Getting a lift: Helicopter helps take down old gondola towers at Steamboat Resort

A helicopter lowers a section of a gondola tower at the bottom of the Heavenly Daze trail run at Steamboat Resort on Wednesday. Crews worked to take down all of the old towers to prepare for construction of a new gondola, which should be open in time for next ski season.
Derek Maiolo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A low rumble disrupted what was otherwise a quiet morning on Mount Werner as a helicopter swooped around the side of the mountain dangling a metal, cylindrical beam as tall as a street lamp from an attached cable. 

The pilot was busy dismantling the old gondola towers at Steamboat Resort, the most recent development in the construction of a $15 million Doppelmayr replacement gondola that should be ready by November, in time for the next ski season.

Craig Metscher, who worked for the resort when those towers were airlifted onto the mountain in 1986 when the gondola was the first eight-passenger gondola in the world, watched from a service road as the helicopter rested the beam onto an accumulating graveyard of metal parts.

A gondola mechanic who for decades has toiled to keep the lift running, Metscher did not offer many words of sentiment upon watching it go. 

“Good riddance,” he said, a smile curling across his unshaven cheek. 

The new and improved gondola will increase passenger capacity by 38% and decrease the ride time from 12 minutes to less than 10.

Last week, a crane was at the base of the resort taking down the lower-mountain towers. Despite a spring snow storm that swept through town Tuesday, the helicopter pilot was able to help disassemble the remaining towers. 

The aircraft is operated by Timberline Helicopters, which specializes in construction and firefighting projects. Just a week ago, this particular chopper returned from Australia where it helped fight wildfires during the country’s dry season, according to Loryn Kasten, senior communications manager at Steamboat Resort.

Pieces of gondola towers sit on the side of Mount Werner after a helicopter dropped them off on Wednesday afternoon.
Derek Maiolo

As another gondola mechanic, Robert Vaughn, observed, the pilot took each tower apart piece by piece, using a hook on the end of the cable to snag each portion like one of those claw arcade games. 

Vaughn is also part of a crew that has been clearing old gondola equipment, such as a 14,000-pound electric motor, from the upper and lower terminals over the previous weeks.

Most of the old gondola cabins have been sent to a refurbishing center to be distributed elsewhere. The resort donated 10 of the cabins to local nonprofits. A committee selected the organizations among a list of applications, according to Kasten. 

“We felt these applications best represented where we wanted our gondola cabins to go in the future,” she said. 

Local nonprofits receiving a donated gondola cabin
  1. Advocates of Routt County
  2. BookTrails
  3. Born Free Wildlife Rehabilitation
  4. Casey’s Pond Senior Living
  5. Horizons Specialized Services
  6. Integrated Community
  7. LiftUp of Routt County
  8. Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide
  9. Rocky Mountain Youth Corps
  10. Routt County Search and Rescue

The nonprofits will either find a use for the cabins or auction them off as a fundraiser. 

After the towers are removed, new ones will be assembled near the base area, according to the resort’s website, which offers weekly updates on the construction project. 

Metscher plans to retire in July before the new gondola is completed, but he did not seem to mind avoiding the installation process. 

When asked why he wanted to retire in the middle of summer, that same smile played across his face as before. His answer, “Because my wife said I could.”

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