John Dalton’s Lifted life in the Caribbean

February 14, 2017

This article has all the non-fiction action pack you could want: tower drama, helicopter drama, hurricane drama, with rum distilling and history older than your resort.

John Dalton is outside in St. Maarten while we talk. He’s in balmy, shirtsleeve temperatures, almost 2000 miles due South of me. This laptop and I won’t leave the room with the loaded woodstove.

While I was aware that John Dalton is the chief engineer for Rainforest Adventures, a company that develops outdoor adventure parks, my starter questions quickly discovered that John is one of us. He has been dedicated to the ski industry, and specifically to chairlifts, since the early eighties. He has an exceptional playbook that we’ll learn about later in this article.
But first, the lift project.

Searching for an adventure park

John Dalton at work. The next step back was a doozy.

“When we were first searching for a destination, we went to several locations around St. Maarten. In each of our parks, we have a mission statement that includes education, conservation, and value creation. Some examples of our conservation include our St. Lucia park, where we have 1,250 wooded acres. It was important to the people living there that the hardwoods were left to grow, so we kept them. We had a similar experience with trees in Jamaica where the government owns our leased land. In Costa Rica, we purchased the land around our parks, where this property works like a buffer. Here in St Maarten, it’s a little different because the native force was gone a long time ago. The piece we decided on was the last intact plantation with an old plantation house built in 1740 by John Philips, the governor of St. Maarten. The house had lost its roof in a 1995 hurricane and never got patched up and the structure was in bad shape. We completely rebuilt it to its historical glory. The architect used the same foundation for its restoration. It has an original stone barn where they used to make rum and, in the reconstruction, we used historically correct trusses. It is interesting to think that the original trusses would have been built by shipwrights using wooden dowels. That stone barn is going to be the park’s bar and restaurant.”

Plantation House before restoration

“The story of this particular plantation is a point of pride locally because a gentleman by the name of Emilio Wilson bought this land in 1954. His great grandmother was a slave born on the plantation and Emilio fell in love with the property and kept it whole. He could have sold it easily but held onto it until his death in 2002. It changed hands and ended up being owned by the government. We had to be patient to get this project off the ground with five years waiting and planning and one year for building.”

Writer’s note: This island was settled by both the French and the Dutch in 1648, hence a North and South divided island of St. Martin—French and Sint Maarten—the Netherlands.

Hurricane designs

“The mountain itself is the highest point at 1096’ on the Dutch side and has the best views on the island. This peak is a challenging place for construction. The top is all rock and precarious. For the top return terminal’s foundation, we were required to hire a Dutch geotechnical engineer. We received a second opinion from a structural engineer from MIT and, along with my experience, we came to the same conclusions on how to approach it. We decided to deter the weight concerning the faults in the rock while considering the direction of the trade winds blowing. Then we applied a hurricane design as these lifts are more exposed than any lift we have done before. These lifts will see accelerated winds in a hurricane on the top of the mountain so we designed it to manage 200 miles per hour winds. I worked closely with Ross [Palmer] at Skytrac to find an optimal design to keep the towers as short as possible. The philosophy is if there is a big hurricane the sheave trains could get bent a little bit, which is repairable. We can drop all the chairs and leave the cable on. We maximized the loadings on all the sheave trains so that cables will hopefully stay on in high winds. In the worst case, there will probably still be one cable left on the tower, reducing the stress a little and hopefully not get any towers bending. We have short stubby little towers anchored into the rocks. With all that we’ve put into consideration, that top terminal is going to stay put.”

Local rock

“The common name for our rock is Blue Bitch. The name comes from its blue tint and its a real bitch to work with. I brought in a friend who’s been a blaster all his life and he built the foundations in St. Lucia. Due to the fractured nature of the rock and possibility of large boulders ending up in local neighborhoods, we decided not to use any dynamite so we drilled and use expanding grout.”

When helicopters meet trade winds

“Construction of three terminals were done using a helicopter. The challenge here was the trade winds hit the front face of the mountain and created lift. The pilot would have a load of concrete under him and had the pitch on his propeller at zero with no torque, and the helicopter was still lifting. The trade winds were gusty, and he was struggling trying to get back down to the staging area with all that lift. The pilot kept playing with it until he found a technique that included heavy G forces, which meant putting the machine on its side and slicing down the hill rather than floating down like a leaf. That was something I’ve never seen before. It took him an afternoon to figure how to do it, and then he easily took a minute off of each turn that saved us a lot of money. The guy was good.”

