A Stowe Zip-Line Guide Was Killed When a $26 Piece of Equipment Failed. Will His Death Spur Change? | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Stowe Zip-Line Guide Was Killed When a $26 Piece of Equipment Failed. Will His Death Spur Change?


Published June 8, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

The zip line at Stowe Mountain Resort - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • The zip line at Stowe Mountain Resort

To those who behold them, mountains can exert an almost gravitational force. Scott Lewis let Mount Mansfield's pull him in. He learned to ski on its slopes, and, once an adult and a father, he refashioned his life away from Wall Street in order to orbit Mansfield's peak. Lewis hiked its trails and studied its topography with a joy that was palpable to those around him.

In order to live near the mountain and support his three children, the 53-year-old also worked on it. During the winters, he gave skiing lessons at Stowe Mountain Resort. In warmer months, he assisted riders on the resort's massive zip-line course, one of the longest in the country. Riders soared at highway speeds just above the dense canopy.

Last September, Lewis was helping guide customers through the zip line's three steep spans. For the final leg, a 3,484-foot line known as the Perry Merrill Zip, Lewis and a coworker slid down the pair of side-by-side cables so they would be able to then receive their guests at the bottom. Lewis reached speeds as fast as 82 miles per hour, according to a personal GPS tracker he wore. As he neared the end, two lanyards that were supposed to keep riders fixed to the cable trolley burst apart, hurtling Lewis past the landing platform and into a tower. He was dead moments later.

The fatal accident on one of Stowe's marquee summer attractions shook the community. More than six months later, the results of an investigation conducted by the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration brought renewed grief. 

In March, according to a report made public last month by the Stowe Reporter, the state's workplace safety agency concluded that the lanyards Lewis wore to prevent catastrophic falls were old and worn — and likely failed as a result. The state investigation revealed that managers for Stowe's corporate owner, Colorado-based Vail Resorts, had been instructed repeatedly by the zip-line course builder to replace the aged ropes, at a cost of $26 each, but refused.

Lewis "would not have been killed," a VOSHA investigator wrote in a closing statement for the report, "if the primary attachment lanyard had been replaced."

That revelation "devastated" Lewis' family, his sister Hilary Elkins told Seven Days in a statement. And in response to the report, friends of Lewis held a late May protest in Stowe, decrying the lack of any real punishment for the resort.

In a written statement in response to questions, a Vail spokesperson indicated that the company has been cooperating fully with authorities regarding the accident. It will not operate the Stowe zip line this summer and will "reassess its opening at a future time."

"We at Stowe Mountain Resort have been deeply affected by the loss of a valued member of our team in this tragic accident," the statement reads. "We continue to extend our most sincere sympathy and support to the family of the employee involved. The safety of our employees and guests is, and always will be, our highest priority."

Zip lining, like any activity involving heights and high speeds, is inherently risky. But Lewis' death and the subsequent state investigation show how a burgeoning industry left to police itself has subjected riders and workers to avoidable dangers. An increasing number of states have enacted regulations to protect riders, but Vermont lawmakers passed on a chance to do so. That dearth of regulation at the state and federal levels appears to have hindered the state's ability to hold Vail accountable for Lewis' death.

VOSHA cited Vail for two serious safety violations — failing to maintain a workplace free of hazards likely to cause death, and failing to train employees on proper care of protective equipment — and imposed the maximum fine for such infractions, totaling $27,306. Seven Days' review of the investigative file found that the agency collected evidence that may have justified a much harsher penalty against Vail but elected not to pursue it. 

Days before closing the case, the office drafted a so-called "willful" citation, a type of violation reserved for instances in which an employer purposefully disregards a safety requirement. A willful violation would have carried a fine as much as 10 times higher than the one imposed and included the potential for a criminal referral to the Vermont Attorney General's Office. But without explicit zip-line regulations for Vail to purposefully disregard, the state's worker protection office says it abandoned that route in favor of a negotiated settlement with Vail.

Sport or Amusement Ride?

The enclosed gondola that gently carries riders to the start of Stowe's ZipTour is among the most closely monitored chairlifts in the country, overseen by a special inspection division in the Vermont Department of Labor.

