Little Cottonwood Canyon »Greg Holmes, a Phoenix business owner on ski vacation in Utah with his family, said he remembers first using chairlifts when he skied as a boy.
In those days, few resort chairlifts came with restraint bars.
Now that he's a parent, and now that most ski runs offer them, Holmes said he makes a point of using the restraint for his son.
Standing at the base of Snowbird Ski & Summer resort's "Mid-Gad" lift while his 5-year-old son Dylan fidgets, Holmes said he would have no qualms about taking his son on a chairlift without a restraint bar. As long as he kept one eye extra on his son.
"The trick is always making certain you know what your child is up to," Holmes said. "Most of the time he sits pretty still. He knows he's up high."
As in 30 to 40 feet, the distance most resorts and ski areas put between their patrons and the ground below.
That was the distance a 4-year-old girl fell while riding the Sunnyside chairlift Dec. 19 at Alta Ski Area, according to Unified Fire Authority Capt. Clint Smith. The girl was face down in the snow and not breathing after the fall. She was revived by CPR and flown to Primary Children's Medical Center, and suffered a minor concussion. She was released the day after she fell, authorities said.
Twelve days later, at Snow King Resort in Jackson, Wyo., a 7-year-old boy fell 30 feet. He suffered a minor head injury and ruptured lung, according to The Associated Press . The boy was taken to a Salt Lake City hospital were his condition was declared stable.
Falls by two children in such close succession may lead some to question safety protocol at ski resorts, and if children are being short-changed. Industry groups and at least one long-time veteran of lift-operations management insist, however, that resorts do all they can to ensure the safety of children who ski their slopes.
Tom Patton, lift operations manager for Snowbird, said that during his 30 years in the business of overseeing lifts for five resorts and ski areas he has only known of two incidents among perhaps 20 million lift rides in which people of any age have fallen from their lift chairs. Last month's falls, Patton said, represent "an extreme anomaly."
"In all honesty, transportation by aerial cable ways is one of the safest modes of transportation there is," he said.
On its Web site, nsaa.org, the National Ski Areas Association notes that less than 10 percent of all fatal skiing injuries befall skiers and snowboarders "under 10 or over 50 years of age." The majority of fatalities in skiing fall roughly in line with the same population of people who die or suffer injuries in other high-risk ski behaviors, typically men in their late teens on up to their early 30s.
As frequent visitors to Utah resorts and ski areas know, warnings and other postings dot trails and the inside of lodges. Industrywide recommendations for responsible behavior admonishes skiers and snowboarders to stay in control, among other tips. Specific to chairlifts, skiers are given posted warnings on lift polls to never swing or sway the chair, and check for any clothing or equipment that may have become attached to the chair before getting off the lift.
"We have no way of monitoring what patrons do when they leave the lift station," Patton said. "All we can do is advise our patrons on safety measures."
The age at which a child may ski a resort or area is often left to parental discretion, but many resorts set the age-limit for lessons at age 3, as is the practice at Snowbasin resort, said Jodi Holmgren, director of marketing and public relations.
"Abilities just vary so much," Holmgren said. "You could have a 24-year-old adult that may not be as agile as a 3-year-old in terms of loading the lift."
Holmgren said Snowbasin has upgraded two of its lifts from a "fixed grip chair" to "detachable grip lifts." The detachable lifts allow for more speed up the hill, yet slower loading and unloading times for enhanced safety.
All of Snowbasin's chair-lifts feature restraint bars, said Holmgren. Patton said all of Snowbird's chairlifts feature them as well.
Even so, Patton said, studies have failed to show that using restraints reduces the number of people who may fall out of a chair. Only New York and Vermont require patrons to use restraint bars. Every other state, including Utah, operates on the volunteer system.
Alta Ski Area does not have restraint bars on any of its lifts. Dustin Thompson, a Salt Lake City Internet developer skiing the resort with his 4- and 6-year-old sons Saturday, said Alta's chairlifts don't bother him one bit.
"I'm their restraint monitor," Thompson said. "They know the rules: Sit all the way back, no dangling, no leaning forward and if a ski falls off your foot, let it fall off."