A strong case can be made that the heart and soul of a ski resort are the lift operators. Guests will park once, probably eat once, and hopefully never have to utilize ski patrol services, but they usually ride the lifts all day and therefore have ongoing interactions with the happy people running the various uphill conveyances. One could subtract a lot of factors or amenities from a resort and it will still be a ski resort, but take away the lifts and the people that run them and it becomes something else. So if the lifties as they are called represent the face of guest service on the front lines, there is another human component usually behind the scenes and this would be the lift maintenance crew, the backbone of a ski resort if you will, and that’s whom we’re here to talk about. Surely most regular riders of ski lifts know there are people behind the scenes who are responsible for getting the machines going again when they stop and won’t go but that’s about all they know. This magazine is an appropriate medium for this story because to paraphrase the old U.S. Army slogan lift maintenance is not just a job, it’s an adventure. Unlike many entities that are in fact subtracted or at least pared way down after a resorts winter operations end, the lift maintenance crews begin performing “off season” preventative maintenance processes from the day the resort closes to the next winters opening day. In fact most of these crews go from the core group of the winter staff to a larger group for the summer maintenance season with many of those folks taken from the ranks of lifties. The work ranges from the mundane such as rebuilding grips to excitement at the top of the charts with high angle rigging jobs not for those with a fear of heights.
While the world is full of handymen, there is probably no handier group of people anywhere than your local lift maintenance crew. In fact those who know (or soon figure out) from all walks of resort life realize that these folks can be often called upon to do all sorts of crazy things. How many people keep a stable of massive several decades old jalopies’ running day in and day out, through all sorts of weather and often on a shoestring budget? From fixing a UTA bus with a jammed door to welding brackets on disabled persons sit ski, to electrical repairs on snowmaking components and more, the guys (and sometimes gals) on these crews are an important part of the many turning wheels that go mostly unnoticed by resort guests. Extra-curricular jobs aside, the really important role for lift maintenance is the upkeep, renovations and repair of the increasingly complex machines we all rely upon to get us to the top of the slopes.
Within this group can be found electricians skilled in both high and low voltage systems and PLC controls, mechanics skilled in rigging, hydraulic systems, metal fabrication and too many other things to write. This crew has to be creative, innovative and must be able to fix things quickly and under a lot of pressure. They also must be able to take apart and fix some very large pieces of machinery in the most remote locations. And talk about adventure along with adrenaline surges; on snow mornings before the patrol can go up and begin avalanche control work, the lift techs will have to go out and get the lift running (they call it spinning). Most of today’s big detachable lifts are top drives so the crew go up the slope via snowmobile, in the dark with gusty winds thrown in that create waves of drifts all angled just right to pitch your “sled” downhill. Upon achieving the top station in these conditions one feels a huge wave of exhilaration and relief, that is, if one makes it up. To use another old adage, (this one about river boatmen), there are two types of snowmobile drivers: those who have rolled their sled, and those who will.
When asked where he fit into the above adage Corey Cowan makes a case for a third sort of driver.
“I’ve never rolled a snowmobile, but I’ve flipped one…stuck it into a summer road in Mineral Basin, got dumped and watched it sail right over me.”
Cowan is a lift mechanic who has a certain gleam in his eye and has worked at both Solitude and (presently) Snowbird.
Sometimes conditions on the trip up can prove to be too much and so one falls back to another stalwart seldom seen support crew and makes the call to a snowcat driver to get a more stable ride through the mayhem, but that’s usually only after a try or two on the sled. There are also those days, the pre-sunrise dawn of a forthcoming bluebird day where the lift tech is the first and only person on top when a glorious sunrise will occur. Then one is filled with the feeling that “yeah, this job doesn’t suck.”
Another window into the wheels turning behind the scenes is the following scenario: In spite of the best preventative maintenance programs possible machines being what they are can and will still break down. So let’s say your favorite uphill transportation device had suffered a gearbox bearing failure. In order to change an internal gearbox bearing, lift maintenance personnel will now have to temporarily de-tension a lift of hundreds of thousands of pounds, remove a multi-ton bullwheel and take apart a several ton gearbox, all on site and often times with no crane. Nobody is fearless, but in some endeavors one is challenged with putting their fears aside, and this is often the case with the “men in black” black being the universal color of lift maintenance due to the nature of their work.
A good bit of the lift maintenance summer work is renovations or replacements of older lift. Here is another adventure – removing an old remote lift engineering style tower (no anchor bolts). In order to accomplish this, first most of the tower base itself is cut away with a gas torch. Rigging must then be attached by climbing the now structurally compromised tower, then a helicopter is brought in and a man must climb back up the tower and attach the rigging and climb down quickly, while another man then cuts the remaining tower tabs while the helicopter has a secure grip (hopefully) on the tower. The cutter doesn’t know really which way the tower may spin or kick out once it’s free. This is sort of the reverse of another exciting day in a lift techs life, the mid-summer day that includes the setting of remote towers on a new lift with helicopters. You go from one minute sitting on a calm quiet sunny mountain slope with swatches of wildflowers painting the slopes, and then here comes the chopper and it’s all noise and wind and shouting and running anchor bolts down by hand, and then it’s set and all arms point up the bird releases her load and the crew scrambles downslope to the next tower foundation. Like all jobs lift maintenance has its ups and downs and tedium. But it’s those days of the snowmobile ride in a blizzard, and catching lift towers in the summer that lift maintenance people live for and the days they remember. There is a common look in the eye of a lot of lift maintenance techs that reveals the sort beneath, adventurous, a bit of a dare devil, that look that says go ahead throw me a challenge or a slightly inquisitive intenseness to it.