The rigs that send riders flying down the mountain receive almost no regulatory oversight. 

Independent government inspectors ensure the safety of restaurants, prescription drugs and ski lifts. But in Vermont, zip lines face no such scrutiny. Many ride operators choose to abide by a patchwork of standards developed by the industry itself, but they're voluntary and not codified in state or federal law. Some operators hire outside inspectors, and some don't.

Zip lines use a fixed cable and trolley to transport people across rugged terrain. Originally created for practical and military purposes, they've become major recreational attractions worldwide over the last two decades. Several hundred zip lines now traverse forests, mountains and canyons across the United States, according to market estimates published by Michael R. Smith. He's an industry consultant, analyst and operator of the ArborTrek zip-line canopy tour at Smugglers' Notch Resort.

A handful of commercial zip lines and "canopy tours," which incorporate zip lines into a forested adventure course, currently operate in Vermont. Most are associated with ski resorts, including Stowe, Bromley, Okemo, Smuggs and Killington. They vary widely in size.

The ZipTour at Stowe, custom built by Utah-based Terra Nova, is by far the longest. When it opened in 2015, two years before Vail bought the resort, the tour was billed as the second-longest course in the country, with nearly two miles of descending cable. Immense zip lines such as this one have fueled interest among thrill-seekers and provided a new source of revenue for ski resorts seeking to become year-round destinations.

Zip lines straddle the divide between amusement rides, which also strap in paying customers, and outdoor adventure sports, in which conditions are less controlled and safety risks are higher.

A 2015 study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine by Ohio State University researchers found that zip-line injuries sent 3,600 people to emergency rooms in 2012, mostly due to falls. About 12 percent of those riders had to be hospitalized — a rate that is "more consistent ... with adventure sports," the researchers said. 

Stowe Police have said Lewis' accident marked the first time they'd responded to a report of an injury at Stowe's ZipTour. But at least one other person has been seriously hurt riding a Vermont zip line. In 2013, a 76-year-old man sued a since-closed challenge course at Magic Mountain in Londonderry after he mistakenly attached his harness to a guy wire that ran parallel to the zip-line cable. He was carried into a tree and injured, according to court papers. 

Vail Resorts, a publicly traded company that had $1.9 billion in revenue last year, operates zip lines at many of its 40 resorts. In 2017, a woman suffered a traumatic brain injury when the braking system failed on a Vail-operated zip line in Colorado. Vail acknowledged in a subsequent lawsuit filed by the woman that 11 other zip-line riders had lodged injury claims against the company between 2013 and 2017.

Large zip lines use teams of guides to check equipment, fasten riders to the cables and unclip them upon landing; the work often requires guides to ride the zip line themselves. Lewis isn't the only zip-line employee in the United States to die on the job. A California worker trying to pull a rider onto a receiving platform fell to his death last October; the company was fined. A guide at a course in Utah died the same way in 2015.

The authors of the emergency injuries study said the increasing rates of injuries warrant government regulation and uniform safety standards. 

No federal regulations exist, but many states have created their own. Rules have been codified by at least 17 states, including New York, New Hampshire and Maine. Standards vary widely, as do inspection practices. New York requires proof of a third-party annual inspection, which is frequently conducted by the company that built the ride, raising issues around conflicts of interest. Maine sends state employees to inspect zip lines.

Vermont state employees have long inspected the more than 200 chairlifts, gondolas, T-bars and rope tows around the state. Lifts cannot begin operating each season until an inspector from the Passenger Tramway Division of the labor department signs off, and any subsequent breakdowns and injuries must be promptly reported to the agency.

No similar public accounting exists for Vermont's zip lines. VOSHA only got involved in Lewis' death because he was an employee, and, by law, the state must investigate all workplace fatalities. If Lewis had been a paying customer, there would have been no state investigation. 

'Entirely Avoidable'

  • Courtesy Of Hilary Elkins
  • Scott Lewis

As the ZipTour approaches the base of the resort, it dips toward the treeline for a thrill that a Stowe Reporter writer's first-hand account describes as "an arboreal version of the assault on the Death Star."

