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December 31, 2014

Patience and prudence in an era of climate change and high-tech

Patience and prudence in an era of climate change and high-tech

By Karen D. Lorentz

Patience and Prudence were a sister duo in 1956, hitting the top of the charts with songs like “Tonight You Belong to Me” and “Gonna Get Along Without You Now.” Most skiers and snowboarders won’t remember them—or even know those songs existed.

But today’s mountain aficionados do need to consider that patience and prudence haven’t gone out of style in today’s era of great technological advances. This is particularly true given climate change and the way it affects mountain operations, particularly the running of chairlifts.

High-tech lifts

Okemo recently introduced the Sunburst Six. It is the first six-seater bubble chairlift with heated seats in North America. This is all fairly far-out technology, but as Okemo’s executive vice president Diane Mueller explained, the decision to install this particular lift was based on “creature comfort.”

“Times have changed since my sister and I were sent out with tuna sandwiches in our pockets and a dime for hot chocolate. We just skied back then,” she said.

Acknowledging how advances in technology have changed the ski industry and guest expectations, Diane and her husband Tim Mueller, Okemo president and CEO, note that the focus has changed “to creature comforts unknown when we were kids.”

No truer words could be spoken.

Okemo opened with two Pomalifts in 1956, the year Patience and Prudence hit the charts. The Upper Poma—6,207 feet in length—was the longest Pomalift in the country and also the longest surface lift in North America.

That was a long time ago, indeed. And since the Muellers became owners of Okemo in 1982, they have modernized what was a popular family area with three double chairs and nine Pomas to today’s highly successful resort, with a focus on customer service and providing the best possible mountain experience.

Today Okemo offers abundance of quads and highspeed detachable quads as well as the new six-passenger, highspeed detachable with polycarbonate orange bubble and heated seats.

As all my fellow passengers and I experienced the weekend of Dec. 13-14, that bubble and those seats were a blessing toward the top of the mountain where the wind would normally have made us uncomfortable. (Ditto for riders of Killington’s two gondolas, which protect them from the elements.)

Snowsports athletes of all generations tend to love these new hi-tech lifts because they mean faster uphill transportation and more slope time. It’s one of the reasons that Okemo and Killington are so popular with snow aficionados—the mountains have the most efficient lift systems around. The facts support that with Killington ranking first in the East and Okemo second in terms of skier visits in the East and among the top 15 in the country.

When weather hits technology

However, the weather doesn’t care about any of that and as lift maintenance workers will tell you, the detachables not only are more labor intensive and a greater challenge to take care of (due to more belts and pulleys) but also take longer to get up and operating when challenging icing conditions occur. Then workers get to the mountain earlier to begin de-icing.

Okemo vice president and general manager Bruce Schmidt recently noted on his blog how the weather the week of Dec. 9-12 presented one of those challenging times. He wrote: “This past week was a tough one. We had freezing rain, sleet, rain and snow. The Sunburst Six was late on several days and did not run one day last week. Yes, the chairs are stored indoors, but the issue we had was on the towers themselves. When there are no chairs on the line, there is less weight on the cable, and thus the sheaves [wheels the cable rides on] may not always turn. When this happens, the mountain operations guys need to climb each tower and pound those sheaves which are not turning to get the ice off of them. It is hard work and takes time,” Schmidt wrote. If tower rungs are icy, they require some clearing as well.

“We also are cautious about putting the Sunburst Six chairs out on the line, if there is freezing rain. If the traction plates get slippery, the chairs struggle to go through the terminals. It is hard to push a 1200-pound chair through the terminal when there is a problem. The timing of the freezing rain, and the time it was taking to work on the towers to remove the ice, really affected getting the Sunburst Six and other lifts opened last week. I am hopeful that we won’t see weather like that again for a while,” Schmidt added.

Strategic decisions to get the curtain up

One of the major challenges for lift operations at Killington, Okemo and all ski areas is making plans for a predicted weather event. The management team has to figure out which sections of a mountain will be affected and plan accordingly (lifts at lower elevations are not usually as affected and icing lines can vary by elevation and mountain exposures). Power outages from storms like the Dec. 9-11 can complicate that plan as well.

Road crews are called in earlier to enable the mountain maintenance and ops teams to get to work earlier to get the mountain ready. In addition to the de-icing of tower rungs and sheaves, the cables often need de-icing on both fixed-grip chairs and detachables.

Strategic plans are made in concert with snowmaking and grooming teams on which lifts to work on and open first. And this prioritizing can change if the weather shifts overnight!

It might be nice to have all detachable chairlifts, but the reality is that weather affects the time it takes to get them up and operating in the morning, as workers at Killington and Okemo agree. So there’s a place for the fixed-grip lifts which can be readied faster, noted Gene Syria, a long-time Killington veteran and lift maintenance supervisor.

He also explained that complex lift changes are similar to those seen in automobiles which now have computers. The difference is like that of a “1966 Mustang versus today’s hybrid,” he said, noting “you can’t bring the hybrid to just any mechanic.” Killington electrician Oscar Daubenspeck emphasized that the highly technical electronics and sensing systems of modern lifts are also susceptible to bad conditions like lightning and ice.

