Outdoors Blog

How bystanders caught a 7-year-old falling from an Idaho chairlift

Oliver Cripe, 7-year-old son of Idaho Statesman outdoors writer Chadd Cripe, dropped from the Challenger chairlift just inside the netting shown behind him. An hour or so later, he was back on that chair and skiing again.
Oliver Cripe, 7-year-old son of Idaho Statesman outdoors writer Chadd Cripe, dropped from the Challenger chairlift just inside the netting shown behind him. An hour or so later, he was back on that chair and skiing again. ccripe@idahostatesman.com

It was at least 20 minutes after I dropped my 7-year-old son from a chairlift about 15 feet above the snow before we were reunited.

“That was the scariest moment of my life,” Oliver told me while consoling himself with a Hershey’s bar.

“Mine, too,” I assured him.

Oliver began skiing in the winter of 2013-14, when he was 5 years old. Immediately, chairlifts became one of the biggest stressors in my life. I’m a (mostly) reformed acrophobe. Add a small, squirmy child to the equation and I’m pretty much a nervous wreck.

So it was particularly agonizing to know that one of the many factors that contributed to Oliver’s harrowing fall from a chairlift was the fact that I let my guard down just long enough for something bad to happen. We were skiing during spring break at Sun Valley Resort. The first few trips up the mountain went smoothly — the chairs came in low and slow, and Oliver sat on the left edge, where he could grab the armrest to help him get situated.

But after lunch, we got in line for the Challenger chair — the one that goes from the Warm Springs base to the Bald Mountain summit, a 3,142-foot climb up the mountain — and ran into a group of women who couldn’t decide if they were going to get on the lift or wait for their friend. They kept letting us pass, then stepping in front of us. Finally, one lined up beside Oliver like she was going to ride with us. We moved to the center of the chair. She didn’t, as it turned out, get on the chair.

But Oliver, now in the middle, reached behind and to his left — away from me — to grab an armrest that wasn’t there.

Our usual loading routine includes me grabbing him around the waist and using my poles as a sort of seat belt. He often has complained that I pin him too hard. But with his torso turned away from me, I struggled to get a good enough hold to pull him onto the chair.

“The next thing I knew, I was off the ground and people were yelling to stop the lift — including you,” he said.

As soon as the chair accelerated, he slipped forward and was dangling from the chair. I held him by the shoulders of his coat and had my poles wrapped around him in some way. By the time the lift operator was able to get the chair stopped, we were stuck over the top of Warm Springs Creek. Skiers below saw our predicament. At least one shrieked at the site of a kid hanging over the creek. Several yelled at the lift operator to let him know we couldn’t be helped in that spot.

chair over river
Oliver was hanging from the Challenger chairlift over Warm Springs Creek, about where this chair is, when the lift stopped the first time. Chadd Cripe ccripe@idahostatesman.com

Louise Stumph, a ski mom, knew what to do. She unstrapped the pad from the base of a nearby pole supporting the chairlift. I heard somebody yell something like, “Now somebody is thinking.” I had no idea what she had planned — but it was comforting to know somebody had a plan.

Louise Stumph and Ski Patroller Dave Swenke grabbed the pad attached to the base of the chairlift support. With help from several others, they caught Oliver when he fell. Chadd Cripe ccripe@idahostatesman.com

My plan was to hold on as long as I could. And Oliver, who of course was upset, helped a great deal by not panicking. He remained still and mostly calm.

Then the chairlift started again — a jolt that weakened my grip (ski gloves aren’t exactly weightlifting gloves). And the chair went a little farther than any of us would have liked, climbing higher in the air and farther from our rescuers. When the chair stopped, we were about 15 feet above the snow. Stumph, Ski Patrol member Dave Swenke and several people who were just willing to help formed a seven-person catch team below the lift.

When they were in position, they said, “Drop him.”

After making absolutely sure I heard them right, I did. Blindly. They were under the chair, so while I had a good idea what they were up to, I couldn’t see the target. I looked over my shoulder to see a bunch of happy people, so I figured it went well.

“They caught me on the mat like firemen do,” Oliver said later. “... I’m very grateful for all of them.”

But after initially telling me they’d bring Oliver up the lift to meet me at the top, the group said he was complaining of a possible injury. They’d wait for me in the lodge.

The ensuing 10-minute ride to the top left me enough time to work through a little anger and a lot of fear and convince myself that he was just fine. When I reached the top, Ski Patrol member Tim East was waiting for me. He immediately told me Oliver was doing great (the pain he experienced was from my pole digging into his hip while I was hanging onto him). He offered to escort me down the mountain by skis or by chairlift — I chose skis — and told me not to become the ambulance that crashed on the way to the scene.

“Just slow down,” he told me.

When we started skiing, I found out why. My knees buckled on the first turn — my legs were almost numb after the highs and lows of the previous 15 minutes. I followed East down the mountain and into the lodge, where Oliver had several Sun Valley staff members laughing.

On his way to the lodge, people shouted encouragement to Oliver.

“Everybody was saying, ‘You’re so brave,’ ” he said. “I said, ‘I was terrified.’ ”

On the way home that night, we talked about all the little things that went wrong that led to one big problem — and the reason that an awful situation turned into a story we’ll be telling with laughter for years.

Mark Mauger of the Ski Patrol and Craig Davis, who runs the Warm Springs side of the mountain operations, also were among those who helped my son that day. But several people whose names we might never know contributed, too.

“That demonstrates what just ordinary people — not Ski Patrollers — can do to help people,” Oliver told me. “And I’m going to do that if someone’s in trouble and I’m there.”

One of the patrollers gave us one more bone-chilling moment before we headed back out to ski again (on the same lift, no less). All he did was ask a simple question.

“Who’s going to tell Mom?”

(Not our first mishap of the ski year, by the way.)

• • • 

A few notebook items from this week:

▪ Fishing Trailer arrives: The Southwest Region Fishing Trailer will be at Kleiner Park in Meridian from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 9. That’s the first of 25 appearances at local ponds this year. Fishing licenses aren’t required. “The idea is to bring fishing equipment and fishing expertise to what we call our ‘bicycle fisheries’ — local neighborhood ponds,” said Evin Oneale, a conservation educator at Idaho Fish and Game. “All kids and their parents have to do is show up; we’ll get them geared up and on the water. We hope our efforts will get kids excited about fishing and help build a new generation of anglers.” Full schedule here.

▪ Pond skimming at Tamarack: Tamarack Resort drew 40 competitors and 500 spectators for its State of Idaho Pond Skimming Championship last weekend, according to the resort. Ben Buchanan of Meridian won. Check out some highlights below. Brundage Mountain, Dollar Mountain and Bogus Basin have pond-skimming events coming up. Dollar’s event is Sunday (registration from 9 to 11 a.m., event at 11:30 a.m.).

▪ From the Forest Service: Logging activities that resulted in the snow plowing of the Grangeville Salmon Road #221 have been completed. Additional plowing has recently been initiated beyond Four Corners, but, with the existing berms, full-width plowing has not always been possible. Motorists, particularly those towing trailers, are cautioned against traveling beyond Four Corners as the road width in places is narrow with very limited turnouts. Additionally, there may be insufficient room for turning around at the end of the plowed segment.