Riders can adjust their speed using a handbrake as they ease into a wooden landing platform. The cables stretch past the landing platform to a separate anchoring tower. Between the platform and the tower, the cables are outfitted with more than 60 feet of springs that serve as an emergency braking system. 

Witnesses saw Lewis careen over the landing platform and enter the spring array before being ejected from the harness system, according to interview notes recorded in the VOSHA file. Coworkers rushed to Lewis' aid, but he was pronounced dead on the mountain. 

Two months after the accident, a fellow guide who witnessed Lewis' death ended an interview with VOSHA investigator Samantha Slayton because the memory was too traumatizing. The coworker reported that he was seeing a therapist to help cope and said he would not work on the zip line anymore.

Slayton examined why a pair of lanyards that were supposed to protect employees from falls didn't work. The primary safety rope Lewis was wearing, called a JANE lanyard, had been manufactured by climbing-gear maker Petzl in 2017 and put into use at Stowe in the summer of 2018. The device had been utilized for nearly three full seasons when it burst apart last September.

The company that designed, installed and inspected the ZipTour, Terra Nova, had instructed Vail and its other commercial clients to replace the JANE lanyards every year, Slayton found. In an email to Terra Nova, Jamie Barrow, Vail's Colorado-based director of operations training and risk management, said he was "not willing to accept" the company's annual replacement requirement, which he considered a change from Petzl's guidelines. 

In response, Terra Nova president Eric Cylvick referred to a Petzl document from 2003 which stated that the lanyard lifespan was one year under "intensive use." 

"Terra Nova will not alter this requirement," Cylvick wrote. 

A similar exchange took place again in 2019, when Terra Nova reiterated its position in a formal safety bulletin. In another reply, Barrow suggested the requirement was more about boosting "gear sales" than "thorough hazard analysis and real risk mitigation."

After 2019, Vail stopped using Terra Nova to inspect the ZipTour, according to the report. Since then, Slayton found, Stowe has not documented the age of its lanyards, harnesses and other safety equipment used on the zip line. VOSHA concluded that the voluntary inspections after 2019 were inadequate and zip-line employees insufficiently trained.

State investigators also obtained an opinion from a zip-line safety expert, Mike Barker, who chairs a safety committee for the Professional Ropes Courses Association, an industry membership organization that maintains one of several sets of voluntary zip-line standards. In a seven-page report he prepared for VOSHA, Barker concluded that Lewis' death was "entirely avoidable."

"In what appears to me to be an effort to reduce costs," Barker continued, "Vail Resorts had knowledge of but willfully did not comply with OSHA regulations," zip-line standards and safety notices.  

To issue a willful violation against a company, VOSHA must show that the employer knowingly violated a standard. Barrow's emails provided strong evidence to support a willful violation against Vail, Slayton wrote in a February note to VOSHA program manager Dan Whipple.

Dirk Anderson, the department's director of workers' compensation and safety, told Seven Days that the agency "considered, but ultimately rejected" a willful violation. 

"Because there are no zip line-specific OSHA standards or regulations, we did not believe we could prove a willful violation at trial," he said. 

Though there are no workplace safety rules specifically for zip lines, the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration has alerted zip-line operators of their responsibilities to employees. In a 2016 bulletin, OSHA said they must provide protective equipment that is "in good working condition" and ensure fall protection systems are "properly maintained." They must also train employees to inspect fall protection systems and follow manufacturer instructions for equipment use and maintenance. 

'Due Diligence'?

A group of protesters holding a rally in downtown Stowe - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • A group of protesters holding a rally in downtown Stowe

VOSHA's findings haven't convinced some in the zip-line industry that Vail did anything wrong. 

Smith, the ArborTrek president, said the state's investigation as publicized has painted a "misleading" picture of the incident at Stowe. The state's workplace safety investigators are only charged with judging the actions of the employer, Smith said in an interview, not the companies that designed, manufactured or inspected elements of the course. 

"It's only one perspective," he said. "When you look at one perspective or one point of view, you're often not getting the full picture."

Smith, a former board member of the Association for Challenge Course Technology, a trade group that maintains another set of voluntary zip-line standards, said it wasn't unreasonable for Vail to push back against Terra Nova's safety notices. 

