Chronicles from a Crazy Week in Jackson Hole

Let me start by noting this post, like all others here, is my own and not an official account of my employer, the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Checking on the mid-station of the new Sweetwater Gondola during the unprecedented five-day closure of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort this week.

Tuesday nights are my Sunday nights at home before I start my work week every Wednesday.  I was watching the news last Tuesday when our risk manager casually posted on Facebook that the power was out in Teton Village.  I didn’t think much of it on a day when the roof of the local bowling alley had collapsed due to snow and with both a Winter Storm Warning and Flood Watch in effect.  Unlike at some ski areas, losing power is a rarity for Jackson Hole (Crystal Mountain, where I grew up skiing, has its own dedicated power plant for such occasions; Kirkwood and Mt. Baker run without grid power every day.)

Seven minutes after the initial Facebook post, another employee wrote, “the power poles along the village road totally toppled,” just as thousands of workers and guests were headed home.  We later learned seventeen 75-foot steel transmission poles had indeed fallen to the snow along ‘the windy mile,’ that last stretch of Wyoming 390 before Teton Village.  The time was 6:05 pm, the stamp that would grace the webcams on for days.  It was no doubt howling that night, but the poles had withstood forty years of fierce winds Wyoming is known for.

Lower Valley Energy is the electricity provider in Teton County.  It’s a co-op, owned by 15,000 members like myself.  While our tiny utility got to work recruiting much-needed regional help, ski area employees who could make it rallied first thing Wednesday morning.  Instead of heading up, cat operators headed out to push ten feet of snow away from the power corridor.  Lower Valley conceded at 9:40 am to “expect Teton Village to be out of power for 5-7 days,” and the resort announced it would not open until at least the following Monday.  The internet thought it was crazy, we knew it was not.

Prinoths to the rescue.  Photo credit: Lower Valley Energy

Complicating matters, Teton Pass has closed earlier that day and ended up staying closed for almost five days amid the biggest storm cycle since 1986.  WYDOT also closed the two canyon routes leading into Jackson Hole due to avalanches relentlessly coming down across them.  The Teton Village substation also serves the Jackson Hole Airport and all Tuesday night flights were canceled.  Whether it was workers, generators or fuel, it became tough to get anything we needed. The mountain was able to buy every available 2000-watt generator from a Honda dealer in Afton, Wyoming.

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Hauling Bikes: How Far We’ve Come

Bear's eye view of the Fitz Chair. #FitzsZone #InTheZone #BikePark #Whistler

A post shared by Whistler Bike Park (@whistlerbikeprk) on

My first experience with lift-served mountain biking was at Sun Valley as a teenager.  In those days I would happily hand off my cross-country mountain bike to lift operators and they would heave them onto hooks on the bails of every other chair.  At the top, 2-3 operators would pull bikes off and wheel them to a nearby bike rack.  This worked alright with mostly empty chairs, few bikers and even fewer trails.  But this system required a ton of staff and could only carry a maximum of two bikes every two chairs – not very good for machines with capacity normally measured in thousands of riders per hour.

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Sun Valley’s bike haul setup on the Lookout Express in 2006.

Whistler-Blackcomb changed everything in 1998 with the opening of the Whistler Mountain Bike Park.  Its creators didn’t just build some trails but created an experience that thrills riders of all abilities with jumps, berms and bridges.  Eighteen years later, the Whistler Mountain Bike Park is now larger than most North American ski resorts with two gondolas and three high speed quads accessing 73 trails and 5,000 vertical feet.  The team behind the world’s best bike park now designs parks all over the world from Gravity Logic headquarters in Whistler. The Whistler Bike Park could never have succeeded without the invention of efficient, custom bike racks initially built for the Fitzsimmons Express.  Whistler-Blackcomb partnered with Murray-Latta Machine Co., which long ago transformed from a ski lift builder to custom fabricator.  The two companies set out to create the best bike racks for chairlifts.

The debut of roll-on, roll-off bike carriers was a huge leap forward.  They allowed a single lift operator at the bottom terminal to focus on watching the lift and guests rather than lifting heavy mountain bikes onto hooks.  Quick-load carriers can move 2-4 times as many bikes as hooks when installed on every other chair.  They reduce damage to bikes that get more expensive every year while limiting the number of workers compensation claims by lift staff. After the jump, see a rundown of innovative bike carriers now available for chairlifts and gondolas.

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Does Your State Have a Tramway Safety Board?

As we saw last week in West Virginia, it usually doesn’t take long after a lift-related accident for someone to bring up the issue of regulation.  Operation of ski lifts and tramways in the United States follows the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) B77.1 Standard for Passenger Ropeways.  ANSI is a non-profit organization that oversees the creation of standards for everything from nut and bolt shapes to paper sizes and computer programming language.  States adopt ANSI standards which become the laws of the land.  The idea is whether you ride a chairlift in Alaska or gondola in Florida, everything from the lift’s line speed to the signage in the load area is spelled out by the same document.  You can download your very own copy here for $175.  Update 9/11/2017: There’s a new standard available here, now $200.

By my count, 21 states have some sort of tramway oversight agency as shown in green.

The ANSI standard is updated about every five years and some states are faster than others at adopting the latest version.  Each state also decides whether to back the B77 standard with licensing and inspections. Without question, the most robust oversight agency in the country is the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board, which oversees Colorado’s 275 aerial lifts and countless surface tows.  Colorado is the only state to go so far as to conduct unannounced inspections on every lift every year.  CPTSB has three full-time staff members and eight contract inspectors.  Only a handful of states directly employ lift inspector(s.) Some states hire contract inspectors like Colorado does but many simply require an annual fee and inspection by somebody certified, usually an insurance inspector.  The bottom of this post has a table of each state’s requirements as best I could find.

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Raising the Bar on Lift Ops Uniforms

Lift operators are among the most visible and important front line staff at mountain resorts. While only certain guests stay in hotels, buy on-mountain food or take a lesson, every visitor interacts with lift staff throughout their visit.  Lifties are responsible for both safety and guest service and a professional image is important.  Most mountains have appearance standards for staff and uniform deals with outerwear companies like Marmot and Helly Hansen.  However, many resorts do not include head wear as part of their uniforms.

Jackson Hole lifties before getting beanies as part of their uniforms.
Jackson Hole lifties before getting beanies as part of their uniforms.

In the past, operators here at Jackson Hole were allowed to wear whatever hats they wanted with mixed results.  In order to look more professional as part of a team, we turned to a local clothing company called Cirque Mountain Apparel to design a custom logo beanie for our 150 lift operators to wear in 2016.  Cirque developed a number of different designs last spring for the staff to vote on.   One design was the clear winner; it features the Jackson Hole logo along with a mountain outline and stripes.  With more than 80 percent of Jackson Hole’s lift operators returning each season, they will get to wear the chosen beanie with pride next winter.  Adding head wear to uniforms just makes sense for a top-tier resort like Jackson Hole.

The 2015-16 Jackson Hole Lift Ops beanie.

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