A tall man in a high place: ‘Big K’ describes living at the top of the Steamboat Resort gondola
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Standing at 6-feet-8-inches tall, Kevin Scott Strickland, a lift mechanic at Steamboat Resort, has received a lot of nicknames.
In high school, it was Lurch, inspired by the “Addams Family” character. Other people, after hearing his deep voice, liken him to the character Robert Barone, Raymond’s brother from the TV sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
“There’s not a nickname you can come up with for a big man that I haven’t been called,” he said.
He prefers “Big K.”
At the end of the day, when most of the other employees have descended the mountain to go home, Big K heads to the top of the gondola. He opens an inconspicuous door next to the Stoker Bar in the Thunderhead Lodge and enters a small apartment with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a small lounge area.
For the past four years, this has been his home.
Big K is one of only two people who live inside the gondola throughout the year. He works as a night mechanic as well as a security man for Thunderhead Lodge. The job and unusual digs present some unique challenges and exciting incidents, but Big K has no plans to move out anytime soon.
Inside the apartment, a set of Callaway golf clubs sits beside the entrance. They were custom-made to accommodate Big K’s height. Leaned against the wall is a broken ski pole that he snapped in half on a powder day a few days ago.
A single window offers a westward view of the Thunderhead lift, and beyond it, Elk Mountain. The window often serves as a Planet Earth-style look at mountain wildlife.
Big K frequently sees deer coming by to lick salt off the building and porcupines moseying their slow way across the snow.
One night, his old roommate left the window open and a black bear ambled in.
Big K never imagined that he’d end up here. He grew up in North Carolina, just south of Raleigh. His family did the usual weeklong trips to ski resorts, but that was all they were — temporary visits.
Immediately after graduating high school, he joined the Coast Guard. He was only in boot camp for seven days when doctors gave him some bad news. They discovered he had heart arrhythmias, a condition that causes irregular heartbeats. They sent him home immediately.
After that, he attended college at Appalachian State University.
“That didn’t suit me too much,” he said.
He dropped out after a year and worked a few odd jobs, trying to find a career that he could stick with.
After a night of drinking with some friends, he applied on a whim to work at Steamboat Resort as a lift operator. He was surprised when he got the job.
“I thought everyone wanted to do that kind of work,” he said.
He loaded his belongings into his vehicle and took one last look at the town and people who had raised him.
“The hardest part was telling Mom goodbye,” he said.
Big K worked his first winter here in the 2005-06 season at Storm Peak Express, loading people on chairs and shoveling snow.
“That’s how all the old-timers know me,” he said.
After the winter, he took a job as a summer maintenance worker at the ski resort. By the fall, he’d been hired on as an apprentice mechanic.
Now a master mechanic, the highest level in the field, Big K maintains the upper mountain lifts on the east side of the resort: Sundown, Sunshine, South Peak and Priest Creek. If a lift breaks down or stops for an unknown reason, he rushes over on a snowmobile to fix it before guests stuck on the lift get too cold.
As a gondola resident, Big K’s primary job is to lock up the building at the end of the day and ensure no one breaks in during the night.
In the morning, he wakes early, around 4:30 a.m., to see how much snow has fallen. He sends out a report of the midmountain accumulation, which becomes part of the resort’s daily snow report. To skiers and riders, that may be one of his most important roles.
“You can’t miss it,” he said. “Otherwise, we get phone calls.”
Living at the top of a gondola poses some challenges, especially with regards to transportation. In the winter, Big K can take a snowmobile down to the base area, and drive to town from there. During the summer, he can drive down a service road in his truck.
But in the spring and fall, when snow remains on some parts of the mountain and mud covers the rest, he has to finagle his way to the base, driving the snowmobile down as far as he can and taking a truck the rest of the way.
“Your truck is never clean that time of year,” he said.
To limit the number of trips, he brings a large mountaineering pack on grocery runs.
“I can fit exactly $140 worth of groceries in it,” he said.
After four years of living in the gondola, Big K has collected some interesting stories. Just a few weeks ago, Thunderhead Lodge hosted a college group for a night event. In the early morning, Big K heard the motor of a snow groomer rumbling outside.
“There’s no one up here at 4:30 in the morning running a snowcat,” he said.
When he went out to check, he found one of the college kids inside the groomer. He had gotten drunk and passed out in the lodge. When he woke up, he went outside and locked himself out of the building without a jacket on. He searched for a place where he could stay warm.
“He was smart enough to get in a snowcat and figured out how to turn it on,” Big K said. “But I don’t think he was smart enough to drive it.”
Despite the height and booming voice, Big K is not all brawn. Just before meeting for this interview, he took a yoga class. Above his bed hangs a mandala-patterned tapestry with an elephant in its center.
Big K’s favorite part of living in the gondola is the two-week period after the mountain closes for the winter and everyone leaves but him and his roommate.
“You just hang out front in a lawn chair, have a beer and relax,” he said. “It’s just us.”
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