was dead,” he said. “Well, not dead, but I thought I was going to die.”

The report on Jacob Keeping was filed by the resort. It read: “To the best of our knowledge the child (Jacob Keeping) turned sideways on the carrier to look behind and then slipped and fell to the ground.”

Jacob Keeping and his mom, Aimee, dispute the resort’s narrative. They claim that lift operators were not paying attention and missed the boy’s cries for help. The Keepings added that their side of the story was not included in their report.

An official with Granby Ranch referred KUNC to Colorado Ski Country USA, a state trade association, for comment on the case. The organization did not return a request for comment about that case.

Lindsey Jackson of Tampa, Florida, was sightseeing during a visit to a Colorado resort in 2017 when her 3-year-old son, Carter, suddenly fell out of a chairlift and plunged to the ground.

“At this point, we’re about 25 feet up in the air and I heard a scream and I looked back and my son is on the ground,” she said. “I blacked out for a little bit out of sheer terror.”

Her son had been riding in the chairlift behind her with her husband. Luckily, the child wasn’t seriously hurt. The parents felt they had done everything right. It was their first time on a lift and they say they followed safety instructions.

“We had told him to be safe and sit back,” Jackson said.

The boy fell out through the back of the chair.

For most injuries, according to tramway board reports reviewed by KUNC, the “cause” of chairlift falls was attributed to “skier error,” including the cases of Carter Jackson and Jacob Keeping.

DOWNLOAD “Falls from chairlifts at Colorado ski resorts 2013-2018” PDF DOCUMENT

KUNC asked the state tramway board what more it does after chairlift falls that are found to be the fault of the passengers. The board declined requests for an interview, but in an email said their focus is limited to the “structure and mechanics of the lift.”

“The ski areas may be able to assist you with questions regarding safety initiatives for skiers,” Lee Rasizer, a spokesperson for the board, said in the email.

Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs for the Lakewood-based National Ski Areas Association, a major trade group, added that resorts educate passengers about proper chairlift use. He cited the long-standing skier responsibility code that states people must “know how to use the lifts safely,” even children.

“There is a consistency of human error, which is why we as an industry and individual ski areas focus on guest education in loading, riding and unloading chairlifts,” Byrd said.

But Larisa Wilder, one of the Boulder moms alarmed by the Eldora incident, said that the code goes too far by holding passengers, especially small children, so accountable.

“Anatomically and developmentally, they are not capable of putting themselves on that lift,” Wilder said, noting children are permitted to ride in chairs that were built with adults in mind.

Wilder added that there needs to be more accountability on operators when there are chairlift falls and that the state tramway board should investigate falls independently to ensure future passengers don’t face the same hazards.

Eldora officials declined to be interviewed. In an email they told KUNC: “We take safety seriously, from the way we train our teams to the way we operate the resort,” adding that in the wake of the incident they are reviewing all policies and procedures related to children on lifts.

The moms have begun reaching out to state lawmakers with questions about safety on chairlifts, like whether restraint bars should be required. Currently state law does not require their use, even on the lifts that have them.