A seriously injured Queenstown mum is warning skiers and snowboarders against using Coronet Peak’s new chairlift after a horror ride on it almost broke her neck.
Janine Learmonth was hospitalised for two days and could require surgery after becoming trapped by the mechanical safety bar on a seat of the $5 million Meadows Express chair last Sunday. The Department of Labour is investigating.
The 32-year-old, who says she was pinned face-down by the heavy bar – with her chin squashed against the seat – also wants NZSki to fit sensors to the automatic bars.
“I want people using that chair to know it’s not safe,” Learmonth says.
“This is a $5m, elaborate lift for loading learners and it doesn’t even have a sensor to stop when it hits something. I think it’s a major design issue.”
Learmonth, an advanced skier, was loading daughter Saskia, 5, on the beginner-friendly quad while her husband Hamish helped 20-month-old son Tarras when the bar caught the back of her helmet at 11.30am.
“I heard the liftie girl say, ‘put your head back’ and I did put my head back, but it obviously wasn’t far back enough.
“It came down quite fast. I tried to duck to get out of it but it’s so heavy, and it kept coming down. Because it locked behind my helmet, I couldn’t get out,” she says.
“I felt all my ligaments go pop, pop, pop. I knew something really bad had happened.”
As he watched his wife scream out in pain, Hamish yelled for someone to stop the lift, but no one heard.
He recalls: “I was quite panic-stricken, really, especially with the kids. I was thinking, shit – you just don’t know … she couldn’t move.”
With her upper body twisted to the left, the distressed mum eventually managed to free herself but couldn’t get off at the top for fear of further damaging her neck.
Hamish had to ask staff to finally halt the lift.
“I hopped off and said, ‘what the f**k is this thing doing – why didn’t it stop? Why did the arm come down on her and wouldn’t move?’”
The injured mum was helped down by ski patrol staff before being taken by ambulance to Lakes District Hospital, and then on to Invercargill’s Southland Hospital on Monday.
Doctors told her that her flexibility from years of yoga prevented her neck from breaking, she says. Surgery to reattach ligaments is the “worst-case scenario”.
“If it happened to somebody else they could have quite a severe injury – they might not have been as lucky as I was,” Janine says.
“It’s a learner’s lift … you should be able to get on that lift in whatever situation and the barrier stops if you hit something.”
The couple must now fork out for a nanny to help while Janine recovers.
Coronet Peak ski area boss Hamish McCrostie says the DoL investigation means he can’t comment on the incident or whether NZSki will be altering its lift, but adds: “The lady in question was wearing a backpack, which obviously had some influence in what happened.”
The new lift replaced the old Meadows double, and is touted as safe for kids to ride without adults. The 36 chairs can take up to 2000 people an hour.
McCrostie: “We’ve had 48,000 people ride that lift since it opened and … we’ve got 400 kids here from Queenstown Primary [yesterday] and on Monday and they’ve given it a fairly robust workout.”