Expert testimony helps 1984 Riblet chairlift pass muster

Camden learns about refurbished chairlifts, woven grips and haul ropes

Select Board reaffirms redevelopment committee's work
Wed, 04/10/2013 - 1:00am

    CAMDEN — The Camden Select Board met for 2-1/2 hours Monday night covering a variety of topics focused around the Ragged Mountain Recreation Area Redevelopment Project's planned installation of a 1984 Riblet triple chairlift. In the concluding two minutes of the meeting, they were unanimous that the committee preparing the project to be turned over to the town for next steps is on the right track.

    The Riblet chairlift was purchased by the Ragged Mountain Area Foundation in 2010 with donated funds it raised. It was purchased from Shawnee Peak ski resort in Bridgton, a purchase that the Select Board was notified of in a letter from Foundation President Bob Gordon, who also asked for permission to store it on town property.

    The redevelopment plan came about after Horizons Engineering and the Glen Group released results of its Long Range Plan and Feasibility Study in the fall of 2006. The Study concluded that improvements and updates to the Ragged Mountain Recreation Area could stabilize the "somewhat volatile financial history of the existing operation."

    The primary components of the redevelopment project, with a budget of $6.5 million, include a new base lodge, designed to function both as the base lodge for winter programs and a lodge community center/recreation center for the rest of the year. The committee had decided to pursue building a new lodge, rather than trying to remodel the existing one, and site the new lodge closer to Hosmer Pond.

    It also includes, to wit, a new beginner area, relocated and redesigned tubing hill with a lift, a "new-to-the-area used, higher capacity chairlift" to replace the big T-bar, expanded snowmaking system, and reconfigured entrance road and parking areas. The plan also calls for further development of the woods trail system, increasing connections to the surrounding trails on properties conserved by the Coastal Mountains Land Trust, improving access to more than 1,000 acres for mountain biking, hiking, cross country skiing and snowshoeing.

    Of the $6.5 million in facility improvements, $3 million was budgeted for the new lodge, $2.39 million was for winter operations improvements (lifts, snowmaking, trails, tubing), $.54 million for site improvements (summer trials, parking, utilities, landscaping, lighting) and $.57 for professional services (engineering, architecture, fundraising, legal).

    Private fundraising through the Foundation has been underway, with the Foundation providing a minimum of $4.5 million, or 70 percent of the project funding. The plan asks Camden taxpayers to support the remaining 30 percent of the project costs through a municipal bond, up to $2 million that would be paid back over 25 or 30 years.

    The March 8 special meeting was called after resident Stephen Smith delivered a letter to the Select Board last week requesting further review of proposed redevelopment budget items, namely the planned installation of a refurbished lift. Smith, a local architect and lifelong skier, is also a member of a group called Friends of the Snow Bowl that in June 2011 submitted two alternative lodge designs passed over by the committee.

    In his March 29 letter, Smith cited chair grip and haul rope safety concerns, concerns about the way the Riblet chairlift had been stored since its purchase in 2010 and today's costs to rebuild the chairlift and install it, since it was not intended to be languishing unused going on three years. Smith also questioned the wisdom of installing a major piece of machinery from a company no longer in business, whether parts availability would become an issue, especially given that there would be no manufacturer's warranty options.

    "I am not aware of any other area in this country, while upgrading their facilities, that has installed a 29-year-old used chairlift as their primary and only lift on the mountain other than the beginner hill," wrote Smith in his March 29 letter.

    Monday night, Smith was represented by attorney Paul Gibbons. The town invited two experts to speak, including George Sawyer, an independent ski lift installer, and Ross Stevens, a lift engineer who has worked for both Camden and for Shawnee Peak, installing the latter's new lift after selling its Riblet to the Foundation. Stevens previously worked with the committee on assessing the lift from Shawnee Peak, as well as provided preliminary engineering design for the relocation of the Riblet triple chair to the Camden Snow Bowl.

    First up to speak, though was Rick Knowlton, co-chair of the Ragged Mountain Recreation Area Redevelopment Committee. Knowlton said two key points, as he saw it, in Smith's letter included the suitability of a new chairlift versus a used chairlift, and the allocation of funds, specifically Smith's suggestion that there was room in the budget to accommodate purchasing a new lift.

