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FOX 13 Investigates: Meet the obscure Utah agency monitoring ski lift safety

Posted at 6:54 PM, Dec 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-27 20:54:15-05

PARK CITY, Utah — What goes through Judd Sather’s mind when he’s sitting on a chair 100 feet in the air?

“Yeah, sometimes when it gets higher than that, it gets a little scary,” Sather, a Minneapolis resident wearing ski gear in downtown Park City, said Monday.

One hundred sixty-seven skiers — some of whom were three stories in the air — were rescued Christmas Eve when the Carpenter Express lift failed at Deer Valley Resort. Learning what happened is the job of an agency few have heard of: the Passenger Ropeway Safety Committee, a division of the Utah Department of Transportation.

The committee requires an annual inspection for every chair lift and gondola at every resort in the state. Mitch Shaw, a spokesman for UDOT, says records show Carpenter Express had its inspection; the lift received its annual registration from UDOT Dec. 1.

“Technically speaking,” Shaw explained, “we don’t -- UDOT itself -- our employees don’t inspect the lifts. A third party does it, and then they provide the information, the inspection information to us.”

Those third parties are qualified ski lift inspectors. When a lift fails, the owner is required to notify the committee within 24 hours. A written report is due within five days.

Shaw says the committee has the authority to tell a resort to stop using an unsound lift, though he’s not aware the committee has ever had to do so.

Utah chair lifts and gondolas every year carry hundreds of thousands of skiers, snowboarders, mountain bikers and hikers. Accidents are rare.

One of the worst happened in July 1966 when a woman and teenage girl died at Timp Haven. It later became Sundance Resort.

Steve Graff, the vice president of mountain operations at Deer Valley, said the Christmas Eve breakdown on Carpenter Express was “a catastrophic failure.”

“The specific part that broke down was the flex coupler between the motor and the gear box,” he explained.

The part works much like the drive shaft in a car.

“It was actually a brand-new part that we put in this summer as part of our routine maintenance,” Graff said, “and currently, right now, we think it was a manufacturing defect within that part.”

It took more than two hours to use hoists to rescue all the stranded skiers. Graff said those skiers received compensation based on the pass they had that day.

Carpenter Express was hauling skiers the next day.

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