Author Archives: Skytrac

First, Work in the Trenches

Brian Heon of Peak Resorts, GM of Wildcat Mountain, NH, talks to us about working from the ground up – from lift operations to the role of GM.

“When my daughter Elsie was four years old, she went missing at the ski resort one Saturday morning. My wife Megan was freaking out looking for her, even to the point of scouting out the riverbed off of the lodge entrance. She had the intercoms calling out continuously for Elsie. Motherly instinct completely possessed her body. She was quite another person while extraordinarily upset.

Meanwhile, our daughter’s safe and warm in Wildcat’s restaurant kitchen with her little apron and name tag, helping Iva, our Food and Beverage Director make chocolate chip cookies. When she was found, Megan comes running in, scoops her up in relief, and Elsie is waving her off like, ‘Mom, mom, I’m baking cookies. Let me do my job.’

Both of my daughters, including 10-year-old Gretchen, love working with Iva. Iva’s got them their own chef’s knives and special gloves to use so they don’t hurt their fingers. She’s taught them how to handle hot foods. They even work the cash register in the cafeteria. If Gretchen sees a line, she’ll open a cash register. Back in December an employee comes to a register and gives a cashier his pass to get the food discount. The cashier had no idea how to apply the discount. So Gretchen leans over and says, ‘You just gotta hit F12 and swipe their card this way, but not the other way because the mag strip has to be towards you.’

My wife Megan is third generation from a family of ski industry Russells. Her grandfather Colby Russell ran Squaw Mountain, ME, moved to Loon Mountain as GM in the 1960’s and then ran Mittersill into the ’70s. Her dad, Maynard Russell, is the Eastern Sales Director for Skytrac, a long time lift inspector, ran Suicide Six and Mt Tom, Vermont, and recently retired as Co-Chair of the ANSI B77 Committee. Bringing the kids to the resort on weekends is how she grew up; you hang out at the resort on weekends, and when there is no school, you ski.
Megan also hired me, landing me my first job in the industry in lift operations 21 years ago. Read on..

Right out of college I worked at Walt Disney World for about a year. I had done an internship at Disney and had taken their management classes and was in water park management. I would train and schedule lifeguards and teach classes. One was called ‘Training The Trainer.’ This experience is what got my foot in the door for the ski industry.

Working with Disney was awesome, benefits were great, but I had to live in Florida. I missed skiing. I grew up skiing and skied competitively in college. I knew I wanted to work at a ski resort. I had a friend growing up that worked for Mt. Rose outside of Reno. So I packed up my car, quit my job and headed for Reno. Being all the way out West, I had never been through Utah, and I knew the Olympics was going to be in Salt Lake City. I thought that would be cool to work for the Olympics so I drove to Salt Lake and ended up checking out Park City. When I drove through, I thought this is pretty awesome. You have The Canyons, then two miles further you have Park City, a badass little ski town and then Deer Valley. I’m driving around and seeing all this, drove up to the Canyons and see a sign ‘Human Resources.’ American Ski Company had just bought The Canyons and was doing a ton of construction. I pull into the parking lot of HR trailer. I had never seen the Wasatch mountains and was in awe. A guy comes up to me and says, ‘Can I help you?’ I respond ‘I don’t know, I’m just checking out the town, this looks awesome, do you have any job postings?’ The guy says ‘What‘ve you done before?’ I said well I worked at Disney for a while and went to college. He hands me his business card, and he says to go down the road to the Hampton Inn, tell them I sent you they’ll give you a room for the night. Come back tomorrow so I can talk to you more. His name was Tim Harris, and he was the VP of Mountain Operations. It was a very random meeting in a muddy parking lot. I get to the hotel I didn’t have to pay for, and I am thinking, I am going to talk to this guy in the morning and I don’t have a resume and that I should probably dress up, so I pulled my dress shirt and necktie out of my car and ironed them. It was 1998, so I lugged my computer, monitor, my dot-matrix printer, keyboard and cables into the hotel room, and printed my resume. (You didn’t have a laptop then) I went back the next day, interviewed with Tim, then with Megan. They were trying to get new employees with any kind management experience. They were asking, ‘can we teach you how to run a lift and you can teach people how to teach people?’ Megan was in lift ops but as it was the Fall and she was doing lift maintenance work. She shows up in Carhartt overalls with grease all over them. In later years, she admitted she almost didn’t hire me because of my button-down shirt and tie. That was my start in the ski industry in lift operations.

Removing the cover plate from a planetary gearbox during corrective maintenance.