    "We hope to assure you tonight that the purchase, rehabilitation and installation of a used lift is a perfectly appropriate approach for the Camden Snow Bowl and that a used and refurbished lift at the Snow Bowl can give us decades of life at a cost that will allow us to continue to operate the Snow Bowl on that affordability basis we are trying so hard to hold onto," said Knowlton.

    Of the two men, Knowlton said both can speak to the lift currently owned by the Foundation, as both have worked with it over the years in their capacities as inspectors and engineers.

    Knowlton took a moment to address Smith's letter, noting that a correction was needed to his calculation that a new lift would only be "10 percent more expensive than a refurbished one."

    "That is not true," said Knowlton, adding that the budget calls for a total installed cost of the Riblet chairlift, from top to bottom, to be $880,000 currently.

    Knowlton said the original quote in 2010 from Doppelmayr, one of only two ski lift manufacturers still in business in the U.S., and with a strong presence in Maine and New England, was $1.13 million.

    "That was in the parking lot. We were told it was still going to cost us $400,000 to put it up in the air, and including pouring the foundations, getting it up the hill and hooking everything up" said Knowlton.

    It was also noted that the chairlift Doppelmayr quoted was not a comparable lift to the purchased Riblet, in that it does not include a full-enclosure motor room, which ski areas sometimes opt for to have for comfort and convenience of doing maintenance. For comparison, an exposed eco-drive lift, with a hood, which Doppelmayr quoted, is tantamount to accessing the motor room like lifting the hood of a car. It's more economical, but a lot of people, like the Snow Bowl and Fitzy, don't go with it because of the nature of the lift.

    "So, last week I contact Doppelmayr and asked for an updated number, and for what they would consider comparable in capacity is now $1.2 million," said Knowlton. "With a $400,000 install cost on top, we are at $1.6 million versus $880,000, at most $900,000. So it's a $700,000 to $800,000 differential to buy a new lift versus a refurbished lift, and in this case the Riblet that we have."

    Knowlton added that the $880,000 includes the $100,000 the Riblet cost the Foundation to buy in 2010.

    Knowlton also said that one thing Smith's letter "makes obvious" is that there is a lot of details from earlier year's discussions that many on the current board were not a party to.

    "Some of you may have been here, but as a group you weren't and there's a burden there that clearly we have to figure out a better way to meet as we go forward over the next few months.

    Because we expect you will continue to hear questions about the project, between now and a proposed vote in November, we would like to take a few minutes and look ahead over the next few months. Talk about our communications strategies, talk about the burden on the redevelopment committee to get information not only to you but to the public about the project," said Knowlton before turning the table over to Sawyer and Stevens.

    Sawyer told the Select Board that he assess and inspects at least 35 ski areas a year. He said as far as inspection requirements for ski lift, it doesn't matter if it's new or a lift that's been in the same place for 20 or 30 years, or somewhere in between.

    "Lifts in Maine have to be inspected on a yearly basis. The first year it is inspected or operated, you do a load test, which is the lift is loaded to 110 percent of design capacity, typically using barrels of water, and run through its paces," said Sawyer. "You speed it up, slow it down, check the braking systems, check the safety circuits, etc. That is done when the lift is first installed and then again every seven years. That is required by the ANSI code for passenger lifts, surface lifts and airway lifts."

    Sawyer said he inspects ski lifts for a major insurance company, and in Maine and some other states, his inspections are passed on to the Tramway Board, which governs tramways in Maine.

    Based on the report he fills out, he tries to do a thorough inspection of each and every lift annually. Part of the yearly requirement, he said, is to do non-destructive testing of critical components, including chair grips. Chair grips, or clamps, are the component, like a hook, that connects the chair to the cable, or "rope," hauling the chair up and down the mountain.

    Sawyer said once the lift has been inspected the first time, its license by the board. The haul ropes have to be inspected by a separate, independent person.

    "In Maine there are 45 chairlifts. I can name at least a dozen of those that were relocated from another mountain or relocated from spot on the mountain to another at the same resort," said Sawyer. "A fair number of those lifts are 30 years older or more. If maintenance is being done on a yearly basis, you can keep them going for a good long time. A good solid maintenance program is key."

