SnoCountry Reports: It’s ‘All Hands On Deck’ When Emergencies Strike Ski Resorts
Big ski areas and small suffer emergencies. Some drag their feet; others call “all hands on deck” (or the snowy equivalent), and everyone pitches in.
Magic Mountain in Londonderry, Vermont, is one where everyone possible helped. Ski Apache in Mescalero, New Mexico, is another.
Jim Sullivan, general manager at Magic, told SnoCountry.com that the area has two chairs, the Red (installed 1971) and the Black (1962), and two handle-tows.
Shortly before the year-end holidays, 2012, inspectors from the Vermont government checked all out. The Red was fine. The Black chairlift needed attention, and was closed, he said, while employees worked through the punch-list.
The Red is the longer of the two, 5,200 feet, to the top of the mountain, which has a vertical of 1,700. A double, it carries 176 skiers and riders.
On Dec. 29 at about 1 p.m., the Red Chair broke down. Sullivan said when the lift was stopped, the operator pushed a button to get it going. Once the engine has enough torque to move the chairs forward, the service brake should release. “This had passed with flying colors two weeks before.”
However, he said, “The torque mechanism was not talking to the service brake,” (Sullivan simplified all this for a general audience.) Therefore the chairs rolled back three or four feet until the other braking system took hold. Knowing they had a major problem, Magic personnel ran the lift slowly until everyone reached the top and moved off.
An electrician “made some adjustments, and we thought we were good to go,” Sullivan said.
The next day, with the Red Chair fully loaded, “we experienced the same thing.” Sullivan estimated the first day's problem took 20 minutes to get everyone safely to the top. The second day, he guessed, those on the lift waited 10 minutes to unload.
Called Everywhere For A Part
Now experts said the service brake was failing. “I called all over the country” to find the part. On New Year's Eve, he located one in Detroit. It arrived at Boston airport at 2 a.m. Jan. 1. “We rushed it to a machine shop,” where Sullivan spent the day.
With Magic closed, the entire outdoor staff and some other employees took apart the lift in preparation for fitting the new part. By Jan. 3, they were reassembling it. “The guys at Bromley lent us their barrels,” necessary to simulate the weight of passengers, for the load test Jan. 4 under the direction of Vermont lift inspectors.
Geoff Hathaway, marketing manager, was one of the staff members who pitched in. Most memorable to him were the barrels, 50-gallon containers, placed on a chair at the bottom, then filled with water from a snowmaking hose.
Hathaway was among those stationed at the top, to grab the barrels from 80 chairs, dump out the water, and roll the barrels down the ramp. By the time this happened, “it was cold and dark,” he said. “It was quite a team effort.”
Magic is closed mid-week, except holiday weeks, so the weekend was lost and Tuesday, Jan. 1. Sullivan and Hathaway said they worked hard not only outside, but in the office, using Facebook, Twitter and daily emails to about 450 season pass holders.
Sugarloaf’s ‘All Hands’ Time
Sugarloaf in Maine also suffered a lift failure during the holidays, in this case on Dec. 28, 2010, when Spillway East “had a deropement,” according the resort’s Ethan Austin. “Some chairs hit the ground. There were some injuries. Thankfully, none too serious.”
Austin said, “It was certainly 'all hands on deck' during the emergency, and then for the busy periods, like Martin Luther King holiday and Presidents Week, until the lift was back. “Our employees had to be at the top of their games,” handling “bigger crowds and longer wait times” for other lifts.
Sugarloaf replaced the Spillway East double, the second highest at the resort, with a quad after the season.
Hurricane Irene In Vermont
Ski and snowboard areas in the Northeast, especially Vermont and Maine, had major problems in August 2011, when Hurricane Irene smashed the area. “It did a lot of damage all over the place,” said Okemo’s Bonnie MacPherson.
The storm hit on a weekend. Driving to work Monday – around a barrier on the road – she said, “It looked like an earthquake had happened,” with huge chunks of earth thrown around, fissures dug deep into the earth, and other catastrophic damage.
Okemo “crews were working to repair the damage” by the time MacPherson reached the access road.
But, “Ludlow was one of the hardest hit towns in Vermont.” Okemo personnel, right up to co-owner Diane Mueller, were pitching in in town. The supermarket flooded, “and didn't reopen for months,” instead operating from two large tents in its parking lots.
“Everyone pitched in,” MacPherson said. “We were cooking meals for people sheltering in the firehouse,” and holding fundraisers for farmers who had lost their entire crops. She said “there are still roads which aren't open” in Vermont.
Huge Fire In New Mexico
Another major example of everyone pitching in occurred last June in Southern New Mexico. A massive wildfire consumed more than 45,000 acres surrounding Ski Apache and the resort town of Ruidoso, extremely popular with West Texans.
Ski Apache Director of Operations Justin Rowland told SnoCountry.com that on the 4th of that month, crews were working on a mountain bike trail when they saw smoke, about 2.5 miles away, across a ridge. They knew from weather reports that this was a “red flag day,” meaning high winds and low humidity.
Without waiting for an official warning, Rowland called in “all the summer operations guys,” who had gone home for the day, and they turned on the snowmaking system, which ordinarily covers 40 percent of the mountain.
For “about 12 to 14 days,” they ran the snowmaking system 24 hours a day, covering not only trails, but also buildings. Rowland didn't leave the property the whole time. They lost a pump hose and ski patrol shack, and three older lifts were damaged, one of them the first ski slope gondola in North America in service for 50 years.
At one point, 70 mph winds drove embers into the center of the resort, and Ski Apache lost 60 acres of their 750-acre total. More than 250 homes and structures were lost, though the Village of Ruidoso itself was spared.
The Mescalero Apache Tribe, which owns and operates Ski Apache and the relatively nearby Inn of the Mountain Gods casino resort, turned what could have been tragedy into an opportunity. The tribe spent $15 million to replace the older lifts, including adding an 8-person replacement gondola dubbed the Apache Arrow, as well as the two buildings. “We had four lifts in the ground in four months,” Rowland said.
Just as everyone helped to save the resort with two weeks of snowmaking-system soaking, about eight million gallons of water, pulling out damaged lifts, replacing them, and creating two buildings “was an all-hands effort,” Rowland said.
Ski Apache has removed the burned trees from the affected 60 acres, but can't plant new seedlings until the spring. This meant flooding caused erosion, which “filled one of our snowmaking ponds,” another big job.
Despite all this work, “guests are definitely aware” that the massive fire engulfed 60 acres in the center of the resort, but everyone – staff and skiers or snowboarders alike – knows things could have been far worse.
Yes. All hands on deck.
Top photo: Red chair load test (Magic Mountain); Left: Hurricane Irene floods Ludlow; Bottom right: Fire at Ski Apache (Indian Country Media)