On April 20, 2022

Meet Gene Syria: Killington’s veteran mountain maestro

By Karen D. Lorentz

There have been several key workers who have orchestrated Killington’s operations from behind the scenes since the area debuted in 1958.

They have been responsible for the ski area opening each day with lifts turning and snow covering trails much as a theater director is responsible for the curtain going up.

But unlike traditional theater, the script changes frequently, if not daily. Weather “events” — whether the “r” word, an ice storm, or a major Nor’easter — test their individual and collective planning and problem solving abilities to see that the show goes on. So do mice and hawks on occasion!

Today, with 45 years of working on lifts, Gene Syria is the longest continuously serving mountain operations worker at Killington.

Syria has witnessed tremendous advances from a time when there was no ski area beyond the original gondolaand several lifts ran on 50 horsepower motors at 200 feet per minute to today’s technological marvels that whiz along at line speeds of 1,200 feet per minute.

Courtesy Killington Resort
Gene Syria reflects on 45 years working in operations at Killington Resort.

Born in Rutland in 1957, Syria grew up in Mount Holly and learned to ski at age seven, noting, “My sister was the one who taught me, and I quickly surpassed her and hung out with racers from then on. I learned to ski at Round Top for a $5 day ticket and brought my own lunch.” He graduated from Black River High School in 1975 “and had fun doing it,” he said.

Syria studied mechanical engineering at the University of Vermont for two years, explaining, “My dean and I agreed that I would do better in the field as a mechanic. The third derivatives proved something could exist in a cross-dimensional state beyond three dimensions. I was too practical to agree that this would help me in my future at college.”

Q&A with Gene Syria

Mountain Times: How did you land at Killington?

Gene Syria: During high school I worked at Okemo at the rental shop or on lifts as an operator — wherever they needed me most. I was Gene of the Green. The Green lift went mid mountain to the top and was a Poma platter lift. Back then we did all of our own service and repairs. That is where I got my start.

I came to Killington looking for a summer job in 1977, planning to return to college in the fall. I was hired on June 20 as an operator of the old gondola. The 3.5 mile, four-passenger, three-stage prototype lift was replaced with the 8-passenger Skyeship in 1994.

I was kept on full time and became acquainted with all the maintenance and mechanical aspects of the gondola. The gondola base, now the Skyeship base, became my home as I was reliable and came up Route 100.

I became the Gondola Base foreman in my second year, followed by a gondola mechanic, then supervisor. Then supervisor of maintenance for all of Killington’s lifts followed by manager of lift maintenance. Tim Brosnan has that position now and, as the technical manager of lift maintenance, I’ve been training him as my replacement, but I don’t have a retirement date yet.

MT: What does the manager’s job entail?

GS: Overseeing a team of mechanics and electricians for the 28 lifts, which include Pico lifts. I still work on the lifts daily.

MT: What are the biggest lift changes you’ve seen?

GS: The 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. You can’t bring the hybrid to just any mechanic, and to service the Mustang requires finding one that can tune up a car that has points. Electronic drive systems are now all solid state. Electric drives make a motor turn but they are done very differently now with computers. Lift equipment is much more sophisticated which is why we deal with computer people through the lift manufacturers. They can have their computers talk to our computers and can troubleshoot from Colorado if needed.

MT: What does lift maintenance involve?

GS: Lift maintenance depends on the manufacturer’s requirements. For example, lubing a lift will vary with the type of lift — some are done monthly, some every two weeks and others every three days.

Different lifts like the detachables require more inspections of moving parts and therefore require more service and daily inspections. We go through the drives and return two or three times a day — listen to them for how they are running and watch and feel for vibrations.

In summer, codes require us to remove a percentage of chairs off lifts and take apart the grips and look for cracks or imperfections and then reassemble them. We look at the number the manufacturer suggests and rotate the sampling yearly.

We also lift the cable off the sheaves and spin the sheaves to check the bearings on every tower on the whole mountain. (Sheaves are the wheels that carry the haul or cable line).

MT: Lifts can still break down. Why?

GS: It can be weather like icing or wear. A whole lot has to do with electrical problems, whether caused by a water intrusion due to rain or something like that or a mouse chewing on something.

We had a pair of hawks that landed on the Skyeship Stage One cable next to a sheave train; one got sucked under and died. The other escaped but was mad about its mate and caused damage pecking at the wires.

You never know what you are going to find. When the Snowdon Six stopped recently, a technician had to come from Boston to service it as it’s still under warranty. He is dealing with engineers on how to proceed as that lift has very complicated electrical components.

MT: What is the greatest challenge to lift operations?

GS: The weather. When you get freezing rain and icing, you have to check each tower. Men on the ground communicate by two-way radios to the person driving the lift as they inspect each tower to see if the sheaves turn. If they don’t, they tell the drive person to turn the lift off and climb up the tower — chipping the ice off if the ladder rungs are iced up — and then hammering the ice off so the sheaves can turn. Then they move to the next tower and the process repeats; it repeats all over the mountain.

Icing increases the time it takes to get detachable lifts up and operating because we also have to de-ice the grips. There is a place for fixed grip lifts which can be readied faster.

MT: What do you like best about your job?

GS: The changes, challenges, and variety. Nothing stays the same. At Killington, it’s all about diversity and change.

It’s a challenge to have as much of the area open as we can each day and entails a lot of planning and interaction with grooming and snowmaking the day before.

On any given day I may be doing a vast variety of things and it can change from whatever has been done before but we adapt every time. It’s like watching the sunrise — it’s beautiful every day but it’s not the same every day.

MT: And job rewards?

GS: Teaching new mechanics and passing on what we’ve learned is rewarding. I enjoy nature — sunrises, the bobcat, deer, moose, bears — black bears are funny. The animals are still there on the mountain — it’s nice to see how little we’ve disturbed them.

MT: Any free time hobbies?

GS: I’m rebuilding a 1954 Jeep truck, a 69 Mustang, and a late ’60s VW bug; and I ride an old Harley.

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