Haul ropes in the tropics

“We have experienced some critical corrosion issues at Rainforest Adventures. We closed a tram on the island of Dominica because it was built about a mile and half from the Boiling Lake, a volcanic lake. Once in a while, it would send a cloud of sulfur down the valley, and our equipment would develop rust overnight. We fought that with stainless steel bolts, marine-grade wiring and painted, painted, painted. One night I was laying awake thinking about the towers. We bought an inspection camera, cut holes in the tops of the towers and dropping the camera inside to see what it looked like. We closed the tram the next day. It was kind of scary. Yeah. It’s something that normally doesn’t happen to tramways but the fact that the towers were not galvanized, not dipped, no protection on the inside of the tower. The corrosion took us out after ten years.”


John started in Grand Junction working for Poma in 1983 working on and off for twenty-five years. He was also employed with Leitner on two separate occasions and also a few years for Doppelmayr. Since then, his career has been consulting to ski resorts, lift manufacturers and then exclusively the Rainforest Group for the last fourteen years.

Andy Pierce of AP Electric; Jeremy Shank; John Dalton
Jeremy is the son of the well-remembered Kevin Shank of Big Sky, Crystal Mountain,WA and nine years for Rainforest Adventures.

“The reason why I’ve stuck with this industry is the vast majority of people have a passion for skiing. Between high school and university, I clipped a year off and headed to the Rockies and worked at Sunshine Village. I spent the year learning how to ski and getting addicted to the mountains. After that break, I decided to go back to school get my engineering degree. It took me six years to complete my four-year degree because I was skiing four days a week.”

“My forte is in doing lift profiles, just like Jan Leonard—who liked doing profiles a lot. I wrote the profile program at Poma. When I started in the 80’s, we were using satellite connections to a computer in France to run the profile programs. It was a bit of a bother for us to use that system here in America, so we decided to look into writing a program that met the American code. I ran the algorithms and mathematics along with a friend of mine who is a high-end programmer. I guess it was around 1992, I had this dream to sail around the world, and I would work on this profiles program while sailing. I bought a little boat and sailed around the world in four years and came back in debt with a big smile on my face. I started building lifts again to save up for another boat.”

“I’m down in St. Maarten living on my next sailboat, and I hope when this project finishes that I can take off cruising again. It takes a lot of patience to put these projects together. Much of it is in cultural acceptance I’d say. And there’s considerable satisfaction when it all comes together. St. Maarten is my seventh lift in the tropics. If I include the double gondola in Australia for Poma that would be nine lifts since 2002.”

A special Skytrac thank you to our fixed-grip friend and colleague, Andy Pierce, for his many work-site photos.

6 thoughts on “John Dalton’s Lifted life in the Caribbean

  1. Gene Novak

    Very interesting, it is good to know what went into designing this Tramway. A few years ago I visited Costa Rica and experienced the purportedly longest and safest zip line in the world (Miss Sky) in Nosarra and I was very impressed.

  2. Reynold Robinson

    Great work John. You have made many destinations in the Tropics the ideal place for nature lovers. I know you tried your best in Dominica but the elements of nature were not in your favor. I wish good luck with your next project. Continue to love the Caribbean the way you do. Also, keep on sailing.
    You are the best,

    Reynold Robinson.

  3. Bud and Marianne

    Great article!
    Hurricane Irma is testing John and his team right now.
    Hang in there John. keep your chin up. Keep calm and Cary on. And all those platitudes.

    Hope to see you in Antigua again soon!

  4. Chris Malette

    I was among a band of crazy dudes who partied our way through high school with John and, in fact, was the first guy to slap a pair of boards on his feet in the Laurentians night skiing at Mt. Gabriel on a visit home one Christmas to Montreal – I still remember the blue streaks down the slope from John’s brand new Levis as he rode most of the way down on his ass!
    He’s a good man and if anyone ever gets a chance to read his opus on his world-sailing adventure, “A Story for My Friends” I highly recommend it. Should be a book! (p.s. – I know a newspaper editor who could easily edit the sucker!)
    Quit bein’ a stranger, John! We’d all love to hear somestories some time and live our lives vicariously through our very own pirate pal.


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