An astute lift maintenance manager will sometimes have to curb that enthusiasm because the work is also very dangerous. Along with some of the mentioned inherent dangers are the rigging jobs necessary for both building new lifts and replacing structural components. These jobs involve rigging or pulling aside components with opposing forces in the range of several tons. Hands and other body parts have to go in places where should the “rig” fail or even a tool slip then limbs can be lost, and in rare cases have been. Another common hazard all face is deicing tower and structure assemblies. In this latter case the risks are mitigated with state of the art climbing gear, but there’s still that first step out to the edge on solid ice.
Bottom line, it is a cool job, you get issued a radio, a set of uniform pieces that look less like a mountain concierge and more like what outlaw bikers wear. Lift maintenance always has the best snowmobiles in winter and quad ATVS or Rangers in the summer for quick uphill transportation and for emergency response. Speaking of summer keep in mind with the expansion of mountain biking and summer activities an increasing number of lifts run many more hours per year making the window to do all the necessary maintenance smaller. Most of the tasks also involves really hard work so even in the summer when the weather is fine the work is outdoors and involves heavy lifting. It all has to be done with a finite deadline and then the work is subject to rigorous inspections. So it’s no surprise that the people involved in lift maintenance take major pride in what they do, they love a challenge and any problems that can be fixed with a good dose of ingenuity, and here’s a little secret – to a certain extent, most lift maintenance guys like it when the lift breaks down…we’re not talking any sort of potential disaster and to a person they are all proud of their lift downtime record, but usually a lift breakdown occurs after a routine stop and the lift won’t go, so some troubleshooting is involved and then a sense of satisfaction when the machine get rolling again. So it’s no small mistake that people throughout a resort learn to count on and take advantage of the people from lift maintenance.
And the question now becomes – so just how does one get such a job? Well you could go to school…sort of. Colorado Mountain College (CMC) offers an online Ropeway Maintenance Technician (RMT) program that claims it is the only ski lift and ropeway maintenance technician certification program in the country. However, if you were to only take online classes to become certified it would be only a fraction of the knowledge needed to really call oneself an RMT. It would be the same as watching a snowmobile training video taking and passing the associated test with only basic on hands training in a controlled on hill setting. That is not nearly enough training to have the boss send you to a remote tower with a sled laden with tools and parts. All the classroom training in the world isn’t the same as getting out and doing it, and doing so with experienced hands to guide you through. Most RMT’s are at least partially home grown or trained on the job as they go with those processes supplemented by various classes and seminars. In their defense CMC operates the program in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain Lifts Association (RMLA) and some of the major resorts in Colorado where a requirement for admission is to already be an employee of a resort maintenance department. Some standardization and participation in parts of RMLA’s training is occurring at some Utah resorts. In addition levels of competency are being or have been established at many resorts such as Lift Mechanic level I, II and III where certain qualifications such has levels of welding certs might be required to achieve the next level. While it is a Colorado based membership and attendance to the RMLA annual maintenance conference is highly beneficial as they offer several certification programs and so most Utah resorts are members. One has to get their foot in the lift shack door, and usually that means lift managers take the best lift ops for the summer seasonal lift maintenance laborers, and quite often this will be a person recommended by the existing staff, the kid that follows them into the drive terminal when the lift is down and stays out of the way but asks good questions afterwards, the kid who also might have that adventurous look in the eye. Due to the fact that it is a relatively obscure endeavor and one that most people don’t originally set out to do, you can find a wide range of various backgrounds within the ranks of lift maintenance crews. There may not be a less likely path to lift maintenance than the one taken by Rachael Durrant a tram and lift mechanic at Snowbird. It’s rare enough to be a woman in this field, but consider this -before coming to work as a tram operator, Durrant was a classically trained ballerina dancing with Ballet West. One might not think there would be any correlation between such vastly different careers but Durrant feels otherwise.
“The physicality is very similar and in both one has to be mentally tough.” She goes on, “there’s also mind over matter in each job, both jobs require you to push yourself to go beyond what you think are your limitations.”
As far as being the rare woman in an essentially man’s world Durrant sees nothing but positives there,
“The guys are a little more open to sharing knowledge with me, and I think a little more caring than they would be with another guy.” Something Durrant also shares with every lift maintenance person you’ll come across are the feelings of being very lucky to have their job along with knowing that although they’re all mostly behind the scenes, they got your back when you are riding their lifts.
Transportation by ropeway is the safest mode of transportation there is. This is in no small way due to the fact that you are in good hands when using this mode.
Tom has worked over thirty years in the ski industry at five different western resorts including two in Utah: Snowbasin and Snowbird.