An engineer will inspect Red Lodge Mountain's Willow Creek chair lift on Friday in an attempt to find out why one chair detached and fell to the ground on Wednesday, injuring two Billings teenagers.
"Our No. 1 concern is for the health of the two boys on the chair and the safety of our guests. That's the primary thing," said Jeff Schmidt, the mountain's manager. "And we're taking every step possible to figure out how this happened."
On Thursday afternoon, Andrew Higgins, one of the Billings teens involved in the accident, was "at home and just sore" said his father, Allen Higgins. The other Billings teen, identified as Austin Wallis, could not be reached for comment.
Provided no problems are found, the lift could be reopened on Saturday, Schmidt said.
At the time of the accident, Karter Estill, a Billings 18-year-old, was riding on the Willow Creek lift, about 15 or 20 chairs behind the two injured teens.
Estill didn't see the fall, or feel any vibration from the chair dropping. But as he passed above the accident scene, he was stunned to see his friend, Austin Wallis, lying on his back. Wallis was on one side of the pole with the chair to his right.
"I yelled down to him," Estill said in a phone interview Thursday.
"Are you guys OK?"
"He kind of gave me a thumbs up," Estill said.
The other teen, Andrew Higgins, lay on the other side of the pole with a bystander holding his neck.
"They were both snowboarders, so they were both strapped in," Estill said.
It took about three minutes for Estill and his friend to reach the lift's dropoff point. From there, they raced down to the accident scene on their snowboards.
"By the time we got there, there were already a lot of bystanders and a whole bunch of ski patrol," Estill said.
"I was pretty shocked that a whole chair had fallen off the cable. And I was pretty shocked to see one of my friends down there," Estill said. He hadn't realized Wallis was at the mountain that day until he saw him on his back in the snow.
Estill, who has snowboarded at Red Lodge for eight years, described the wind on Wednesday as coming in strong bursts. Earlier in the day, Estill said he was on the triple chair lift when the chair was blown sideways by the wind. After the accident, Estill and his friend continued snowboarding until the mountain's late afternoon closing.
Up and running
Despite Wednesday's unusual event, the ski hill was open for business almost as usual on Thursday. Two lifts were shut down because of high winds and another was temporarily closed but restarted when winds calmed. Four inches of snow had fallen, making the road to the mountain slippery in sections.
Visitation had declined to about 1,400 skiers and snowboarders on Thursday. That compared to two record-setting days at the beginning of the week. On Monday, more than 2,400 paid skier visits were recorded, 2,300 on Tuesday and 2,200 on Wednesday. The numbers were about 30 percent ahead of last year and topped the previous records by about 200 skiers.
It's hard to say whether the wind, day of the week or Wednesday's chair detachment reduced the number of skiers on Thursday.
Skier Barbara Henderson, who had brought her family of six from Watford City, N.D., for a three-day Christmas vacation at Red Lodge Mountain, wasn't deterred but was cautious.
"I was a little nervous about having my kids go up this morning," she said. "I was only allowing them to go up Miami Beach (chairlift).
"As a parent, you worry," she added.
Other skiers were not worried, convinced that the incident was a rare occurrence with little chance of happening again.
Old lift upgraded
The 1959 Willow Creek lift was modified and upgraded in 1983 and again in 2008, Schmidt said. All lifts undergo annual inspections, including inspections of the cables.
On the lift, made by the Riblet Tramway Co., the chair is attached to an "internal chair clip" that is inserted inside the tensioned cable that carries all of the chairs. The chairs are attached to the clips inside a tube that includes a bushing, washer and keeper pin. The mountain's Grizzly Peak and Miami Beach chairlifts are the same style.
The forged steel clips are inspected for cracks every other year and are stress tested. Because of how the chairs are attached, a complete release of the chair while under load is "uncommon," Schmidt said, although he said he had heard of two similar instances occurring at Lookout Pass ski area on the Montana-Idaho border and one at Mount Baker in Oregon.
"There have been incidents during unusual loading circumstances that they've come off at the load area," he said, for example when the cable advances but not the chair. But Wednesday's incident occurred halfway up the nearly 4,000-foot-long lift, which rises from just above the base area to the Midway Chalet.
The two teens had just reached tower No. 10 when the chair detached.
"I think the wind definitely played into it," Schmidt said. "We had gusts up high to 40 mph, but we had not had any gusts that high down lower."
Schmidt said he talked to two lift riders behind the detached chair who said it got "really windy when they were coming out of a tree tunnel."
He said the decision to shut down lifts isn't based on any one factor, such as wind speed. The direction of the wind also is considered, as is mountain topography which can block or enhance the wind speed.
Someone on a chair behind the teens notified a lift operator by cell phone that the chair had detached and the ski patrol was dispatched. The first ski patroller to reach the teens notified the lift operator that the chair had come off and two people were injured.
"At that point, we stopped loading the chair and ran everyone off," Schmidt said.
He added that he knew from experience that the chair had to have completely detached or sensors at the tower would have automatically shut the chair down. Confident that it was the chair that had malfunctioned and not the lift, Schmidt made the decision to continue running the lift to evacuate the remaining skiers and snowboarders before the lift was shut down. The lift has 114 chairs. Each one can carry two riders. The entire load capacity for the lift is 25,000 pounds.
Schmidt said the ski patrollers found the boys conscious, and lying on either side of the chair. They were tobogganed down the mountain to an ambulance and taken to Beartooth Billings Clinic where they were treated and released Wednesday night.
"It put us all on alert," said Henderson, the North Dakota skier, when she heard about the incident on Wednesday. "But you make those choices when you use those upper runs."
Reporter Donna Healy contributed to this story.