In my second winter season at Snowbird I became a tram operator working under the legendary tram and cable guru Bob Ficker. A year later having moved into lift maintenance, I recall a conversation about an upcoming cable replacement job on one of the lifts, and I asked Bob about the Tram track cables and when they would have to be replaced “oh they’ll last 50 years, we’ll be long gone” Bob said. On the one hand Bob was sadly right; he collapsed and died at Snowbird while working on (what else?) a cable job and that was over 20 years ago. On the other hand those same track cables came due for replacement this spring, and while Bob might’ve been off by 5 or so years, in his defense the tram has probably seen as many duty cycles the past ten years as it did in the first twenty.
Unlike the haul rope on the Tram and chairlifts the track cables are less dynamic. They are fixed at one end with counterweights and while they do experience some flexing, they don’t get bent around deflexion sheaves (bullwheels), nor are they subject to the stress of grips. Therefore such cables can last for decades. There are still inspection processes and criteria and our current cable guru – Norm Duke – gave us fair warning a couple years ago to get the process going because such cables are made in Europe, take time to make and each of the four tracks weighs 104,000 lbs. And so duly ordered, manufactured and shipped to Utah last fall, the cables were stored at the Doppelmayr yard in Salt Lake until last April, and the adventure began. It would last almost two months.
Rich Taxwood, longtime Tram and Lift Maintenance Manager at Snowbird served as the project manager, a task that involved a lot of planning and coordination. Along with contractors from Doppelmayr, there were others from Garaventa, the original Swiss manufacturer of the tram, along with several sub-contractors. Just to get the four oversized, lowboy tractor-trailers up the canyon required involvement from UPD. The snowcat and snow removal crews had worked together for a week to clear the base area of operations, a large crane was brought in and each 54-ton spool of cable was unloaded. That was the easy part.
Given the snowpack and other transport limitations, the new cables were pulled up from the bottom while the old ones were removed and spooled up at the top. While this may sound simple enough consider the following; sheave trains (wheel assemblies) had to be erected on every tower to pull both new and old cables off. After dropping off the heaviest equipment to each tower via helicopter, the crews then snowmobiled and hiked to each tower each day. A temporary sheave tower had to be installed below tower four to mitigate cable drag over the cliffs there. When I asked Peter Jung, the Swiss guy who hiked the parts down and assembled the tower there how it was, he said “steep!” Peter also is in his 50’s and was recovering from a broken back from a parasailing accident. In addition, a winch had to be set up above the base to de-tension the counterweights to which the cables were attached. Another winch was rigged to assist the cable spools to turn, as a fifty plus ton spool isn’t prone to motion when one just tugs on its cable a bit. On Hidden Peak another machine was set up to spool up the old cable, a relatively small section at a time, so that at the end of the process we had around 36 spools of old track cable. Relatively small means each spool weighed about 12 tons. The key to it all was a double jawed, clamping and pulling device with many nicknames and a prototype invented by Reto Zurbruegg, whose family has been in the cable rigging business throughout Europe for generations. A combination of logistics, topography, and plain old physics precluded a traditional winching set-up to pull both the old cables off and the new ones on from the top. Basically there wasn’t a winch big enough or available in North America. Therefore this “zipper’ or “milking machine” would pull a small section at a time and then it would run down the cable to take another bite. The entire overall process from the resort base to Hidden Peak was essentially designed in the field, something not out of the ordinary for guys in the cable, ski lift and tram business, as each machine is unique. I saw more than one drawing done on the fly by one of the consulting engineers, and I’m sure others were done in the time honored ‘cocktail napkin’ drawing after hours. For each of the four cables the entire system had to be moved and adjusted. If it took an average of 5 days to pull each section, it also took about that long to re-rig everything and get set up to do the next cable. Minor mishaps such as generator breakdowns also occurred. It is a credit to all involved though, especially the lead guys that there were no major mishaps, no rigging failures and no injuries. This is all the more remarkable considering the weather. If the overall process took around 60 days, we experienced some sort of foul weather on about 50 of those days. I can only recall one day however where the weather was so bad the crews pulled off. During the other days we were experiencing weather that would make most people uncomfortable, there were crews on the peak and on every tower all day.
As mentioned Rich Taxwood was the project manager coordinating the overall effort, and assisting in the effort was Red Blomer from Doppelmayr, a guy who travels all over heading up large and complex lift and tram projects. I’d call Red the superintendent of the project. Another key player was George Gilser, a lift rigging and construction consultant from Canada who lent a lighter side to the effort with his undying Canuck style humor and attitude handing out several impromptu nicknames to various members of the crew.
“Where’s ‘pot-smoking’ Jay?”
“Uh George Jay doesn’t smoke, I said.”
“This is a ski resort right? Every ski resort has a pot smoking Jay!”
And so it went. The work was so hard and the conditions so tough that George’s sense of humor might have been as important of a factor as anything in keeping the crews motivated and attitudes high. On the serious side George and the Swiss guys showed up at dawn and worked until dusk. For Jay, (and he is straight) and the rest of the crew from Snowbird this was an opportunity of a lifetime. They got more experience and saw more creative ways to solve problems in those few weeks than they might see in several years of routine lift maintenance. Also assisting the effort was Jordan Dursa from Dopplemayr who served as the new spool area foreman, and Anton Heidstra from the Grouse Mountain Tram in North Vancouver, Canada. Anton oversaw the take-up spooling process on Hidden Peak. One minor aspect of the take-up process included one of Snowbirds workers swinging a sledgehammer all day to make sure each wrap of the old cable was seated properly…
Cat drivers for transportation and equipment operations also assisted the Tram and Lifts maintenance crews every day, loading and hauling those horizontal 12-ton spools of old cables once the snow melted off the access roads. It only figures that once this job was finished around June 11th, the sun came out and it didn’t rain in northern Utah until sometime in August. There’s an old saying in lift maintenance – schedule a cable job and it will snow!
Tom Patton is now on the Executive Staff at Snowbird in the Mountain Operations department, and was a tram operator from 1978 to 1980.