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Jan 22, 2020

The Only Time It's OK to Jump Off a Chairlift

The resounding reply from the experts is no, no, no. Don’t jump off the chairlift. Not ever. (Photo: Wouter Struyf/Stocksy)
Vogel

At some point, almost every skier or snowboarder who has sat on a stalled chairlift has wondered, Could I just jump off here? The resounding reply from the experts is no, no, no. Don’t jump off the chairlift. Not ever. In addition to the high risk of getting injured yourself, you’re putting the people on other chairs around you in danger in ways you don’t understand. So stay put, and wait for the lift to restart. Or, in those rare instances when the chair really is broken, wait for ski patrol to get you down. But there are those truly unique cases when breaking the rules may be the only option. In this episode, we tell the story of very unlucky snowboarder who was forced to make the worst kind of choice. 

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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EPISODE BEGINS 

Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Podcast. 

Michael Roberts (Host): Most skiers really like riding chairlifts. I don’t have any hard evidence to back this up, but I did take a quick poll of the Outside staff and, yeah, they like the lifts. One of my colleagues went so far as to say that when she’s on a chairlift, she feels like she’s home. And why not? I mean, if you ski a lot, you’ve spent hours and hours on lifts, sitting next to good friends, or at least other people who are in a great mood. People on chairlifts are on a mission to have fun. What’s not to like? But then, sometimes, usually when you’re all alone on a lift, and you look down at the snow or trees below. And then you look up at where the chair you’re sitting on is attached to a steel cable, and you think: Wait, is this thing safe?

Every so often, things do go wrong. There was that incident in Montana at the start of this year when a chair got snagged and was ripped off the cable. Nobody was on it, though. Or, much worse: in 2016, a woman and her two daughters were thrown off a lift that malfunctioned in Colorado. Both children survived, but the mother didn’t. Still, that was the first fatality due to a chairlift malfunction in the United States since 1993. Because chairlifts are technically modes of transportation, their operation is regulated by state and federal agencies. They have to comply with national safety standards and insurance policies. They are regularly inspected and repaired, just like  escalators and elevators. 

And speaking of elevators, the National Ski Areas Association likes to point out that you’re five times more likely to die riding an elevator than a ski lift. So there’s that. The point is, lifts have rarely failed. What’s far more common is a lift just stopping for a while. It happens all the time. And, usually, as skiers, we just wait it out... and try to stay warm. But not always. Producer Alex Ward brings us this story about a skier who had to ask himself: Just how long can I wait?

Josh: In the morning, we were in the cabin up on the mountain and it was a really, really cold day. We were debating whether we should go skiing or not.

Alex Ward: This is Josh. A few years ago, he and his family went on their annual ski trip in the mountains of North Carolina. Josh was fourteen years old at the time, and the lone snowboarder in a family of skiers.

Josh: And, um, we started snowboarding and having a good time. And it was a couple of hours before the night skiing when it started.

[Music begins]

Josh: I think we had been skiing for about four hours. I usually hang out with my brother when I go skiing, but at the end of the day I wanted to go off on my own and that's what—I did that a lot. I like to go on some hard ones.

Ward: On that evening, the lift where Josh was snowboarding would be closing soon before the resort flipped over to night skiing. He didn’t have a night skiing ticket, so he wanted to get one last run in before the day was over. He got a seat alone on a chairlift and began riding up the mountain. But as he approached the top of the lift, where the chair usually slows down so you can hop off safely, the lift kept moving. He says it didn’t slow down at all. He told me he yelled out to for a lift operator, but nobody seemed to see him or hear him.

Josh: It did not slow down at all. And it was—it would have been unsafe for me to try and get off of that. And I didn't want to fall, you know, six feet and bust my head open. 

Ward: Hey, no biggie, thought Josh.

Josh: Okay. I'll just ride the ski lift down the mountain. I'm not gonna, you know, try and get off and hurt myself, so I'll just ride it to the bottom and then get off. Even if it doesn't slow down down there.

Ward: So, off Josh went back down the lift. The truth was, he was glad to be heading back to the lodge. He was hungry, it was getting dark, and it was about 12 degrees and dropping fast. But then, when the chair was almost halfway down the slope, the lift stopped.