    Sawyer said he has worked with Bill "Fitzy" Fitzcharles, Snow Bowl Facilities Manager, for a long time.

    "Fitzy has done a tremendous job upgrading the lift maintenance program. There is better record keeping now, and my comfort level has gone up because of it," said Sawyer.

    Stevens, an inspector as well as an engineer, said part of his expertise is in being a committee member on the governing of standards for all types of lifts, covered by the American National Standard for Passenger Ropeways – Aerial Tramways, Aerial Lifts, Surface Lifts, Tows and Conveyers (ANSI B77.1).

    When designing a ski lift, either new or relocated, Stevens says he follows the guidelines in the Standard.

    "Throughout the design of the lift, I adhere to this. Throughout the planning of a lift relocation I adhere to this. Throughout the installation, I adhere to this. And then when it comes to the final inspection and testing of the lift I'm there, I supervise the acceptance test, I put my name on this lift as a licensed professional engineer when it's all said and done. I carry liability for that product for a long time, believe me. If there is anything wrong with it, they are going to call me," said Stevens.

    Stevens said relocating used chairlifts is done "all the time" by a great many ski areas. One of them recently was at Mt. Cranmore, which installed a used, mid-1980s vintage Doppelmayr lift, which most of them are (vintage-wise).

    As to life expectancy, Stevens said he began relocating lifts in the mid-1970s and to his knowledge; all of them are still operating.

    "No lift, a used or new lift, is going to last long at all if it doesn't get regular, preventative maintenance. If the people at the ski area come in and turn the switch on in the morning and off at the end of the day, it's not going to last long at all. Preventative maintenance is the key," said Stevens.

    With the 1984 Riblet, Stevens said regular, diligent preventative maintenance is what the Snow Bowl will be facing. Before it gets installed, the plan is go through the Riblet from top to bottom, under Stevens' supervision. Every part that needs replacement or that is fatigued or cracking will be replaced. Other key components, like the electric drive, will be replaced by choice.

    "It will essentially be a new lift going in there with the exception of some of the steel , and some of the working parts are used. But everything will be up to snuff from an operational performance standpoint and up to the requirements of this Standard – at a minimum," said Stevens, placing his hand down atop a copy of the book.

    Stevens said that parts are indeed available for Riblet chairlifts, from two manufacturers, one of them in Spokane, Wash. He said that currently there are more than 300 Riblet chairlifts in existence in the country, many in the West, due to the fact that the Riblet Company originated in Washington State.

    "But there are also Riblet chairlift in New York, Virginia and West Virginia, and probably some other eastern states," said Stevens.

    He also said that while Smith's letter, which included a variety of concerns and opinions issued by a Doppelmayr vice president, who ultimately concluded that a new chairlift was the smarter purchase than a used one, said that Riblet parts coming from Spokane, Wash., could be problematic, Doppelmayr warehouses the majority of its parts in Salt Lake City, Utah. The two cities are 10-1/2 hours apart, with Spokane due north for 2/3 of that distance. Salt Lake is 38 driving hours west of Camden and Spokane is 44, though it's likely both companies would use an air freight company and overnight parts, if necessary.

    "It's also important to note that the lift, as it came from Shawnee Peak, is a little bigger than they need at the Camden Snow Bowl so they will have a surplus of high-wear parts in inventory and that should get them through any reasonable equipment failures in the normal operating season," said Stevens.

    Stevens also address Smith's concern about the lack of a warranty with a used or refurbished chairlift versus a new one.

    "No lift manufacturer in business today will warranty a brand new ski lift for more than two years. In all likelihood, the standard warranty is a year, maybe less, and on specific components, like for example a gear box, which is the single most expensive part of the lift. Manufactures can be coerced into going out two years on warranty for that, at cost," said Stevens. "There is no particular warranty on this relocated Riblet lift at the Snow bowl, other than the people that do the installation, the erection of the lift will typically warranty their work for a year. I'm on the hook for the reasonable future, whether I like or not, because it's my responsibility."

