By April, most ski resorts close up shop to the skiing public for the off-season. However, many of the staffers who keep the lifts spinning during the winter don’t just head off for a six-month vacation. In order to keep a resort maintained properly, the summer months can be surprisingly busy.
“One of the most common questions is: ‘what do you do in the summertime?’ I compare it to you don’t work on your car while you’re driving it,” says Chris Woo, director of lift maintenance at Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows in California. “You might do some inspection or preventative maintenance as required, but we really don’t do a lot of our in-depth maintenance until the machines are not operating.”
Woo and his crews follow the typical industry practice of taking down one-fifth of all “carriers” such as lift chairs and gondola cabins. The carriers go in for extensive inspection and maintenance including replacement of wearable parts. The rotating cycle means that every carrier receives this special attention at least every five years.
“We move people, not cans of soup or rocks. So there’s an enormous amount of redundancy in the safety systems which makes them very complex,” says Woo. “There are a lot of electrical systems and safety systems that are gone through thoroughly and tested in the off-season.”
While lifts certainly are also inspected for safety on a daily basis during the ski season, the off-season offers the opportunity for very close examination of every equipment component. For example, the flexible cable— properly known as the “haul rope”— on each lift is checked for excessive wear. If a problem spot is found, a rather intricate process of winding and tucking the haul rope’s six strands allows for a new section to be spliced into the endless loop.
Squaw Valley’s funitel— basically a big gondola with two parallel haul ropes— creates unique challenges. Although funitels are somewhat common in Europe, Squaw Valley is the only U.S. resort to use the lift system.
“Our funitel is probably one of the most complex installations in North America,” says Woo. “That particular installation has 10 towers and every year we rotate to disassemble all the tower equipment off the top of two towers. Each tower takes a month to get the equipment down, inspected and reinstalled. Cause of the size of the funitel carrier that has four grips essentially on it and the bigger chassis and cabin, each carrier takes an entire month to rebuild. Just the time involved in those two items is extensive for that machine.”
Especially coming off big snow years with a deep snowpack, monitoring the lift towers alignment can be another important task. Known as snowcreep, the imperceptible movement of the snowpack slowly moving down the slope can put horizontal pressure on the towers and shift their alignment.
The mountain, itself, also receives loving care in the off-season. In Squaw Valley’s case, Brad Robinson, the resort’s environmental manager, must balance natural forces and the impact of ski area operations. “It’s in our best interest as a ski resort to keep our runs as stable as possible, but it’s also in our best interest to be a steward of this mountain and the ecosystem it is in and try to minimize our impact to the watershed,” says Robinson.
Monitoring erosion with the snow melt is a big part of Robinson’s task. At seven locations around the resort layout, water samples are taken to measure the sediment coming off the mountain. Robinson pays particular attention to areas where a particular activity or construction could have altered the natural environment. Crews can use tubes of compressed straw called straw wattles to reduce the erosion. A mix of seed grasses and various other native plants can also be planted to stabilize open slopes.
Managing forested areas inside the ski area boundaries involves periodically thinning out the undergrowth. “It was a matter of reducing the fuels that had been building up for years and years, but also kind of thinning what was growing in the understory to kind of make it a little bit more open,” Robinson says.
“You get the dual benefit there. You get the environmental impact being reduced of a potential fire and then in reducing the understory, you do see an increase in growth of the canopy with less competition for water and resources in the soil. You do have that stand opened up a little bit at ground level to be a little bit more skiable. Those projects are a good opportunity to manage for both objectives.”