The pine trees started closing in on the Short Cut chairlift at Park City Mountain a full day before ski patroller Christian Helger slid onto his seat.
Lift operators discovered one caught on the cable early on New Year’s Day and its removal caused the lift to open late. That afternoon, as the ski area welcomed more than a foot of snow, another tree started listing toward the haul line. The lift was stopped while that tree, too, was chopped down.
Then, overnight, nearly another foot of wet, heavy snow fell at the resort. So even though clearing trees in the winter is “rare” and typically happens fewer than five times a season, according to several employees, resort operators should have known the probability of another tree encroaching on the lift was high.
That was one of the conclusions in a report from the Utah Occupational Safety and Health Division. It determined Park City Mountain made a “serious” violation on Jan. 2 when a tree hit the Short Cut lift cable, causing Helger to fly out of his chair and fall an estimated 60 feet to his death in the snow below.
Vail Resorts, which owns Park City Mountain, was fined $2,500 for the workplace safety violation.
The report noted that the tree fell on the side of the cable carrying loaded chairs up the steep slope between the Red Pine Lodge on the backside of The Canyons area and Lookout Cabin on the front. Only Helger was thrown from the lift, though 10 people had to be evacuated.
One ski patroller who was among the first to the scene and was later interviewed by UOSH investigators said with all the branches and pine needles scattered around, it looked like a tree “had exploded.”
The terrain made it difficult for patrollers to quickly reach the man, according to the report. The first patroller to the area had to wait for a “lifeguard” to arrive because of the pitch of the slope and the accompanying avalanche risk. When she did reach Helger, all she could see were his lower legs and skis, the report stated. The rest of him was buried under the snow. She radioed out that it was an emergency rescue and that Helger would need to be dug out. One of the patrollers also called for a helicopter, Summit County Sheriff spokesperson Andrew Wright said, but thick cloud cover and the still-falling snow made it too dangerous to send one out.
Helger, 29, a recent transplant to Utah who spent his summers as a firefighter and climbing guide, was declared dead at the scene. Because the terrain was so steep and wooded, his fellow patrollers loaded his body onto a toboggan and had to pull it to the top of the lift using ropes and their own strength. Later, a medical examiner would determine the cause as asphyxiation.
Ski lift deaths are rare. The National Ski Areas Association has tracked them since 1973 and found that through 2020 only three resort employees have died in a lift-related accident.
Park City Mountain shut down the Short Cut lift after the ordeal and did not reopen it for the rest of the season, which ended May 1. The tree that fell on the lift was alive and failed at the root according to a ski patrol report that is cited in the UOSH document.
All chairlifts in Utah must be inspected and certified yearly by the Passenger Ropeway Safety Committee, a division of the Utah Department of Transportation. The inspections ensure the lifts meet standards set by the American National Standards Institute, a national nonprofit. One of ANSI’s requirements is that trees and other vegetation be at least five feet away from the lift path, according to UDOT traffic and safety director Robert Miles, who serves on the ropeway safety committee. If they encroach on the path, Miles said, it is the operator’s responsibility to cut them back.
The tree leaning over Short Cut on the afternoon of Jan. 1 was noticed by a maintenance worker performing a standard lift check called a “line ride.” Yet at Park City Mountain, the largest ski area in the United States, the majority of those checks fall to lift operators who perform them prior to opening a lift, the UOSH report found. One lift operator said in the report that they check that the cable is centered on the sheaves and that there are no trees leaning on the line.
As for trees threatening to fall on the line, however, one lift operator told investigators “he would not know what an unstable tree would look like.” Another employee cited in the report said lift operators have “no idea” what to look for because they’re usually newer and younger employees. A third employee, a patroller who started as a lift operator at Park City Mountain, said he was never told to look for unstable trees. He added that lift operators feel pressure to get lifts open in the morning and have “no time” to perform thorough checks.
There appears to be little recourse if resorts do not adhere to ANSI’s standards, however. The standards are generally considered voluntary. And while the safety committee can withhold certification until a lift passes inspection, it cannot levy fines, UDOT spokesperson John Gleason said. He said the resort plans to repair the lift and have it inspected and ready for the 2023-24 season.
The UOSH report concluded that “Vail Resorts should have been aware of the hazard of possible falling trees around the Shortcut Lift. An employee with more training, such as a Ski Patrol employee, should have been assigned to examine the Shortcut Lift line prior to opening on January 2, 2023, for hazardous trees.”
Vail Resorts plans to appeal UOSH’s findings.
“The Park City Mountain team is deeply saddened by the tragic death of our team member, Christian Helger,” resort vice president and CEO Deirdra Walsh said in a statement. “We extend our deepest sympathy to his family and friends.”