"I suspect what we're reading there," he said, referring to the publicized emails, "is an operator doing its due diligence."

Three weeks after Lewis died, a third standards-making organization, ASTM International, presented Vail's Barrow with a distinguished service award for his role in developing that body's zip-line standards. The award recognized Barrow's "steadfast sincerity and utmost dedication to the safety of participants in the Adventure Park industry."

'Zip lines Seem Dangerous'

In 2018, Vermont lawmakers had a chance to create regulations for zip lines. Instead, they exempted them. 

The issue arose while the legislature was debating an amusement park ride bill. The bill, now law, requires operators of the rickety county-fair fixtures to submit proof of an annual third-party inspection. Lawmakers discussed whether the new rules should apply to ski resorts' increasingly popular summer attractions, such as zip lines. 

In testimony at the time, the Vermont Ski Areas Association noted that industry standards for zip lines differed from those governing amusement park rides, so lawmakers would need to tweak the bill if they wanted it to cover them. The ski resorts did not oppose zip-line regs, but the association's lobbyist, Molly Mahar, emphasized that the Vermont courses already undergo periodic voluntary inspections. 

"Zip lines seem dangerous to me, if they're not properly maintained and inspected," Rep. John Bartholomew (D-Hartland) said during a meeting of the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry. 

Lawmakers amended the bill to exempt zip lines from the amusement ride inspection requirement. They also asked a University of Vermont student legislative research team to prepare a report on zip-line regulations in other states. 

Students completed a four-page memo in May 2019, but it's not clear whether any lawmakers looked at it. The committee chairs who formally requested the research, Rep. Carolyn Partridge (D-Windham) and Sen. Bobby Starr (D-Essex-Orleans), couldn't recall the document in recent interviews.

Zip lines "were not really our focus, and I do not remember ever following up," said Partridge. "I think we felt like, once we got the ag fairs through, it was 'mission accomplished.'"

Starr, noting that the state closely inspects chairlifts, said that in light of the "mess in Stowe," zip lines may need some oversight. Bartholomew said lawmakers should revisit the question. 

"It's certainly something I think we need to be looking at," he said. 

ArborTrek's Smith said he wouldn't oppose "mindful" state regulations, though he doesn't believe they would make a significant difference.

"I think, in general, our industry does a very good job of self-regulating," he said.

'Happiest on That Mountain'

Those who knew Lewis, however, say something needs to change. 

In late May, a few families who were close to Lewis held a silent public protest. They stood near Stowe's busiest intersection with signs that read "Hold Vail Accountable" and waved at drivers for two hours on a Friday evening. Some passersby gave thumbs up; others, apparently unsure about the purpose of the protest, grumbled about the resort's new $30 ski parking fees. 

In an interview on the sidewalk, Stowe resident Emily Rosenbaum said Lewis, with his scraggly beard and customized Chevy Suburban he'd dubbed "Bessie," had a magnetic personality. With his death, she said, Stowe "lost someone who cared about this community."

"He was central to a lot of peoples' lives," she said.

Lewis loved spending time with his three boys and being on Mansfield, the friends said. "He was the happiest outdoors and the very, very happiest on that mountain," protester Laura Goddard Weber said. After he died, Lewis' family paid to hold his memorial service at the resort. 

Lewis' talents extended beyond his work on the slopes. He skippered sailboats, piloted helicopters, edited crossword puzzles and cocaptained a local trivia team. 

"Unlike most of us," Lewis' family wrote in his obituary, "Scott had become the person he wanted to be: he was doing what he loved, raising the kids he loved in the mountains he loved." 

Weber, who cocaptained the trivia team with Lewis, said Vail should face more serious repercussions for his death. Worker's compensation laws, intended to compensate employees for on-the-job injuries regardless of fault, generally bar injured parties from seeking additional damages in civil court. The VOSHA fine alone, Weber said, is unlikely to stop Vail from "cutting corners" in the future.

"What's $27,000 to Vail?" she said. "It's nothing."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Deadly Descent"

Related Locations

  • Stowe Mountain Resort