Mt. Sima to reopen this weekend after chairlift evacuation

The skiing must go on. After a circuit board failure shut down its chairlift on the weekend, stranding about 150 people high above Mt. Sima for up to 3.5 hours, the Great Northern Ski Society has vowed to open the hill again on Thursday.

The skiing must go on.

After a circuit board failure shut down its chairlift on the weekend, stranding about 150 people high above Mt. Sima for up to 3.5 hours, the Great Northern Ski Society has vowed to open the hill again on Thursday.

It will use the T-bar lift to ferry diehards up the slopes. Lift tickets will be half price.

November’s record snowfall created ideal conditions at the resort, which saw its earliest opening drawing a record 550 skiers. Then, around 2:30 p.m., the chairlift’s electrical engine broke down.

Chairlift operators had stopped the machine to help a younger skier get on. It failed to restart.

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

“They tried various things on the electrical side; they determined there was no electrical power, for some undetermined reason,” said Craig Hougen, president of the Great Northern Ski Society that oversees Sima’s operations. “So they went to the 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.”

While the finer details are still murky, an investigation has led Sima executives to believe the chairlift was disrupted by a circuit board failure on the lift’s main panel, triggering the emergency shutdown sequence. It is believed the automatic safety function not only prevented the restart of the electrical engine but the backup diesel motor as well.

“The chairlift will resume operation once the board is replaced and the reason for the failure is determined,” said Hougen in Tuesday’s media release.

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 an additional hour to clear.

“We have one span that is quite high and we had some difficulty getting the rope down there,” said Hougen on Monday. “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.

“I’m told there are lifts in the south that take a full eight hours for a full evacuation,” he added.

“We did it essentially in two-and-a-half – three-and-a-half for everybody.”

Although trapped on the lift for two hours with her mother, Whitehorse snowboarder Vanessa Brault seemed more displeased with missing out on more runs in the great conditions.

“It was a beautiful day and we were pumped to be there,” said Brault. “The snow was great and I was having the best day ever at Sima; it was fantastic.

“I have a season’s pass and I can’t wait to go back. It was really unfortunate, but it could always be worse.”

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.

“You were instructed to put the T (shaped) bar between your legs, wrap a strap around your waist, and lift the (safety) bar on the chair,” said Brault. “You were coaxed to slide off – and not hit your head – and it was really smooth. There wasn’t anything like where someone slid off the chair and dropped five feet rapidly.

“It was cold, but they didn’t seem panicked, they just plugged away at what they were doing. They took it seriously and they didn’t try to rush anybody.”

Considering the evacuation was a first for the resort, and there were no reported injuries, Hougen dismisses the bad press and focuses on the positives from officials’ response to the situation.

“It is actually a good news story,” said Hougen. “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.”

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 this 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.

“It’s so heartwrenching because I’ve been following the whole Sima thing for the last six years and it’s only been getting better,” said Brault.

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