In an odd chain of events this week, two chairs at ski areas on opposite sides of the state fell from their chairlift cables within 24 hours of each other.
At Montana Snowbowl on Tuesday, a double-seat chair struck a lift operator in the loading zone causing the chair to swing off the Lavelle chairlift cable and land in the snow. The Lavelle chair accesses the upper part of Snowbowl.
Almost 24 hours later, a chair carrying two teenage snowboarders fell from Red Lodge Mountain's Willow Creek chairlift midway up the mountain on Wednesday. The two 17-year-old passengers were treated for minor injuries at a Red Lodge hospital and released.
The difference between the two events, said Snowbowl owner Ronnie Morris, is that no one on the Lavelle chairlift was ever in danger. In fact, the chair falls off the cable when it's bumped as a safety precaution.
"They're totally different lifts," she said. "The chair would have to be empty and upside down for it to fall off."
On Tuesday about 12:30 p.m., the lift operator in the Lavelle loading zone went to pick up some signs that were knocked over by a skier. The empty chair moving around the bull-wheel in the loading area hit the lift operator, causing the chair to swing, hitting the hayloft at the top of the tower and swinging off the cable.
"It's designed to come off," Morris said. "Otherwise it might hurt the cable."
And that could cause the cable to derail.
The loose chair caused the cable to come off its wheel, triggering a safety switch to stop the lift, she said. The entire chairlift was evacuated, which took about an hour and 45 minutes. Later that afternoon, the chair was back on the cable and the Lavelle lift, which was installed in 1984, was up and running like normal.
Every year, the clips holding chairs to the cable are examined in Spokane for wear and tear, Morris said. The chairs are placed back on the lift cable in a different location to avoid weak spots. It's a routine part of chairlift maintenance, Morris said.
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Snowbowl has to report incidents like this to the U.S. Forest Service and its insurance company within 24 hours of the accident.
The last time a chair fell off a cable at Snowbowl was last summer when an older gentlemen didn't get out of the way at the unloading zone quickly enough. Often, these incidents occur either in loading or unloading zones, Morris said.
The chairlift has redundant safety features, all of which worked perfectly, she said.
Immediately after the incident, messages from inquiring skiers began piling up on Snowbowl's Facebook page. Just as quickly, some of those messages disappeared, which was unnerving to some skiers and snowboarders.
"People have called and asked me and I told them what I told you," she said. "I can't tell you how many times it has happened, but it has. Our skiers have a tendency to be fairly knowledgeable. It's the social media stuff. Someone posts a photo of a chair on the ground on Facebook and it makes it into something sensational."
Snowbowl on Thursday posted an explanation of what happened with the chair derailment and apologized for any inconvenience it may have caused customers.
Meanwhile, across the Continental Divide, an engineer will inspect the Willow Creek chairlift on Friday at Red Lodge Mountain in an attempt to determine what caused the chair to fall to the ground, injuring the two Billings teenagers.
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.