    The concern Smith raised about the availability of lift controls, should the Riblet's fail, was also dispelled. The Select Board was told that a number of competent engineers that design safety and electrical circuits and lift controls for all makes and models of chair lifts can be found in New England, in New Hampshire and Vermont.

    "You don't even have to go to Salt Lake for that," said Sawyer.

    Select Board Member Don White asked both men, on a scale of 1-10, where the purchased Riblet fails in their opinions.

    Stevens called it a very good lift, having been familiar with it a Shawnee Peak before the purchase and having then looked at it just before it was acquired.

    "I would rate it an 8-10. Any time you can purchase a good, quality used lift for $100,000 that's close by, jump on it. Plain and simple I think it was a great acquisition, right next door, and it's a good used lift for Ragged Mountain," said Stevens.

    Sawyer said he lives 3 miles from Shawnee Peak and rode that lift for the 25 or so years it was in place there.

    "I know their lift department people over there and they are top notch. They took good care of it and replaced parts more than other places might have done. We looked at the various parts out there today and there is some rust, but as far as structural integrity, they are in good shape," said Sawyer.

    "Will we get 20 years or more out of it?" said White?

    "Yes," said Stevens.

    "I think if it's maintained, if care is taken in putting it and it's properly maintained, I would say no reason to think not," said Sawyer.

    As the meeting continued, Gibbons spoke on behalf of Smith and said that Smith's biggest concern was over safety, especially as it pertained to the clips that hold the chairs to the haul rope.

    "This [Stephen Smith] is someone who loves the Snow Bowl, was very concerned about safety and didn't want this to become public, wanted to see if we could solve this. There are fundraising activities [underway] and he didn't want to hurt the Snow Bowl in any way. But by doing a lot of work and looking at some evidence we received, he came to a different conclusion than your experts did," said Gibbons. "I researched a great deal of the law and what happens at ski lifts when they fail, and I don't know of a single incidence of a ski lift that failed that wasn't well maintained and inspected and it still failed. Question was, how does that happen? One of the problems is, it's like buying a very old used car that they don't make parts for anymore. If you maintained it, it will work OK, but you cannot predict when it might fail. When you buy a new car, that prediction becomes less and less certain."

    The inability to predict when a failure might occur was a growing concern for Smith, said Gibbons

    Gibbons also said that without a manufacturer in business to stand behind the product, there was nobody to go after should something go wrong.

    "Riblet is no longer in existence as a manufacturer. If you buy a car that's brand new, you get a warranty and if something happens, they'll fix it. But that doesn't mean that if later on, there is a design defect of the car, that you can't sue the manufacturer for parts liability-liability. General Motors will still be there. One of the downsides of putting in a lift by a manufacturer no longer in existence is that liability is no longer there. And a two-year warranty has nothing to do with it. If you can prove a design defect, you are entitled to recover," said Gibbons.

    Another problem, said Gibbons, is that when you have used equipment, and there's a failure, whose fault is it? Is it the installer? Is it the new parts you added? Or is it the design of the lift itself?

    "It makes it much more complicated," said Gibbons. "When there is a problem, usually what happens is the installer and parts manufacture say 'it's a design problem,' because that entity is no longer there. They point to the empty chair, usually. That's another downside of not having a new lift," said Gibbons.

    But safety is Smith's ultimate concern, said Gibbons. Picking up two different models of cable, or haul rope grips, one a clamp model [Doppelmayr] and the other that is woven into the cable, Riblet's model, Gibbons said just looking at the two caused a pause.

    "Just looking at the size, this [the clamped model] looks more sturdy than this [the woven/Riblet model] does. It doesn't mean this one [the woven/Riblet model] is unsafe, but this one certainly looks more sturdy than this one. I just heard these people say that this [woven/Riblet] was just as good as this [clamped] and this was just good as this [pointing back and forth to both] – that's a remarkable conclusion for safety purposes," said Gibbons.

    Gibbons said that Smith became very concerned in looking at the two types of haul rope clamp models, and so called Doppelmayr to ask some questions.

