Lift safety a gray area; US skiers make startling Nordic tracks

Ski lifts are in the news again, for both good and bad reasons. The good news is that across ski country, new, high-capacity, faster chairlifts are reducing lift lines - or at least keeping them manageable. In particular, the popular new quad (four-seat) detachable chairlifts (they allow slow loading and unloading while producing a super-fast ride) appear to be revolutionizing ski lifts. That's especially true in the Rockies, where resorts are getting in line to put up quads.

The bad news involves recent gondola accidents at Mount Snow, Vt., and Sugarloaf, Maine. Although there were injuries in both derailments, fortunately neither was the catastrophe it might have been.

Both lifts were more than 20 years old, and metal failure appears to be involved in each incident. At Mount Snow a four-foot hanger connecting a gondola cab to a cable grip broke, and at Sugarloaf the counterweight cable snapped, catapulting the lower bullwheel 15 feet forward into a safety stop, according to officials at each resort.

Mount Snow says the hangers on its 23-year-old gondola underwent special tests to detect weakness in the metal after the accident. ``We found indications of fatigue-type cracks,'' said general manager Chris Dymond. ``But because we couldn't determine the rate of propagation, we've decided to replace the lift.''

Sugarloaf says the counterweight cable on its gondola, which was installed in 1965, had never undergone special tests for metal fatigue or wear, a process that requires disassembling the lift and relieving tension on the cable.

According to Chris Stoddard, secretary of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) B77 Committee, which establishes US ski lift standards, metal testing of hangers and grips is usually required in skiing states. But Stoddard also says he knows of no state laws, insurance requirements, or even industry standards requiring cables such as the one at Sugarloaf to be taken down and tested for metal fatigue and/or interior, nonvisible signs of stress.

He maintains that the Sugarloaf accident was unusual, that lift malfunctions comprised only 0.02 percent of all ski-related accidents last year, and that age alone is not a sufficient reason to retire relatively stationary cables, like the one at Sugarloaf. ``The Brooklyn Bridge has ropes that are 100 years old, and they are doing just fine,'' he says.

Maybe. But at a time when ski areas are celebrating anniversaries numbering anywhere from 25 to 50, skiers might feel a lot more comfortable knowing that any metal cable or part that's been there from the beginning either has to be replaced or pass the most demanding metal tests available. Metal does get worn, old, and tired.

Could that be a reason why, according to Sugarloaf, that the State of Maine is considering possible mandatory replacement of all cables after a certain period of use?

Meanwhile, Stoddard says, the ANSI B77 Committee is now considering possible new standards for ski lift manufacturers, including using state-of-the-art computerized models of stress. After the mishaps at Mount Snow and Sugarloaf, we can only say, ``Gentlemen, do not tarry.'' Two silvers for the Americans

Just when it looked as though the US ski team was giving up on ever again doing much in Nordic skiing, 29-year-old Kerry Lynch of Denver has given Nordic buffs new hope. After cross-country racer Bill Koch, Lynch is possibly the most talented Nordic skier the United States has ever produced. In 1983 he won three major international Nordic Combined events (a combination of both cross-country racing and jumping) and was considered the finest Nordic Combined athlete in the world. He underwent knee surgery after the 1984 Winter Olympics, sat out the '85 season, and saw limited action last year.

At the beginning of this season he was quoted as saying: ``I'm trying to come back for one reason - because I don't want to wonder at 35, 40, or 50 years old if I could have made it back.''

Last week, Lynch was glad he had made the effort. At the Nordic world championships at Obertsdorf, West Germany, he finished second in the individual Nordic Combined event.

The silver was only the fourth medal an American has ever won in Nordic competition in either the Olympics or the world championships. The only other native American to have won any is Koch himself, who captured the silver medal in the 30-kilometer cross-country competition at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck and won a bronze in the same event at the 1982 world championships in Oslo.

Said Lynch after his performance:

``The big difference for me now is being older, more mature in my psychology. I stayed calm, just skied, had fun, and had no pressure.''

Meanwhile, another unprecedented achievement occurred for American skiers at the World Biathalon Championships at Lake Placid, N.Y. Josh Thompson, of Dennison, Colo., took a silver in the 20-kilometer event, which is the highest finish ever for an American in international biathalon, a grueling sport combining cross-country racing and riflery.

It seems that retiring US Nordic program director Jim Page was right when he said: ``We can be good, and I'm glad I still feel that way.''

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