Sugarloaf ski lift accident: high winds plague New England skiing

Sugarloaf ski lift accident investigators are focusing on high wind as a primary factor in the derailment in Maine Tuesday. While the accident is unusual, the high winds are not.

Pat Wellenbach/AP
Sugarloaf Mountain in Carrabasset Valley, Maine, saw a 35-year-old chair lift derail in high winds Tuesday. The Sugarloaf ski lift accident investigation is continuing.

Speculation about the cause of a ski-lift accident that injured eight at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine Tuesday is increasingly turning toward high wind as a primary factor.

While the Sugarloaf ski lift accident is extremely unusual – the cable of the lift actually derailed, with five chairs falling to the ground 30 feet below – the specter of high wind is nothing new for New England skiers.

Wind had been gusting up to 40 m.p.h., and the lift that derailed – the Spillway East – had been put on “wind hold” earlier in the morning.

“Wind holds” are a part of life for New England skiers. New Hampshire’s Wildcat Mountain, for instance, sits across a valley from Mount Washington, home to some of the highest recorded wind speeds. Moreover, the lifeblood of New England resorts – the Noreaster – can often be a harrowing event as much as a gift of the white stuff.

On Tuesday, nearly two feet of fresh snow from the post-Christmas Noreaster might have helped prevent injuries, said one skier on the lift when it broke.

"Thankfully, they didn't groom it last night, so they left it like it was," said Rebecca London. "So the snow was all soft."

Sugarloaf’s Spillway East lift had passed an inspection recently but is due to be replaced this summer because of its age and vulnerability to wind.

The Bangor Daily News quoted John Diller, Sugarloaf's general manager, as saying in late August that he hoped this would be the last winter for the lift.

"A fixed-grip quad will provide faster and more reliable transportation for skiers and, due to its additional weight, will be significantly less prone to wind holds than the current lift," said a website dedicated to Sugarloaf's master plan.

Season pass holder Betsy Twombly witnessed the aftermath of the accident and praised the quick work of Sugarloaf workers, who she said worked calmly and efficiently to get people down from the lift and off the mountain.

"I expected to see hysteria, but there was none," she said.

• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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