    "Obviously, Doppelmayr, as a competitor, has some lack of independence, but he [Doppelmayr spokesman] expressed an opinion that is inconsistent with what your experts just told you," said Gibbons to the Select Board. "The claim is made that when you insert this clip in this cable, it does not disturb the strength of the cable. And that this, wrapped around it, is just as good. And this is why my client became concerned. If you are not an expert and you look at this, it kind of defies common sense. How can something go in something, use that as leverage, and not wear it out? Now true, if you inspect it enough, maybe it might work. But it may cause problems."

    Gibbons said that Smith went online to do research and found information about Riblet clamps and disconnections for the haul rope. He said there was also a recall on the clamp, which was not mentioned by the experts.

    "Recalls are a result of things not working," said Gibbons.

    When asked about the clamps by Select Board Member Leonard Lookner about the clamps, Stevens and Sawyer said that a redesign had been done on the Riblet woven clamps and that Shawnee Peak had likely replaced the older model with newer ones. The redesigned Riblet clamp was described as "beefier" or thicker, where it starts to curl around and grip a strand of twisted cable that comprises the haul rope.

    That seemed likely, replaced clamps at Shawnee Peak, when it was also revealed that the recall Gibbons was referring to was from 2000.

    "The only concern I have [with Riblet clamps] is the people who maintain them at some locations," said Stevens.

    If it was found that the Riblet clamps were not up to snuff, Stevens said it was not cost prohibitive to replace them all, but to replace a full of clamp grips would be a "massive expense."

    "Do they [Riblet/woven clamps] cause excessive wear on the haul rope?" said Lookner.

    "They have been known to cause some unraveling and wear, but the clamping type that you have now can also do that if the proper pressure is not maintained on the spring clamp," said Stevens.

    Sawyer said that clamp grips have been known to fail, some models, just like other parts, and if a bad product is out there, either he or Stevens will know about it pretty quickly and it will become a part of their inspection protocol.

    Sawyer said that as part of regular maintenance and upkeep, both kinds of grips are moved along the haul rope on annual basis to maintain even wear. When the woven/Riblet grips are moved, the haul rope cable must be twisted open to release the grip and move it along.

    "It gives an opportunity to look inside the rope. When the rope is getting older, a lot of the time where you get the nicking and breaking of rope is happening inside the rope, not outside. So in some ways, there is a plus to doing this on a regular basis," said Sawyer.

    Noting that the Snow Bowl's current chairlift is vintage 1960s, and much of its haul rope is original, save for a few splices, Stevens said the project has factored in brand new haul rope for the Riblet. And the Riblet was also purchased with the tool that allows for inserting and moving grips.

    When the select board officially took its opportunity to ask questions, Chairman Martin Cates first addressed Gibbons, who had earlier said Smith's coming forward was not about making anyone look bad or to challenge the decisions of people in the past.

    "You have experts on your side and you should probably listen to them, but we have a real legitimate concern because he wanted to help the town of Camden," said Gibbons. " I'm not asking your experts to predict a failure, the question is, what is the risk and what harm would you cause if there is a failure? That's a real difficult question."

    Cates asked Gibbons if at any time, was there an effort on Smith's behalf to contact the members of the committee to make this presentation to them, prior to submitting the letter to the town.

    "It was my client's intention and mine that this would go to the committee, not to the public," said Gibbons. "We expected to be able to do that through the Select Board."

    "I understand the need for disclosure and wanting to talk about safety, but it's also our diligent effort as a board, and as a town, that once this hits the town office, it's public. We have no choice. This is how the process works and I think you are very well aware about it. So I sort of cringe when I hear that this wasn't meant to be public," said Cates.

    "I thought my client sent this to the Snow Bowl, to the committee, that's where I thought this was going. And that's the problem; it went to the town instead," said Gibbons.

    "I understand the need for wanting what you wanted, but in full disclosure, the very folks that have done the hard work with this too, had the right to hear these kinds of findings," said Cates. "This became very public because it is a matter of public safety at that point...protocol would have been to go to the committee first, because I think it was blindsided [this way]."

    In a lighter moment, Lookner spoke up and told Gibbons he made him nervous with all the talk about Riblet being out of business and the dire picture being painted.

    "I own a Saturn," said Lookner.

    "And I own a Saab," said Cates.

    But Lookner said he thanked Smith for bringing his concerns to the community and letting them discuss it with the whole community as it dealt with public safety.