That first year I worked in lift ops, there were about 120 operators. I set up training and a lot of the administrative stuff organized and worked on how to make the instruction better. I was seasonal, so that summer, I did trail work for a month, then poured concrete for a month then helped build the chairs for a month, all grunt labor. I learned how to fell big trees, build water bars, mitigate water, work in and around heavy machinery and tie rebar together in a hole and pour concrete in it and then fly towers. I did work like this for two years. Later, I became full time year-round when the guy vacated the spot for the lift ops manager. I was pretty committed to the resort and worked for six or seven years in this position. Then ASC was on its the way out. They sold a bunch of Eastern areas, then Mt. Snow, Steamboat, Heavenly, and Attitash. The plans were to move everybody to Park City and the Canyons and focus there. The dynamic at the resort changed. It didn’t get better or worse; it just got different.

Me and Megan

Here with Gretchen and Elsie

About then, my future wife Megan and I were pretty serious. We had some friends move out to Boulder City, which is just south of Vegas on Lake Mead and buy a boat dealership and ask if we wanted to help them run it. We accepted and were there for a year and a half. We got engaged and married in that time but living there is like living on the surface of the sun at 110 degrees every day.

It just wasn’t who we are, living in Southern Nevada. We decided to move back to Utah while I continued working for the dealership. Living in Park City and not working at a resort was weird. Megan became pregnant with Gretchen when I saw a job for a lift ops director’s job back East at Mt Snow. It caught my eye for a lot of reasons. I grew up skiing at Mt Snow—I had ASC friends there—and it would bring us back to New England where the family was. I interviewed with Dave Moulton and then met Kelly Pawlak. The interview process took three or four months. Phones interviews, Skype interviews, then fly over and then they ask for references and finally offered me the position. It took months! Then they wanted to hire on Megan. It’s a signature move for Peak Resorts, as they think of the whole family unit hands down, and make sure the position is a fit for everyone. I was there for three years. I managed lift operations, worked in lift maintenance, ski patrol and ran the ambassador program.. a lot of different experiences.

And then Jesse Boyd called me to his office after I had returned from a vacation. I called Megan and said this is either going to be really good, or really bad. Jesse offered me the General Manager’s position at Wildcat.

Josh Boyd, whose heart is in it, and understands ski area operations, had taken over the GM position at Wildcat before my start. He had already instilled the Peak Resort culture of a hard work ethic, passion, so didn’t pussyfoot around with me. He’s like, ‘Brian – This is what it’s going to take to succeed here. You need to hold everyone accountable, you need to show them that you care, work side-by-side with everybody, and that is how this place is going to be successful.’

With Stan Judge after he received the Jan Leonard Award 2017. Stan was the Wildcat GM from 1959 -1996. Then came Josh Boyd (now GM of both Alpine Valley and Boston Mills/Brandywine Resorts) until 2013 when I was promoted within Peak Resorts, Inc.

We had dinner with friends recently, and I showed up with my snow pants on, and they were like – Whoa! You smell like a campfire! What have you been doing? I had to tell them that we have 300 feet of frozen snowmaking pipe, so we brought in three hundred hay bales and lit them all on fire around the pipe, and we’re just kind of burning things to defrost it. Think about that if you’re outside this business and you hear this guy has hundreds of hay bales on fire underneath water pipes, at three degrees out in the middle of the forest, with a bunch of crew at night. Then during dinner, the crew calls and says the hay is all burned up and I tell them to go over to the Grand Summit and grab all their firewood, put it in the basket of the snowcat and get it over to the guys to keep the fire going.

I’m sure there are anomalies out there, but I can’t imagine walking into any of the upper management roles without having first worked in the trenches. Without that experience, I don’t know how I’d be effective. Some of the tasks we do in this business are crazy.

At Wildcat with Stan Judge and my father-in-law, Maynard Russell.

Lift Crew c.1958

Courtesy of the New England Ski Museum

The lift crew on the Wildcat Gondola c.1958.The two-person gondola was built by Carlevaro and Savio of Turin, Italy, and was their first American installation. The American builders had to struggle with plans in metric dimensions and in Italian, and when engineer Savio visited the site he discovered that the base terminal plans had gotten reversed and the track was built backwards. He made rapid adjustments and the installation continued unaffected. The gondola operated until 1999.

Tahoe Donner’s New Snowbird Triple

This new Snowbird 3-FG lift replaces the original lift installed in 1971, and provides a modern and safety-enhanced experience for guests and improved access to beginner terrain.

Lift Blog’s Peter Landsman

Many of us who work around ropeways use Lift Blog’s database when we need a lift’s history or technical details.

The blog’s compilation of ropeway-specific news, images, and announcements cover every aspect of lifts. It reads so wholly and interestingly, old-schoolers liken it to a ropeway history book that you want to keep flipping pages from beginning to end.

The founder behind this extensive research is Peter Landsman. He has been curating lift data for over a decade, though he is a young millennial. And believe this… as a hobby – lucky for us. He is a lift operations supervisor at “Big Red,” the Jackson Hole Tram.