Orchestrating operations is a challenge in the era of climate change. Done in concert with grooming and snowmaking departments, lift workers get the lifts running to match the trails open (yet another key decision). It’s a challenge to have as much of an area open as possible by “curtain time,” experienced mountain ops folks agree.

Patience, prudence and gratitude

So back to Prudence and Patience. We lift riders need to be patient and consider all the work required by today’s ‘weather events’ that can cause disruptions and power losses. Next time a lift isn’t operating by the usual opening time, thank your lucky stars that there were dedicated workers to tackle that lift and make it safe for us to ride. Comfort is nice but prudence is key!

Yes, we might be inconvenienced for a period of time when a lift is “down,” but consider the alternatives—would you really like to go back to the 1950s era of Pomalifts and hanging onto rope tows or riding slow two-seaters?

I suspect not, so to paraphrase those two Patience and Prudence Top Ten hits, “The morning after, or of, a weather event belongs to the lift ops folks” and “We can’t get along without them” in these days of climate change and hi-tech.

Snowsports athletes of all generations tend to love these new hi-tech lifts because they mean faster uphill transportation and more slope time. It’s one of the reasons that Okemo and Killington are so popular with snow aficionados—the mountains have the most efficient lift systems around. The facts support that with Killington ranking first in the East and Okemo second in terms of skier visits in the East and among the top 15 in the country.

When weather hits technology

However, the weather doesn’t care about any of that and as lift maintenance workers will tell you, the detachables not only are more labor intensive and a greater challenge to take care of (due to more belts and pulleys) but also take longer to get up and operating when challenging icing conditions occur. Then workers get to the mountain earlier to begin de-icing.

Okemo vice president and general manager Bruce Schmidt recently noted on his blog how the weather the week of Dec. 9-12 presented one of those challenging times. He wrote: “This past week was a tough one. We had freezing rain, sleet, rain and snow. The Sunburst Six was late on several days and did not run one day last week. Yes, the chairs are stored indoors, but the issue we had was on the towers themselves. When there are no chairs on the line, there is less weight on the cable, and thus the sheaves [wheels the cable rides on] may not always turn. When this happens, the mountain operations guys need to climb each tower and pound those sheaves which are not turning to get the ice off of them. It is hard work and takes time,” Schmidt wrote. If tower rungs are icy, they require some clearing as well.

“We also are cautious about putting the Sunburst Six chairs out on the line, if there is freezing rain. If the traction plates get slippery, the chairs struggle to go through the terminals. It is hard to push a 1200-pound chair through the terminal when there is a problem. The timing of the freezing rain, and the time it was taking to work on the towers to remove the ice, really affected getting the Sunburst Six and other lifts opened last week. I am hopeful that we won’t see weather like that again for a while,” Schmidt added.

Strategic decisions to get the curtain up

One of the major challenges for lift operations at Killington, Okemo and all ski areas is making plans for a predicted weather event. The management team has to figure out which sections of a mountain will be affected and plan accordingly (lifts at lower elevations are not usually as affected and icing lines can vary by elevation and mountain exposures). Power outages from storms like the Dec. 9-11 can complicate that plan as well.

Road crews are called in earlier to enable the mountain maintenance and ops teams to get to work earlier to get the mountain ready. In addition to the de-icing of tower rungs and sheaves, the cables often need de-icing on both fixed-grip chairs and detachables.

Strategic plans are made in concert with snowmaking and grooming teams on which lifts to work on and open first. And this prioritizing can change if the weather shifts overnight!

It might be nice to have all detachable chairlifts, but the reality is that weather affects the time it takes to get them up and operating in the morning, as workers at Killington and Okemo agree. So there’s a place for the fixed-grip lifts which can be readied faster, noted Gene Syria, a long-time Killington veteran and lift maintenance supervisor.

He also explained that complex lift changes are similar to those seen in automobiles which now have computers. The difference is like that of a “1966 Mustang versus today’s hybrid,” he said, noting “you can’t bring the hybrid to just any mechanic.” Killington electrician Oscar Daubenspeck emphasized that the highly technical electronics and sensing systems of modern lifts are also susceptible to bad conditions like lightning and ice.

Orchestrating operations is a challenge in the era of climate change. Done in concert with grooming and snowmaking departments, lift workers get the lifts running to match the trails open (yet another key decision). It’s a challenge to have as much of an area open as possible by “curtain time,” experienced mountain ops folks agree.

Patience, prudence and gratitude

So back to Prudence and Patience. We lift riders need to be patient and consider all the work required by today’s ‘weather events’ that can cause disruptions and power losses. Next time a lift isn’t operating by the usual opening time, thank your lucky stars that there were dedicated workers to tackle that lift and make it safe for us to ride. Comfort is nice but prudence is key!

Yes, we might be inconvenienced for a period of time when a lift is “down,” but consider the alternatives—would you really like to go back to the 1950s era of Pomalifts and hanging onto rope tows or riding slow two-seaters?

I suspect not, so to paraphrase those two Patience and Prudence Top Ten hits, “The morning after, or of, a weather event belongs to the lift ops folks” and “We can’t get along without them” in these days of climate change and hi-tech.

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