Next time a chairlift deposits you safely on the icy, windswept summit of your favorite ski resort, thank Robert Pirie and his two cohorts. Pirie is one of three ski-lift inspectors, officially called “passenger tramway technicians,” employed at the Vermont Department of Labor. It’s their job to ensure Vermont’s ski lifts whisk gnar shredders up the slopes without incident.
Most of Vermont’s resorts have in-house maintenance staff dedicated to keeping the lifts in working order, but Pirie and his coworkers oversee that maintenance on the public’s behalf. With 184 ski lifts and more than half a million feet of cable to inspect each year, that’s no small job.
Pirie, 58, grew up skiing at the now-defunct Skyline Ski Area in Barre for 50 cents a ride, but he didn’t set out to be a tramway tech. After graduating from Vermont Technical College in 1972, he went to work in the nuclear-power industry as a piping designer, first for an engineering firm near Boston and later for a company in San Francisco. Pirie’s first foray into ski-lift mechanics came in 1978 when he took a job as maintenance engineer at Killington Resort. He worked there for 24 years before the promise of more predictable hours lured him to his state job.
The issue of ski-lift safety was recently jolted into public consciousness when a lift derailed at Sugarloaf Mountain Resort in Maine, sending passengers plunging 30 feet to the ground. Vermont had its own chairlift emergency just days later when a mechanical failure at Mount Snow forced the evacuation of some 200 passengers from a lift using ropes and harnesses.
Each state inspector takes charge of foreseeing and preventing such incidents in a swath of Vermont. Pirie’s territory covers chairlifts at Stratton, Bromley and Magic, plus several smaller slopes with T-bars and rope tows. He does annual inspections and unannounced “spot” checks. Typical winter days involve riding the lifts and reviewing maintenance logs. In the summer, Pirie hikes or drives a four-wheeler up the slopes, where he climbs the steel towers and inspects infrastructure that’s covered with snow all winter, such as tower bases.
“I do a lot of hiking,” Pirie says. “I take my backpack, and I’m gone for the day.”
SEVEN DAYS: What are you looking and listening for when you inspect a lift?
ROBERT PIRIE: Abnormal noises, overheating, misalignment of the cable. I’ll look at the documentation on hand and make sure the brakes have been tested recently and engines have been run recently. And then I’ll ride the lift. I’ll be checking alignment of the cable on the towers, and checking seat pads and restraint bars of the chairs going past me on the lifts coming down to make sure everything’s attached properly.
SD: What went wrong with the Mount Snow ski lift?
RP: On a big engine like that, there’s a carburetor. Inside that is a little float valve that delivers fuel to the engine. The float valve was stuck in the closed position, so there was no more gas. The engine just stopped. That’s unusual. That might happen once or twice a season.
SD: What did you think when you saw the ski-lift accident at Sugarloaf in Maine?
RP: I saw pictures of people lying in the snow injured. I got slightly sick in my stomach, that sinking feeling … It’s so unusual that I needed to know what happened. I wanted to make sure none of the lifts under my jurisdiction could have that problem.
SD: Do any resorts in Vermont use that same kind of lift?
RP: The [manufacturer] of the lift is Borvig, and we have some in the state [at Stratton and Suicide Six]. But this incident, I’m sure, has nothing to do with the brand. On each tower there are cable catchers, and if the cable comes off the sheave — the wheels — it’s supposed to land in this cable catcher, not go completely past. I really don’t know what kind of mechanical malfunctions they had on that lift.
SD: Have you ever ordered a lift shut down for safety?
RP: Yes. That’s not common, but the legislature has given [me] the authority to do that if I see an issue that I consider an imminent risk, such as a severe misalignment, nonfunctioning brakes or a backup engine that won’t start.
SD: Do you ski or snowboard yourself?
RP: Yes. I can ski while I’m inspecting.
SD: When you’re skiing for leisure, can you leave your work behind, or are you constantly inspecting?
RP: It’s something that’s with me all the time. For instance, at the Great Escape in Lake George, [N.Y.], they have a little, flat chairlift, and I can’t stop looking at it — inspecting!
Feeling inspired to hit the slopes (and the inspected, safe ski-lifts that take you to them)? Check out our Vermont Ski & Ride Resort Guide for the rundown on all of Vermont's ski mountains.