“ started in around 2002 out of Seattle, Washington and I was the second member after the guy who founded it.
I don’t even think blogs were invented at that point.The site was more of a forum in a message-board format. I was just a kid when I joined and it was cool because people didn’t know I was 13 or 14 years old.The forum was anonymous as everyone used a screen name. I didn’t participate much in my high school and college years, but I still had this huge interest in lifts. During those years, I traveled to see lifts, take pictures, and ski as much as I could.

After I graduated from college and was working at Jackson Hole, I saw an opportunity to open a new site developed with a long-form format, with more researched content. I read a lot of blogs and modeled Lift Blog after tech blogs that cover Apple’s current developments.”

Tram crew at the Jackson Hole Tram

“On these sites, everything that Apple does is talked about in great detail so that the readers have a better understanding. I duplicated this effort so that Lift Blog contains more facts and analysis rather than snippets of unverified information from many people. Some people blog and lots of people comment and that led me to forward to think, well, lots of people ski, lots of people work on and around lifts. I thought there should be a place where people could read about what’s going on and then if they do want to comment on a post, it would be useful information to others.

When I was in 4th grade, I started working on an Excel spreadsheet of all the lifts I could find. My list started in my home state of Washington and continued from there over the years. I kept the record up for my interests until 2015 when I began Lift Blog. By then I had compiled every lift in North America, so I had a perfect foundation of data to work off of for continuous updating. Every lift, including their stats for the U.S. and Canada, is on the back end of my research, but I don’t put any lift stats up on the blog until the data is as accurate as possible and I take pictures.”

Crystal Mountain 2007

“Unlike new installations, it’s more difficult to get information together on lifts that are moved or are modified. A lift can relocate anywhere from New England to Alaska. I look back in my spreadsheet and can sort by all the lifts that have been removed by manufacturer and type, and then go back and look at pictures and figure out what the original lift was. I find it surprising every year when lifts that are relatively new get scrapped and lifts that are older end up somewhere else. But I think it comes down to what kind of lift is needed, when one becomes available, and who knows about it.

2018 is an exciting year for installations, and next year will be interesting too with how the economy is looking and all the resort consolidation. These developments are resulting in a lot of new lifts.

My twin Sam and myself on the old Challenger lift at Big Sky Resort. Sam co-writes a website called Slowboat about powerboating in the Pacific Northwest.

Blog readership is still going up. In an average month, there are around 40,000 unique visitors to Lift Blog and about 200,000 page views.

When I travel, I choose where I’m going on vacation by what lifts can I see. This fall I have a cousin who’s getting married in Cooperstown, New York and there is a new lift going in at Hunter Mountain and a new lift at Windham, so why not go check them out? I can go to the wedding and also see some cool new lifts.

I’ve been asked if chairlifts didn’t exist, what would I be doing instead? I’ll admit I was pretty interested in trains growing up, but trains don’t tend to be in as cool of places as ski lifts. I love working at Jackson Hole and visiting other mountains.”

George Boyden’s 52-year Career of Lift Mechanics at Sandia Peak Tramway

George Boyden on a morning inspection, over 10,000 feet above sea level and approximately 1,000 feet above ground. He performed these daily inspections for the majority of the Tramway’s first 40 years in rain, snow, shine, wind, and ice weather conditions.

A little pre-ski history of Taos Valley

“Spanish armies came up the Rio Grande River in search of the Seven Cities of Gold, a rumor during ancient times of the 1500’s. Some say that the golden sunsets were the gold that Native Americans talked about and that the physical gold didn’t exist at all. That said, 350 years later, there was quite a bit of gold mining throughout southern New Mexico.”

The remarkable golden sunsets at Taos Ski Valley.

“At the base of Gold Hill after the first strike, a tent city named Twining, grew to over 1,100 squatters in a year. During the discoveries of gold deposits, miners also found rich copper ore. There were loading trestles, ore cars, and a big smelter right where the parking lot is for the ski resort. Eventually, the gold craze concluded, the copper supply ended, and everything left this little valley except for a few settlers. These bygone events developed well-established roads to a canyon with North facing slopes, avalanche chutes, and a great open base area at 9,400 feet to found Taos Ski Valley.”

“My grandchildren on a Gold Rush-era air compressor”

“My parents introduced me to skiing back in 1955 when I was ten. As I got older, I continued to ski and worked at La Madeira Ski Area, which in 1962, changed to Sandia Peak when the first chairlift was installed. During the summertime, I would roll rocks, cut trees and brush that would earn me a season’s pass. I also did yard work where I gained experience with sprinkler systems and plumbing and learned electricity from my best friend’s electrician uncle. Tinkering with hot rods, I gained mechanical knowledge. Unknowingly, I was priming myself for future work at the Tramway. But when it snowed in the mountains, all day time jobs were off. I went skiing.”