    White concurred, saying it was very important that the whole subject be discussed.

    "I love passion on both sides, and I think it's very important that it have a public airing. So, your client has brought us all together, where we hadn't been getting together on a regular basis," said White. "Publically and behind the scenes we are now talking about how we might get together more often as the select board and as the committee, and tell the public about what's going on over there on the mountain. A lot of hard work has gone one over there."

    Sawyer and Stevens were asked to address a list of questions presented to the Select Board by Gibbons during his presentation.

    One question was "What is the advantage of Riblet grip over the external grip?"

    Stevens said it offered a smooth ride and was economical. The Riblet lift was not the most expensive lift on the market and a lot of people bought them because of it.

    Another question was the revers, "What is the advantage of the external grip over the Riblet grip?"

    "I'm not sure there is one. If there was anything that was a particular concern for me, I would let everybody know about it. Likely I wouldn't specify them," said Stevens, who then turned to Gibbons and continued. "There is such a thing as liability, counsel, which people like me, experts in the industry, are extremely aware of. We're extremely aware of safety, and it never, ever goes without my thinking about it."

    Camden resident Brian Robinson, also a member of the town's Parks and Recreation Committee and Redevelopment Committee, said that everybody takes risks in life. If we were to research accidents on lifts, Robinson said it would probably be found that there is much less risk riding a chairlift than getting behind the wheel of a car.

    Stevens said that brought to mind Gibbons earlier statement about lack of accountability of anyone for a fault or failure or bad product.

    "If in the event there is an incident, the insurance company sends experts out, a bunch of people from George's company show up, I show up, the state shows up. The determination for the cause is evident, will become evident. There is nothing hidden about that. Accountability is as simple as a little study and identifying the person or product that is accountable," said Stevens.

    Knowlton then told the board that as far as the budget is concerned, the $6.5 million bottom line continues to be the goal, though there has been some shifting of line items between 2008 and 2011.

    Knowlton said a revised 2013 budget would be forthcoming, with a timeline and plan to take the project through to the last round as far as the committee was concerned.

    "To hand this off is an important piece of this whole dynamic. Our goal as the redevelopment committee is to put this on the platter, to set the stage, to create the plan and fund the plan, and then let the municipal process of construction, ownership and maintenance take over and do what it does. It's not the redevelopment committee's goal to stay in existence to operate the place or maintain the place. We are intending to give you a viable, defensible, attractive and reasonable project within the $6.5 million budget that accomplishes the goals and vision set forth in the very first plan we saw from Horizons Engineering," said Knowlton. "There are a lot of things in the plan that people outside this room tonight could criticize. The lodge doesn't have this, the lifts don't have this, not enough snowmaking, not enough lights or groomers. There are lots of ways of ways to spend money at the Snow Bowl. We have worked very hard to contain the project down to the important elements and to attack those elements in a reasonable, Yankee style prudency that allows us to make this the lowest number it can be. None of us have any interest in spending more money than we have to. And certainly I hope what you heard tonight is that we have done this with a degree of diligence and effort that our decisions and what's included in the plan is defensible."

    While told Knowlton there was a need for regular communication between the committee and the Select Board, and ultimately the public.

    "I hear you loud and clear. For most of the time, we had a leader [Jeff Kuller] who was the spokesman and leader. We are working on a replacement and it's a viable part of this," said Knowlton.

    One update that came from Gordon, the Foundation president, was that the private fundraising has moved from $2.7 million raised as of September 2012 to $3.8 million raised today. Gordon said the community campaign to raise the rest was starting now. Smith and Gibbons missed that news, as both departed 30 minutes before the meeting ended.

    Cates ended the evening by saying that on behalf of the board, it's been a massive effort well in excess of five years and the time and talent extended has been "truly amazing."

    He then asked the board for a call to reaffirm the board's endorsement of the committee's work, with a clear mission to move forward. The response was unanimous.

    "We are behind you folks. Get back out there and get this done, we are behind you," said Cates.

    Related story:

    Camden Select Board to discuss Snow Bowl chairlift replacement


    Editorial Director Holly S. Edwards can be reached by email at or by calling 207-706-6655.