[music stops] 

Ward: Now, if you’re a regular skier, you know that this happens occasionally. And usually, the lift boots right back up within 30 seconds or so. Some beginner skier probably flubbed the loading or the unloading, right? But this time it didn’t start back up. It stayed stopped. 

[music resumes]

Ward: This sucks, right? When your day at the mountain has been reduced to just...sitting. You know, the swirl of questions starts in your head. Is the lift broken? Is someone coming? How do I get down and get home, because it’s really cold. You find yourself looking down between your skis at the snow and thinking: “I’m pretty sure I could nail this jump.” We’ve all thought about it. It’s okay. It’s a perfectly natural instinct—especially when it’s super cold or there’s a foot of fresh powder on the mountain and you’re watching everyone below you just tear it up. Maybe you’ve actually gone for it. Or if you’re like me, you have chickened out every time. Which is the correct instinct.

Andrew McCloskey: ...Like, don't jump off chairlifts, right?

 

Ward: That’s Andrew McCloskey, a ski patroller for over 12 years at Alta Ski Area in Utah.  

McCloskey: I like skiing. That's about it.

Ward: Andrew’s spent so many years on patrol that he’s seen it all. And he says that of course there’s the obvious risk of personal injury by jumping off a chair lift. Most lifts are 30+ feet above the slope, and unless it’s a crazy powder day, you’re basically landing on solid ground. But what you might not realize about jumping is the potential to seriously mess up everyone else’s day.

McCloskey: Like, if you choose to jump off, I don't really care what happens to you, because you made a really dumb decision to jump off a chairlift. Right? I mean, I mean that seems really wrong and stuff, but that's something you've done to yourself, right? 

No, it's way more important is that everyone else on that chair has now been compromised because of something that you did.

Like, it doesn't seem like that 150 or 200 pounds, you know, leaving the chair suddenly would make a difference, but it can.

Ward: Oh, you don't mean for the people, you don't mean like there's the risk of jumping, but you mean like what that sudden loss of weight on the lift does to the whole lift? 

McCloskey: Definitely. You can derail a chair by jumping off of it. Yeah, maybe you've been sitting there for fifteen minutes and the ground's only like ten feet away, but don't jump off the chair. Just stay in the chair. 

Ward: So from your perspective as someone on the ski patrol, what problems does a chairlift introduce into a ski area for as convenient as it is? What problems does it bring?

McCloskey: Uh, not many. [Laughs] Well, without them, I mean, there wouldn't really be ski areas. Uh, they are an amazingly efficient mode of transportation. You know, people ride cable forms of transportation all over the world every day, and, you know, it's pretty safe. You know, chairlifts don't collide with each other at intersections. It doesn't take too much power to run them. They're pretty green in the grand scheme of things. Without them, we wouldn't have ski areas. 

 

Ward: Okay, let’s check back in on Josh. He had been sitting in the chairlift for about fifteen minutes since it stopped, and as far as he could tell, nobody was within earshot, especially with the wind and snow. His chair had stopped over a wooded area, about thirty feet off the ground. The sun was just about set, and darkness was starting to take over. So he did the sensible thing. He fished his phone out from the lowest layer of his clothes, where he’d been keeping it warm.

Josh: And I tried to call my mom or someone to get help. And when I pressed the call button, my phone shut off, because it said it was too cold. It just didn't work.

 

So, after that moment, I was like, ‘Well, I'm going to be up here for a few hours.’

 

On my tag, I had times that told me when the day skiing would be over and the night skiing would start. So I looked at the tag, and I decided that I was just going to wait it out and wait for night skiing to start. And they'll probably start the ski lift up again. That was about a two hour wait.

Ward: With the temperature still dropping, and the lift still not moving, Josh settled in and waited. Either the ski patrol was gonna find him, or the lift would start back up.

Although it was very cold up in the chair, he had plenty of layers on. He knew he could tough it out for a couple hours. All he had to do was sit there. 

[Musical pause]

Ward: Fifteen minutes became a half hour. Between the temperature, hunger, and fatigue, the wait became increasingly difficult. An hour went by. Then two hours. The scheduled time for night skiing to start up came and went. Apparently it wasn’t happening on his lift that day. 