Bob Beattie with Jimmy Heuga,and Billy Kidd circa 1968
Courtesy of the New England Ski Museum

“I studied for two years at the University of Colorado and had the opportunity to train with the University of Colorado ski team under the renowned Bob Beattie. That was a point in the University’s ski history when Spider Sabich, Billy Kidd, Jimmy Heuga, Jim Barrows, Ni Orsi, and Bill Marolt were training on the team.

After those college semesters, I took the next year off to repair skis and mount ski bindings in Alburqurque, as a Vail dream job fell through.”

“Here I am doing layout flips in 1970 with my friend Trey. I quit doing flips and hang gliding in 1998 as I got older and wiser.”

“I had a one-track mind that the skiing lifestyle was my direction in life, the very meaning for everything for which I was working. After the snow melted in Sandia Peak, in 1965, when I was working as a certified ski instructor, I got a call from our general manager, Will Jackson. He offered me a job at the Sandia Peak Tramway, which was near the end of its two years of construction. So here I was, my passion and goal were to ski, and I find myself working at the new Tramway with Swiss engineers Adolf Zubruchen and Thomas Horst. My opportunity to get this job was probably because many of the construction workers were burned out from two years of adverse weather conditions, the broken German-English directions from the Swiss engineers, and impatience with the metric dimensions and tools.

Adolf taught me much about ropeway construction, and Thomas educated me on electricity. It was like having two personal tutors. I learned to use a cutting torch and a welder long before I ever operated the Tram. I found that experience can teach as much as a book. During the time of the Tramway’s acceptance test, we looked like muscle men after lifting hundreds of fifty-pound sandbags repetitively in and out of the tram cars to verify the cable tensions and required braking parameters.”

“This is some really old guy bending over the straightened wires forming the ‘flower’ that is pulled into the socket. Then the socket is poured, inspected and reattached to the tram carriage.”

Eskimo Lift destructive testing, 1990

“Industry people learned a lot about acceptance tests from the 1990 Eskimo Lift destructive testing at Winterpark. It wasn’t known prior to this testing, what could happen to a chairlift when it goes through different mechanical failures. A program of destructive testing was planned above and beyond normal operating forces, speeds, and control limits to find the breaking points or adverse reactions.

The results from these experiments were a real eye-opener. The construction of the Tramway was a similar experience of discovery as we were building, rigging, pouring the first sockets, and shortening cables. We learned everything right there on site. Some of these functions we performed only happen once every few years. The Tram is a bi-cable system that works like two buckets in a well. While a tram cabin is moving down, it is pulling the other tram cabin up. Because trams are unique, the ropeway employees are a family that connect with other tramways in the U.S., especially for big jobs and technical incidents.”

“I went for a ride with Benny Abruzzo on his 1995 Classic Collector Harley Low Rider. I was on my 1990 1200 Harley Sportster. I rode BSA from 1966, built a flathead chopper,sold both and bought this sportster. I have a 2000 Harley Road King now.”

“I’ve gone to help out at Stone Mountain Tramway in Georgia, the Palm Springs Tramway in California, and Jackson Hole Aerial Tram, Wyoming. If there is rigging to do, the experienced maintenance guys, engineers, those with ropeway equipment knowledge, like Jan Leonard, Howard Anderson, Jim Ellis, and Maynard Russell have chipped in to help. Sam Geise was always the been the go-to guy with answers in his back pocket involving wire rope and cable technology. I have been one of the luckiest guys in this industry because I was able to learn from and work with the best.”

“In 1997, the cable crew had 4 weeks to replace all four of the cable tracks when two, 3-foot snowstorms hit. Along with clean-up and other maintenance work the Tram was closed almost 7 weeks.”

Lift Mechanic’s challenges vs benefits

“One year we had an ice storm where two of the cables rubbed together and caused some damage. Following the “Standards” directions to the letter, we couldn’t repair or splice a strand in a rope if there were more than six broken wires in a one lay length (as opposed to every lay length from deterioration or wire fatigue), therefore we had to replace the ENTIRE haul rope in order to be in code ..all 15,000 feet of 1-1/4” cable.

As a mechanic, a benefit on the other hand, is that you must do the daily inspections and, if you plan this out correctly, you’re the first person at the top to ski down through the powder. Goodness knows we must double check everything and get a couple of runs before you put any paying passengers on the lift. It can be a tough job. But it is a great life. Most of us love the work by reason that it is both mentally and physically demanding and also rewarding.”

