Giving winter sports a lift: Keeping chairlifts at Mount Snow safe and sound is a full-time job
DOVER — It takes a lot more than hitting the "on" switch to send the first chairlift up the mountain when Mount Snow opens its trails to skiers and boarders.
It appears to be a seamless operation, one that quickly transports thousands of snow-lovers up the slopes toward the summit — 3,600 feet above sea level. But behind the scenes, those lifts require consistent inspections, communication across departments and preparedness for Mother Nature's every move.
Every so often, the elements test that preparedness.
On Monday, Dec. 30, during a peak holiday week for snowboarders and skiers, Mount Snow was faced with several inches of ice that accumulated on its chairlift towers. The icy coating inhibited the lifts from starting and the operators from conducting their routine opening inspections.
Because of the storm, only seven of the resort's 15 aerial lifts were running that day, according to Dave Moulton, director of mountain operations at Mount Snow.
Mount Snow has 20 lifts in total, 15 aerial — detached and fixed-grip lifts, with the remaining surface or rope tows. When they're all up and running, they can carry 31,170 people per hour to points along the mountain. When they're not, the importance of the technology that made skiing a multi-billion dollar industry becomes obvious.
A detachable chairlift or gondola lift (enclosed), requires an endless loop of rope between two stations, according to U.S. Patent 4641584 issued Feb. 10, 1987. Chairs move on the rope by way of bull-wheels coupled to the rope and driven by bull-wheel motors. The wheels detach in the stations to unload and load at the loop. The bull-wheels direct the cable around the wheel at each terminal using pulley assemblies. This system is equipped with a braking mechanism for emergencies.
As the lift moves up the mountain, the ropeway is connected by consecutive towers spaced at regular intervals, determined by the length of the rope. Detachable lifts also allow for the removal of chairs, which often sit in a terminal or barn — similar to a San Francisco cable car system.
Detachable lifts are also considerably faster than fixed-grip lifts — 1,000 feet per minute versus 450 feet per minute, respectively — and slow down to load and unload in the terminals. Fixed-grip chairs are welded to the cables and don't come off.
Each lift has its own procedure when it comes to removing ice.
"Typically during an ice storm, the first lift we'll open is the fixed-grip lifts," Moulton said. "Then the detachables."
The maintenance crews climb up each tower and chop away at the ice by hand, with wrenches or hammers. Once the lift gets rolling, someone rides the line to make sure the shivs and wheels are turning. Otherwise, when the cable rides over it'll wear down into the axel and destroy the shiv. This is noticeable if there's a bump in the line because it wears a flat spot into the liner.
"On the detachable, once you get things turning, you have to clean every grip as it comes into the bottom. Otherwise, if where the tires meet the surface of the grip is all covered with ice and they won't move, they all get jammed in the terminal and that's a huge issue," Moulton said.
Moulton received word on Sunday, Dec. 29, that a storm was coming.
"We did emergency preparation just in case it had the potential to be really bad," Moulton said. "I think a lot of people don't expect bad weather [if it just snows]. It was really specific to certain areas."
Often, the arrival of winter storm clouds is cause for celebration at ski areas such as Mount Snow, especially if they're dumping fresh powder on the trails at the same time they're providing optimal snowmaking conditions.
Ice storms just make everything harder.
"Basically we have to go to every single tower and chop the ice off before we start turning," Moulton said. "On that morning at the Discovery Shuttle (a triple chairlift, so named because it holds three passengers per chair), usually you can hit the button and it'll start. But it was so stuck it wouldn't even start."
During the recent ice storm, lift operations manager Andrew Lampron and his team evaluated which lifts were the least icy to make sure they could have one open for customers. Each lift acts differently with ice, so one may be better than the next, and could be open within 30 minutes, he said. Ice removal can take a few hours because four or five maintenance crew members ride up to each tower — some lifts have 27 towers up to the summit — and chop away at inches of ice.
Lampron oversees lift operators, supervisors and the operations department. He communicates with his team daily to make sure there's a plan for what lifts will operate and which need servicing and maintenance. He also makes the marketing department aware of all those decisions, so they can be communicated to the public.
"Every day comes with challenges. I oversee the bigger picture to have a plan and product for our guests for opening time," Lampron said.
Lift maintenance includes ensuring safety and stop functions are working and that nothing is stopping the chairs from moving smoothly on the cables. Lampron also checks that all the towers are in good shape and that signs are in place.
"It's similar to popping the hood of a car. Each lift is made differently and each operator has their own level of exposure and expertise," he said. "If all that checks out, we get ready to open up to the public."
The last bad ice storm Mount Snow endured was in 2008, when many trees fell. It took almost four days until power was restored to the lifts and base areas, Moulton said. Luckily for detachable grip lifts, the bull wheels have diesel engine backups in case of failure and in order to get riders back to the terminals to unload if a power outage occurs.
Makayla-Courtney McGeeney writes for Southern Vermont Landscapes from North Adams, Mass.
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