Josh: Once I realized the night skiing was over, I waited a little bit longer, but after that point I was up there for several hours and it was—the temperature outside was like five degrees before the wind chill, which was extreme. And it was also snowing. So I was fighting off the code as hard as I could on that little lift.

I started drifting off, and once I couldn't really stay awake anymore on my own… I didn't want to fall asleep. Cause I knew that wouldn't end up well. I’d probably not wake up.

Ward: Not surprisingly, Josh’s family had become concerned when he didn’t come down the hill at the end of the day. His mother reported him missing, but for whatever reason, nobody found him on the lift. 

And when night skiing re-opened, he still hadn’t turned up. No one knew that he was still sitting on a chairlift, getting colder and sleepier.  

Josh: The main thing I was thinking when I was up there was that—you know—I don't want to die. I want to get out of this somehow. But also, if I couldn't, I just wanted to be able to say, you know, ‘I love you’ to the people, you know, my family. And I didn't want to go without saying goodbye, I guess.

So, when I realized no one was coming, I decided that it was time to do something for myself. At the end of the day I wasn't just gonna sit there and freeze. Um, I had a lot to live for it, you know? I was fourteen years old. And another gut-drop was that it was on Valentine's Day. So that was like the loneliest Valentine's day in history. [Laughs]

Donovan Power: For the average person, don't jump off the lift for sure. You're not going to be able to take the impact. I mean, it's, you're like risking your life by making that decision.

Ward: This is Donovan Power. He’s a former member of the U.S. ski team and is now a coach at Snowbowl in Montana. And when you’ve skied as much as Donovan has, you’ve tried everything.

Power: With the obvious, um, known fact that I have never jumped off of any of SnowBowls’s lifts—seriously—I've jumped off lifts literally all over the world.

It would always end up being, like, the mogul courses halfway up the run or halfway up the lift. And like, I don't need to ski an extra thousand vertical feet every run. Um, and there's a low point on the lift and it's soft, so like, everybody's jumping off the lift. We would wholesale—you know, thirty of my friends and me—would jump off. Because we thought it was kind of fun to be like a scofflaw.

Ward: Ah, to be a scofflaw again and ignore the rules. Especially ones that are hard to enforce. Like, say, jumping off a lift when no one is around.

To be clear, we definitely do not condone that. But sometimes the best insight about a rule is to talk to someone that’s who’s broken it. Many times.

Power: It's just like, would you risk an uncontrolled fall from thirty feet onto the surface below? You probably shouldn't, right? I mean, but you know, I had a buddy that was also on the US ski team with me, and the lift stopped at a particular place. And after they stopped for an hour and they're like, you know, practicing back in the day, you know, my Daffy twists or spread combination five times before you, you take the twenty foot drop and flip everybody off and ski down.

Ward: And this was a representative of our country on the slopes? 

Power: Sure. Yeah. Wearing the red, white and blue. Along with all the other silly patches.

Ward: Keep in mind, Donovan and his team were young, pro skiers at the time, with finely tuned body control and a precise knowledge of their physical limits. If you find yourself on a lift that seems completely stalled, just wait. 

Power: Like, what do you do? You're stuck on the chair lift. I mean, what you really do is try to stay warm and wait. Cause they're going to come and get you. And the process is going to be something that you're going to have a sweet story to tell. You may not be pumped that you had to sit there for two hours, but you know, getting roped off of the lift and then skiing away is a pretty exciting adventure for your day, too. You'll definitely remember it. I remember every time I’ve gotten roped off for sure.

Ward: In most cases, the lift is fixed and running again soon. And when it isn’t, there’s a thorough and methodical method in place for ski patrol to safely empty the lifts. It’s something that Andrew, the ski patroller at Alta, has done before. 

McCloskey: The ski patrol will break into teams of generally three people. We will then go to the different towers and the span between those towers. Somebody takes a long, like thin mil cord—like a six mil cord—that's a full loop, in a throw bag style stuff sack. They will climb the tower with that rope.

Ward: Once up there, they clip a cord onto a line that goes down the middle of the lift called the communication line, or comm cable. They then drop the throw bag back to the ground, so they now have a fixed line from the chairlift cable to the ground. After using the line to belay up stronger climbing rope that is hooked onto the chairlift, they hoist up a small seat. 

