Mt. Sima evacuates chairlift on opening day

For those who were here for Mt. Sima Ski Resort’s truncated 2007/08 season, Saturday was ominously familiar. With its earliest opening in the resort’s history, a record number of opening-day passes sold, the unthinkable happened: the chairlift’s electrical engine broke down.

For those who were here for Mt. Sima Ski Resort’s truncated 2007/08 season, Saturday was ominously familiar.

With its earliest opening in the resort’s history, a record number of opening-day passes sold, the unthinkable happened: the chairlift’s electrical engine broke down.

When the backup diesel failed to fire up as well, the only remaining option was a chairlift evacuation – the first in Sima’s history.

“It is actually a good news story,” said Craig Hougen, president of the Great Northern Ski Society that oversees Sima’s operations. “You have a situation where, in 17 years, there has never been a lift evacuation.

“We have a small infirmary that wasn’t needed. But we had our staff down there, we opened the restaurant, everything was free, serving hot chocolate, coffee, soup, whatever we had.

“The kids were the coldest because they have the smallest body mass – and some of them were pretty cold. But we wrapped them up in blankets by the fire, they were attended to by a number of our people.

“Here you see people looking after people that don’t necessarily know each other.”

As happens numerous times during an average day of operation, Sima chairlift operators stopped the machine to “help one of the younger skiers get on,” said Hougen, but it wouldn’t start up again, stranding 150 skiers high above the slopes. Only two chairs were empty at 2:28 p.m. when the lift failed to restart.

“They tried various things on the electrical side, they determined there was no electrical power, for some undetermined reason,” said Hougen. “So they went to diesel back-up.

“The diesel backup is run every week on a test bases; it was used to run the chair in the summer for the mountain biking; it’s used frequently.

“Never, ever has it not started.

“We think the issue is one of the many safety issues built into the lift that activated improperly and prevented the diesel motor from starting,” he added.

With the training exercise for such a situation fresh in their heads, having done it just days before, Sima employees, and the Whitehorse Fire Department, managed to evacuate all but one chair in approximately 2.5 hours. The final chair, which stopped at the highest point of the lift in the widest span between towers, took another hour to clear.

“We have one span that is quite high and we had some difficulty getting the rope down there,” said Hougen. “This morning we’ve had two debriefs already and I’ve seen a list of at least 50 recommendations on ways we could improve what was already a very successful evacuation. So we’re going to be able to deal with that time-lag right there.”

To evacuate the skiers and snowboarders from their perches, rescuers used ropes with two belayers on the ground to lower chairlift passengers one at a time while strapped in a safety harness.

“I’m told there are lifts in the south that take a full eight hours for a full evacuation,” said Hougen. “We did it essentially in two-and-a-half – three-and-a-half for everybody.”

At this point in time it does not appear fresh wax jobs and sharpened edges will not go to waste this season. Believing the technical failure to be minor – although nothing yet can be confirmed – the resort may reopen as early as Thursday, provided the chairlift engine does not require a part to be mailed to Whitehorse.

“We will not open until we understand what happened, why it happened and what the solution is so it won’t happen again,” said Hougen. “Once those three conditions are met, and not until those three are met, we will open.

“We are treating this with great urgency, with great care, and safety always proceeds everything else.

Mt. Sima had to cancel its 2007/08 season after a mechanical failure of its chairlift and an unrelated mishap with its T-bar involving a piece of the structure falling off.

Since reopening the following winter, Sima has seen a number of additions, including snowshoeing and a six-storey ice-climbing tower last year.

This summer it was announced Sima will soon become a year-round attraction with the addition an adventure park, made possible by a $1,555,880 injection by the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency.

Sima did offer cyclists downhill mountain biking for the first time over some of the summer. In a situation not too different from Saturday’s, the lift’s electric engine, which was not designed for summer temperatures, overheated. To correct the problem, Sima used the diesel motor for the rest of the summer months, relying on the electric engine as a backup.

Contact Tom Patrick at tomp@yukon-news.com

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