Skytrac Celebration Dinner for George’s 52 years of service at the Sandia Peak Tram, Marco Island, 2018

Dale Walters, P.E.

“Dale had a dry sense of humor, and a temper! Although he would do all of the required rope testing, Dale, like many of the old school splicers, through practical experience had a feel for rope and could tell from the history, ropeway and a visual inspection if a replacement or repair was needed. And he would banter about the engineers with book knowledge that were always asking him questions about wire rope strength, and many other things. After he had retired he was at one of the trade shows, I saw him across the room, and we made eye contact. I was glad to see him again. We shook hands and he said: “Oh George, you haven’t seen my new cards!”

The card he gave me said –Dale Walters P.E. I asked, “What? You went back to school and got a degree?” Dale scowled at my remark. Then I realized and said, “P.E. must stand for Practical Experience.”

Dale shook my hand hard and said, “You are the first to recognize that!” Dale was a great man. I miss him and so many others we have lost in our industry. I am thankful for the knowledge and memories that so many in our ropeway industry have shared so freely for so many years.”

Testing Load Speeds circa 1930’s

Excerpted from the New England Ski Museum’s Winter 2002 Newsletter

Testing the new chairlift design in the Omaha, Nebraska shops of the Union Pacific Railroad. Designer and engineer James Curran needed to know how fast the lift could run and still allow skiers to load from a stationary position, so a chair was hung from a truck-mounted frame and driven at various speeds to scoop the tester, John E.P. Morgan, on roller skates. Curran’s first lift opened at Sun Valley in 1936.

LMS 2018 Lift Mechanic of the Year, Matt Fuller

I’m happy to have been nominated as the Mechanic of the Year by my team at Sunday River. This group of coworkers call me the “Lift Whisperer” because I’ve become so familiar with the sounds of the lifts in my zone. I can readily hear, or feel and determine what it might be that needs adjusting.

My favorite job details are technical. I love tearing lift components and assemblies apart, reconditioning them and then putting whatever it is back together, fully restored.

What do I like the most about the job? I love being outdoors, especially in winter. Summer’s are too hot. I also enjoy working at heights, though this is something most mechanics have to get used to starting out. At Sunday River we have towers 50-60 feet high. Now I say, the higher the towers, the better.

Like the least? High winds and icing .Though part of the job, these conditions can make work pretty rough.

Daily regiment: I never leave the office without my climbing harness and dead blow hammer.

I’d like to thank my on-the-job mentors who have trained and taught me so much.
Lou Blanchard and Jamie Breau from Sunday River.
Tim LeCours from Leitner-Poma.

As Fate Would Have It

Jim Fletcher; skier, civil engineer, and recipient of the Jan Leonard Award. Jim tells the story of his career spanning 40 years of ski industry ropeways, especially how the thin threads of an eye examination and draft lottery during the Vietnam War era allowed fate to have its way.

“I had applied to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and had gotten what’s called a first alternate appointment. It was a long shot to get into West Point until the guy in front of me had heart problems, and then I knew could potentially get in. A candidate went through three days of physical and medical testing, and the last medical test was an eye exam. I knew I had a problem with vision in my left eye, so I read the chart with my right and memorized it. Then the doctor covered up my good eye and with my left eye exposed said, “read the lines.” The moment of truth. Do I cheat? I ended up saying, “You know, I can’t read that particular line.” After trying multiple lenses, the conclusion was that I was non-correctible and because of this, I wouldn’t get into West Point. I was crushed. I saw this as a real setback to my future.

I received a scholarship to attend Purdue through Armco Steel and graduated with a Bachelor’s and then a Masters of Science in Civil Engineering in 1968. Looking back, had I graduated from West Point in 1967 I would most probably have been a Second Lieutenant in the war. Their life expectancy in the Vietnam War was about three and a half weeks.

My second brush with fate is when I got out of engineering school and became a 1A, which was the top of the list for the draft. I had a Civil Engineering degree so I wanted to get into the Navy Seabees (U.S. Naval Construction Battalion). That was the year the government drew a lottery for the draft. The lottery numbers were based on a drawing of birthdates, and I remember the Selective Service having the numbers in capsules, putting them into a hopper, picking them out and announcing the numbers. Mine came up as 342, which was a high number and I, for a second time for this war, was not picked.”

Rep. Alexander Pirnie drawing the first Viet Nam draft pick number, 1969
Credit: Open Source, Wikipedia

“I worked for a time at Armco Steel in Construction in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois and went out West in 1973 and continued with construction management. I was then hired as chief engineer of Heron Wright Chairlift Company for the next three years, living and working out of the Denver metro area. I had learned to ski at Aspen Highlands in 1971. Lift tickets sold for 8 or 9 dollars a day in the early 70’s, and I learned to become a competent skier after a couple of years skiing there.
In 1975 I built a home outside of Denver on the front range mountains, not far from Eldora”.