McCloskey: A little wooden platform. It's probably six by twelve, and that's mounted to an L-shaped piece of metal.

Ward: They have the passenger put on a small harness that's attached to the chair, have them scooch onto the seat, and lower them back to the ground. Unload, and repeat. Over and over, chair by chair, until the lift is cleared. 

And how long does that take to evac a whole section?

McCloskey: Oh, I dunno. It's a couple minutes a person. So, with a quad chair, ten minutes a chair, so maybe twenty minutes, half an hour. And that's, I mean, literally, it starts to add up, you know.

Ward: Patrol teams need to unload each chair in every lift section, which means resetting this whole system between each tower. Even though you might know you might be rescued, it could be a long time just sitting there in the cold. 

Power: It's scary for sure.

Ward: One day at his ski area in Montana, Donovan was training some young students when the lift stopped for awhile. He yelled up and down the line for everyone to wait and not jump off, and that ski patrol would eventually be coming. Then he told everyone to unbuckle their ski boots.

Power: You right away begin to run the risk of frost biting your feet. If you have heavy boots hanging on your  feet, and you're not getting good blood flow to your feet, which lots of people—I mean, some large percentage of people that ski—if they are forced to just sit on a lift and hardly move their feet would within an hour be risking frost biting at least your toes. So it's pretty serious. I mean, right away you certainly have to be shuffling your feet. Unbuckling your boots. Making sure that you have as much blood flow as you can. Keep moving, you know, as much as you can from a seated position.

Ward: But you would reiterate that in that scenario... I mean, eventually, sitting on a cold lift is going to be a life and death situation. But should it should probably only get to that scenario before you jump. Is that right?

Power: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. I mean, period, there is a point where you're going to jump off the lift. You're not going to stay on the lift all night. You can't make it. That's impossible. Everybody could just travel with, you know, 50 feet of 5 mil and a beaner and a belay device, and a little bit of skill and everybody could be completely safe, but generally chairlifts are much more safe than that. I don't know what--I think that might be the equivalent of, um, traveling with a parachute when you fly. I mean, if for some totally bizarre reason you're stuck there, you at some point have to make the decision to jump off. Which most people will certainly never have to make. But that's the mind game that you're going to be stuck in.

[Musical pause]

Josh: I decided that, you know, if something was going to happen, it was going to have to be me doing it. 

Ward: We’ll be right back.

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Ward: At this point, Josh had been on the chairlift in well-below-freezing temperatures for several hours. He’d run out of all the options he could think of, except his last resort.

Josh: I thought, you know, I'm probably going to die. And if I jump, there's a slight chance I might make it. So it was either, you know, freeze to death or take a chance and jump. It was not in my plans to do, but once I felt truly, that was my only decision, and I had waited for night skiing to start, and I was up there for several hours, I decided that if something was going to happen, it was going to have to be me doing it.

Ward: Remember, Josh’s chair had stopped over a section of forest on the slope. He estimated it was about a thirty foot drop, even though he couldn’t clearly see the ground. In this situation, you might think about shimmying across the cable back to a tower, but you’d have to be an expert climber to pull this off. With cold hands, puffy gloves, and slick ski pants on, it’s a slim chance to make that traverse. Plus, you increase the height of the drop and ensure you will have no body control of the fall if you slip. So, with all this in mind, Josh got ready to jump. 

Josh: I dropped my snowboard down before I jumped to see how hard that… I thought I might land on some snow, but my snowboard just bounced off the ground and slid away. Like if you dropped a piece of wood. It just bounced up in the air and then slid away. Onto solid ice. Yeah, I was really hoping for some soft snow, but you know, that's not what I got. Once I decided what I had to do, I prayed, and got my jacket off, and I tied it to the bottom of the lift with one of the sleeves.

Ward: Josh decided to use his jacket to dangle off the chair before jumping. It was a smart move to shorten the distance of his drop as much as possible. Once his jacket was tied off, he crawled under the chair, shimmied down the length of his jacket, and hung from the lowest point he could.

[Music swells]

Josh: And then I fell.

[Dramatic musical pause]

Josh: And then I remember my feet hitting the ground. And as soon as they did, I got knocked out. Once I woke up and I realized that I wasn't dead, and that I wasn't paralyzed, you know, it was just such relief to be on the ground again. Like, at that point, I knew I could crawl down if I needed to. The shock was still, you know, in my body. Cause I just jumped thinking I could possibly die. I had a very high amount of adrenaline going.

