Training to evacuate the gondola
February 10, 2017
Steamboat Springs — The only time it has been necessary for crews at the Steamboat Ski Area to evacuate the gondola due to a mechanical breakdown, the lone passenger was a musician who had performed that evening at one of the ski area’s restaurants atop the mountain.
To experience vicariously what it was like for that person, imagine looking up to see a ski patroller “riding” down the cable on a spare version of an upside down bicycle.
Readers may be wondering "What about the gondola?" after reading Saturday’s story about how Steamboat Ski Area prepares for possible chairlift evacuations. How would ski patrol evacuate the gondola if it ever became necessary?
It's not that dissimilar to how the ski patrol reaches skiers stranded on chairlifts, with the exception that they use a very specialized piece of equipment that remotely resembles an upside down bicycle, called a cable glider to reach each gondola cabin.
Steamboat Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke said each lift at the ski area has its own evacuation plan, and his crews train for them all. Though there has never been a need to evacuate the gondola in the midst of public operations, he said his ski patrolmen train for such an event as often as twice per week all winter — on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when there are no evening operations.
"For me, it's the single most important thing I want people trained on," Kohnke said. "And the patrol members love riding that glider."
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Beginning patrollers start by practicing on a simulator cabin inside the gondola terminal and graduate to practicing on the different cable spans between gondola towers.
Each gondola cable span has its own character and challenges, Kohnke said.
The cable gliders were originally designed and built by Kent Eriksen, of Kent Eriksen Cycles in Steamboat Springs.
Eriksen, who sold his specialized tools and inventory to a company called Cascade Rescue eight or nine years ago, said he continuously worked to make the gliders lighter, because the patrollers have to carry them up the tall ladders of the gondola towers. The gliders are designed so that the user sits on a bicycle seat equipped with foot pegs located beneath a pair of small wheels, which are designed to ride down the gondola haul cable.
Another thing that makes the cable glider different from a bicycle is that the brakes are always on unless the rider squeezes a lever to gradually release them. With that design, if a rider is distracted or even loses consciousness, the cable glider will come to a stop on its own, Eriksen said.
Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. Director of Lift Operations Deb Werner added that, during summer gondola operations, when the large majority of ski patrollers are employed elsewhere, other Ski Corp. employees are cross-trained in gondola evacuation procedures.
The gondola, itself, has more than one backup that guards against the need for an evacuation in the case of a mechanical issue.
"We have a large diesel backup system called a 'standby’ that we can very comfortably run safely and legally on," Vice President of Mountain Operations Doug Allen said. “The third backup is (another) diesel with hydrostatic drive that enables us to turn the bull wheel even in the event of a gearbox failure. That's also true in the case of the new Elkhead chairlift and Sundown, Storm Peak and Thunderhead lifts."