Bill Brett, the now retired mountain manager from Timberline Resort, OR, is the 2017 recipient of the PNSAA Tower of Excellence Award.
Here’s his story on lift mechanics in some of the U.S.’s toughest weather.
“Here at Timberline, we built the first Palmer lift; a Riblet fixed double in 1977 to 1978. It was the dream of Richard Kohnstamm, the owner, to have chairlift access to the upper mountain. Mr. Kohnstamm was a 29-year old social worker/investor who rescued Timberline from bankruptcy in 1957. It took a few years of fighting for it, and finally, we got the permission to do the construction.
It took us a couple of years to build this lift as the weather tore it down while building it in the first twelve months. During that first installation, the lift was about ready for chairs when an October ice storm moved in.
The weather left two feet of rime ice built up around the haul rope, then the wind started blowing and blew three towers over. Nobody had constructed a chair in that environment before, and while Riblet was willing to install the project, nobody knew what was going to happen with those kinds of loads. These towers were not the tripod style towers we have today. It was a learning experience. An interesting note is that the Palmer Lift was originally going to be Riblet’s first detachable. They never built the grip, and we used to joke about Riblet not figuring out how to get the clip in and out of the rope fast enough.
Mt Bachelor and Mt Hood Meadows both enjoy working in the same weather as Timberline. There is also a lot of information and learning coming out of New Zealand where there is some big icing. I’ve gleaned some wisdom out of those areas, but from an operating standpoint, the location of Timberline is the most challenging. But while it’s severe, it’s the challenge of it that keeps you going. The people who work around this stuff for a living are high in character. I think of people like R.J. Knight who would be splicing up on Palmer with two inches of ice in his beard in his frozen coveralls while the rest of our crew was wearing rain gear. R.J.’d just keep on and finish the job.
The biggest challenge with year-round operations is we don’t have a full season of lift down time like other resorts. So we just keep working consistently between weather and schedules. We operate our lifts year-round, and Timberline has the longest ski season in North America.
Timberline used to be a little area, just busy on the weekends, quiet during the week, with one ski patroller. The most significant change that ever happened was the expanded summer ski operation when we built the chair on the upper mountain. That changed the whole picture of Timberline and how it turned into a world-class destination during the summer months. Funny — a lot of people in Portland who ski here in the wintertime don’t even know we ski in the summer time. Most of our guests are from all over the world as there are a limited number of places to ski during this season.
The Palmer lift closes during the winter months. Besides the rime ice, there can be winds up to 100 miles per hour. When winter comes to the lower lands, and the boss says it’s time to put Palmer to bed, we have a system, what we call “winter assemblies” that are mounted twelve feet below the cross arms for strength. We drop and secure the rope in those assemblies for the winter.
For our lower mountain, some chairs we’ll run at night to keep them from icing up and the rest we have another system we use to get them unfrozen and rolling again. Yes – sometimes it is necessary to open late.
How I got here.
I grew up in Chicago but moved to Portland because my grandparents were here. I love the west coast.
I got hooked on skiing and in 1971 started working at Timberline, right out of high school. I was a ski patroller and a lift operator the next couple of years and then managed the ski patrol. I had that roll for a couple of years and then got tired of my feet hurting all the time wearing ski boots. I started working with the lift maintenance crew. A few years later when the lift maintenance manager quit, I almost left also for another opportunity. The mountain manager at the time told me “You can’t leave. You shouldn’t pass this position up as the new lift maintenance manager. So I stayed, and that’s what I did.
My wife Pam and I are a Timberline couple as we worked and met here. We have three kids, one a schoolteacher and two of them work in the industry. My youngest son is here at Timberline as a Rooms Manager at the hotel. My other son is a snowcat mechanic at another local ski area.
Question #1 to Bill: In all that freezing weather, what’s your favorite kind of gloves to get you through?
Answer: Kinko’s like everybody else. When they get wet – you just put on another pair.
Question #2: Your maintenance crew – have you trained most of them fresh or have you hired experienced mechanics from other resorts?
Answer: Occasionally we have experienced mechanics from other areas, and occasionally there is a supervisory roll or management position from another area. Timberline is a great company to work for, but few mechanics come because of the weather and as it’s a year-round operation.
Question #3 How’s that West Coast seafood?
Columbia River Salmon is a specialty in the hotel and is about the closest you get to seafood here.