Ward: Josh tried to hoist himself up, but immediately realized his right arm was broken. And when he tried to stand, he couldn’t support any weight. When Josh fell, he’d hit the ground at a slight angle, with his right leg landing first. His right heel had shattered into dozens of pieces, and his ankle was destroyed. His left leg had some stress fractures and his right arm had broken in three places. That basically left him with one good limb--his left arm--to get him to safety. 

Josh: I was in a wooded area and I was probably about three quarters of the way up or about halfway through it, so I was pretty deep into it.

Ward: To make it out, Josh had to crawl out of the woods, onto a service path, and then across another ski slope to where people were night skiing. In total, Josh crawled about 1800 feet that night. That’s six football fields of snowy ice, without his jacket—which was still tied to the chair—and with one arm. It took him almost two hours.

Josh: Every bump in the ground, every rock, every pile of snow in my way, was definitely a lot more painful than it should have been.

Ward: Eventually, Josh reached the active night skiing slope and yelled out at the first two snowboarders he saw going by. They went and got help, and Josh was taken on a sled back to the lodge. He was treated by medical staff and eventually taken to the nearest hospital and stabilized. It’s been almost 4 years since that night, and Josh is eighteen now. While the initial outlook for his recovery was grim, Josh stayed upbeat and did better than anyone expected. 

Josh: The doctors told me it was a miracle that I was able to recover the way that I have, and that I didn't die or become paralysed. I just decided to go all in and get lost in my craft, whatever I was doing, because if I wasn't spending all my energy and time focusing on something I was passionate about, it was hard to live in two casts and a bunch of broken bones.

Ward: Josh was determined to get back to the things he loved. So he did. He eventually returned to sports at his high school, joining the wrestling team and even getting the starting spot at running back on the football team.

Josh: I was just so determined to come back as a better person, that I actually grew a lot through that event. 

Ward: The situation Josh found himself in is extremely rare. There was a perfect storm of many small things adding up to a big thing, which is a common pattern in disasters. You will probably never find yourself choosing between freezing to death or jumping from a chairlift this ski season, but it might be a good idea to plan for long chairlift stalls on cold days. Tuck away some snacks into your pocket, remember to unbuckle your boots if it’s going to be a while, have enough layers on you, and—just in case—carry a portable phone charger. And, most importantly, don’t let a fear of chairlifts get in the way of having a good time. After all, the majority of a ski day is spent on a chairlift. Donovan, the former U.S. ski team member, estimates he’s spent about 8,000 hours of his life on chairlifts. And even he still likes it. 

Power: I love riding the lift with my wife. I'm trying to tell her jokes and keep her entertained so she doesn't get too cold. I mean, my favorite thing for sure is to go a day with four or five of your really good friends. We ride double chairlifts. So you get, like, a little shot of one homie, then another shot of the next one. You know, as you go through the day and people are just, like... generally, it's probably the happiest place on earth. Because everyone’s outside exercising and enjoying themselves.

Ward: And even if you get stuck on a cold chair for awhile, just think how much better it’ll make the end of the day seem.

Power: ...Where you can all sit around the table together, and be like, Oh my God, I can't believe, you know, whatever! I can't believe you launched that. I can't believe how deep it was. I can't believe how shitty it was. You know, like, whatever the adventure is for the day. It's, you could recount it, you know, over like a tasty beer and some hot soup. It's, like, it's awesome.

[Music]

Ward: A special thanks Josh for sharing his story and to his mom, who was a huge help with this episode. She says she is incredibly proud to be Josh’s mom and is still humbled by his strength. Josh is now a college student in Tennessee majoring in management and business. He says he hasn’t gone back to snowboarding yet. But he plans to.

[Music]

Roberts: That was Alex Ward. He produced this episode, which was edited by me, Michael Roberts. Music by Robbie Carver. This episode was brought to you by the 2020 Ford Explorer, built for life’s adventures. Learn more about what it can do for you and meet Modern Day Explorers like Eric Larsen at outsideonline.com/explorers. 

We’ll be back next week.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.