Significant standard changes with ANSI B77

“In the 1981 B77 Committee, the most prominent discussion was how to handle the new technologies. Everybody was concerned about the grandfathering of the older installations. How is the technology going to affect this older equipment? The 1982 standard was more of a reorganization of old data, than the formation of new ideas. The former had all of the lift types intermingled. This new standard was the first to divide the lift types of aerial trams, detachables, fixed grips, and service lifts.”

Joe Gmuender, George Boyden and Sid Roslund,
OITAF-NACS Conference in Ouray, CO

Death By Fork

“We had equipment sales trips that were sponsored by manufacturers like Fatzer and CWA. Sid Roslund coined them “Death by Fork” because companies who sponsored the breakfasts, lunches, and dinners would try to outdo the previous meal put on by another business. After three or four days of this, you felt like a goose stuffed for foie gras. The French conundrum is if you drink a lot of red wine, you can eat a lot of saturated fats.”

Armando Cordova, Tram Manager; Mike Deiparine, ESG Project Engineer; Jim Fletcher, Project Manager; James Bunch, Project Engineer and Jon Mauch, LPOA Project Manager.

Adventures and Avalanches with Electrical Engineer Jamie Bunch

Adventure 1: You’d Better Punch It.

“In the early 90’s, Jamie and I were on tour looking at funiculars. We were working on some projects that were looking to employ funicular technologies, so we went to Europe to travel around gathering data on existing systems. There was a system in Val D’Isere, France that we wanted to see. I remember getting into Val D’Isere somewhere around one or two o’clock in the afternoon, and it was snowing so hard the funicular wasn’t operational. Funiculars run in pretty rough weather, and heavy storms usually do not shut them down, so Jamie and I just decided to poke around the lower station a bit. At some point we figured that we ‘d better get out of town because the storm was getting worse. As we saw no tire tracks leading down the valley, we believed we were the last car out of there that night. The road was extremely steep. Jamie was in the passenger seat and as he was a curious kind of guy, he was looking uphill. Then he said, “You’d better punch it.” I didn’t question him. I did punch it and looked in the rearview mirror and saw an avalanche of trees and snow cascade behind our vehicle and close the road to Val D’Isere. We were the last ones out of Val D’Isere that day!”

Top of cabin on NYC Tram with Fred Swartzberg and Neville Sachs, 2003

Adventure #2: You’d Better Hold On.

“Another Jamie Bunch story, we were running some tests on the single span, mono-cable gondola spanning the Mississippi in New Orleans for the 1984 World’s Fair. At that time I believe the 3000’ system was one of the longest single span mono-cables in the world.

For rescue, they used a self-propelled vehicle that Poma had designed. It was basically a crawler that moved along the haul rope and went to each cabin. It would enable a rescue crew to take people out of the cabins, put them in a basket, and lower them to a boat on the river or onto land. The towers on either side of the Mississippi ranged from about 300 to 340’ feet high. My charge was to man this rescue vehicle while observing and checking the system out. The Poma designer was there and Fred Labaeye, who had helped with the construction of the crawler.

The three of us were practicing a rescue, so to speak, and it started to rain a little bit. We came to a tower where the rope on the backside of the tower and down to the station was steep, almost 30 –35 degrees on the downhill. This caterpillar crawler was made out of a hard plastic material, so when we climbed on top of the detachable grip, there was a piece of plastic connecting the two grip bodies and the crawler proceeded to slip on the plastic. It lost its grip and started downhill. I’m up on top of this vehicle and Jamie’s inside the terminal, and the thought that went through my mind was, I wonder how fast we’ll be going when we hit the terminal? Fortunately, Fred Labaeye, a very experienced guy was driving this thing and he hit the emergency brake, and one of the brakes that gripped around the rope was still down around the rope while the other had to be lifted over the rope clamp. Fred hit that and it stopped us,. This rescue vehicle weighed a couple thousand pounds but was almost horizontal with the rope as the vehicle stopped. It was scary but we survived it.”

Jim and his wife Karen

Lift Construction Circa 1961

The use of helicopters to transport lift towers to mountain locations was a great increase in efficiency, and allowed for much less disruption of the hillside since haul roads no longer needed to be built to each tower location. New chairlifts were constructed using helicopters for tower installation at Stratton Mountain, VT in 1961 and in 1962 a helicopter was used at Magic Mountain, VT to haul cement for tower footings and the towers themselves. At Cannon Mountain, in 1962, each tower was erected in four to six minutes.

Photo credit: New England Ski Museum Collection

IRMA: John Dalton, Part II – What My Fixed-Grips Looked Like After the Hurricane Hit

September 6th was the day Hurricane Irma hit St. Maarten.
Our eco-park was ten days away from opening with the two new fixed-grip installations having already run for ten months during construction. The lifts were explicitly designed for hurricane forces, and although we knew they would get tested, we didn’t think that would happen so soon.

According to the United States National Hurricane Center (NHC), “a Category 5 Atlantic hurricane is one that is considered to have had sustained wind speeds greater than 136 knots, 157 mph, on the Saffir–Simpson scale.” Hurricane Irma winds were sustained 185+ mph with its arrival at St. Maarten with gusts to 235 mph – strongest ever recorded in the Atlantic basin.

Pre-storm countdown

Five days out.

It looked like Irma was going North of us with the potential to be serious. Our first move is we cleaned up the park’s site as there was a lot of loose construction debris that would fly around in the high winds.

We saw the hurricane was approaching closer to St. Maarten and getting increasingly dangerous. We put additional planning into place and began placing concrete blocks on top of containers, lighter objects, and exposed equipment. We started pulling chairs off of Lift #2, which is the upper lift on the mountain, using shipping straps with trucker ratchets to belt down the nested chairs. We did leave a few chairs on for access to the summit during preparations. We also began taking chairs off of Lift #1, our base area to mid-station lift, with other tasks taking place simultaneously.

Three days out.

It was on this third day we sent our crews home and kept just a skeleton crew to keep the progress moving forward. The staff needed to take care of their own homes and secure their family’s safety. With those matters complete, they could come back and proceed with park preparations.

Lowered ziprider cables into the bush.

Two days before the hurricane hit.

The second day prior the storm was quite busy. We finished packing the chairs on Lift #1 in earnest, leaving four access chairs for tools and workers on the lift. We strapped down the motor room covers in tandem with preparations for our zip rider. There, we lowered the cables and all the retrieval lines down to the ground, then tied off the cables so they wouldn’t flog themselves to death. Where the equipment was adjacent to steel structures, we tied them off and then lowered the rest of the cables into the bush. Back down around the base area, along with the other employees, we secured the doors, screwed plywood up and around the windows, closed the hurricane shutters and fastened boards across them to make sure everything was good and tight.

Motor room cover getting reinstalled.

One day countdown to zero hours.

We spent the last day taking the remaining chairs off the lifts. We wrapped and secured all of the control boxes and anything electrical in heavy-duty plastic covers. Most of the remaining work was allocated to the decking and construction supplies at the top of the mountain as we tucked everything away and screwed everything down. At that end of that last day, the General Manager, Shaydar Edelmann and I were the last two people at the top of the mountain to finish up and do final inspections before we rode down to the base in AT vehicles. Then we said a prayer, wished each person good luck, and everyone went to their hiding holes for the storm.

Plantation house survived with roof intact and minor nicks and cuts

Leaves coming back.

I went back to my boat late that afternoon before the storm hit as we received a notification that it was going to be a Category 5 with winds over 157mph going right over the top of us. I packed up all my paperwork, electronics and valuables and moved everything, along with myself to a friend’s villa. This particular home structure survived twenty years ago through Hurricane Louis, also a Category 5 and a very violent storm. Here is where I holed up, and in fact, I’m still there today because my boat flew away. A bit of a heartbreaker but fortunately insured.

My boat from last year’s article.

Found my boat.

After the storm

After the storm, transportation was very difficult. I was in a location where I couldn’t drive to the park. I had word from Mike Walker, our operations manager, who had hiked across the island to see what happened there and the news was very positive. The buildings in the park all survived with just nicks and cuts. The park didn’t lose any roofs, and we didn’t have any blow-through water damage, only very minor stuff. We did lose our Tubby Tube Run. We had modified the design of the tube run to handle high winds, but Irma was just too much for it. The Run was constructed from fabricated sheet metal and when the wind got underneath it peeled up like a strip of tape and flew into the forest. That equipment was a total write-off.

First look at cable.

What’s left of the tube run.

Lift #2 was our second biggest hit. Its location is in a saddle on the ridge, so it sits in an area where the wind accelerates as it funnels through. We found the cable on the ground 100‘ off of the lift line. From what I surmise after seeing it in detail, I believe a huge gust blew the cable off to the side and when the cable rebounded it jumped off the bullwheel before bouncing around to its limits and finally coming to rest on the other side of several 35 ft trees. It destroyed both of the pressure transducers on the hydraulic tension system and caused cosmetic cracking in the machinery grout where the frame flexed. How this damage occurred was very impressive, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Hurricane design

In the last article, I spoke about how I worked very closely with Skytrac to come up with a hurricane design that was still economically feasible. I’m happy with the design what we came up with because it pretty much worked as planned.

The plan was that our towers were to be heavily loaded. The main idea is if the storms are not too aggressive, the cables were going to stay put. If the storm is too destructive, the leeward side is going to blow off the tower. We had to make the tower strong enough for the force on the windward cable to be resisted and not bend the tower. If the towers bent or failed, the material costs would be astronomical to fix as it would require a long ferry for a heavy lift helicopter. We recognized that the sheave trains and tower components could be replaced piece by piece if necessary, so we focused on strong towers. The guys at Skytrac shipped out the replacement parts right away. In the mean time, we dragged those cables back under the lift and hoisted them back on the sheaves, bending components back into alignment well enough to turn the lift again until parts arrived. We were most concerned about the cable itself because it was jammed into one of the sheave trains and wedged between a sheave and an interior anti-derail. Once we got that cable out and under tension, it didn’t look as bad. Terry Zakotnik from Above & Beyond flew in on a special charter flight to do magnetic resistance testing on the cable and straighten out a few wires. When we got a clean bill of health on the cable, we started turning it the lift in earnest.

Ironwood tree. Known as the hardest wood in the world, has a hardness of 5,060 lbs per foot.

Electrical mysteries.

After the storm, there was one tree in particular that we noticed, called an Ironwood tree. Like its name, a very dense, hard, strong, and heavy tree.

It looked like the cable got hung up on it during the storm, as it was lying at the base of the tree trunk when we found it. The top of the tree was blown off by lightning, all scarred and scorched.That’s at least one lightning hit we are aware of. Once we got the lift running on the diesel engine, we started through the safeties and after changing a card cleared all the faults through the PLC. We didn’t realize initially but the lightning strikes had affected the majority of the system. Getting into the guts of it, there were melted cards and drive components among and other issues, so we had to replace the whole drive.

Rebuilding by camera phone

The tech support with ABB along with the electrical support from John and Wu from Skytrac was amazingly helpful. Shaydar and our electrical team put in some very serious effort to get through replacing the drive, resetting parameters, troubleshooting, and finding all the burnt relays to be replaced. Located far from supply sources and technicians on this island, where we will have lightning problems in the future, it was a valuable learning process on how to deal with lightning strikes and what components we are going to have to carry on the shelf.

I found it amazing that we replaced a drive ourselves using only phone support. WhatsApp was a very useful tool. When you can point your phone at the board and say “Look, its burnt over here and this lights not on” and you’ve got John on the other end looking at the problem, it’s second to him being right there with you.

Getting cable back on.

We are looking at putting lightning clamps on the cable and better earthing – that gives the lightning an easier path to ground instead of through the drive – hopefully. Short of an electrical grounding system like they’ve got in Telluride, at a prodigious cost, it is more economical for us to put parts on the shelf.

At the first assessment after the storm, I will admit that it was a bit intimidating. We sent photos and called Dave Metivier (President of Skytrac). After discussing the situation, he put Alex McCann (Parts and Customer Service) on a plane and sent him down. After a complex series of flights, he finally showed up. Alex was a huge help in getting the cable back on and going through all the mechanical components. Knowing the parts intimately helped us with the list of everything we needed. We consider ourselves extremely fortunate as many of the businesses here in St. Maarten are going to take a year or more to recover. I don’t know why we deserve to come out so well compared to others, but we’ll take that piece of luck.

Above the carnage.

We have 700 square meters of wood decking at the top of the mountain that amazingly stayed put. There was one section of stairs that flew away because it wasn’t bolted down yet, and we never did find it.

There was one unexpected advantage we gleaned from the hurricane recovery. As we put the cable back on Lift #2 with no tension, we realized how well the ground profile follows the cable. Since the clearance on this single span lift is minimal, we decided to change the evacuation procedure.

Now, with the lift is locked out, we de-tension and lower the chairs so the passengers can just step out of their seat and onto solid ground without the use of evacuation ropes. We performed evacuation practice using the new method and were very happy with the result.

Single span, Lift #2

The future of business

We are going to have a tough season coming up. Our projections were for a full-on tourist season, and we were expecting to use the revenues to service our loans. Next season I believe we’ll be back at about 90 percent with tourism. No one is sitting still and St. Maarten is recuperating quite well.There is aid coming from Holland. Tourism operators and cruise lines are committed to rebuilding and are anxious to get back in full force. St Maarten is an important destination to these industries and has a will to build back, better.

First ride post Irma.


It is the first time I‘ve ever been in a major hurricane like this and I was encouraged by the way people came together to help each other. These challenges have had positive aspects. Our crew has taken ownership of the park here and stepped up to protect it from the storm which bodes well; they are very proud of what they’ve built here, as they well should be and are thinking of their future with the park. Although there is still finishing work being done, we opened for business on the 24th of November after a two month hurricane delay.