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Perfect Storm Disrupts Lift Operations on 50th Anniversary

Categories: Weather Blog Tech Talk Guest Connection 50th

Blue lift line at Mt. Hood MeadosTo our guests who weathered our chaotic morning January 27.

This has been a challenging season with below average snowpack, increased crowds on peak days due to other ski areas not being able to operate and, extended days of storms and recovery preventing our upper lifts from operating. Additionally, low snow coverage to the HRM lift prevented opening that terrain adding to overall congestion. As a result, we have experienced abnormally long lift lines this season. None of this is really that unusual, as we’ve had other seasons, or even parts of seasons where this can occur.

Saturday was different.

The confluence of high winds, fluctuating freezing levels and freezing rain played havoc on the Mt. Hood Express, Stadium Express and Shooting Star Express high speed quads. Typically, storm recovery and deicing operations are required on our upper lifts - Cascade Express and Vista Express - as they are exposed to conditions above timberline. Based on the forecast winds and snow and storm in progress, we knew it was highly unlikely that those lifts would operate Saturday. So our lift crews went to work on our lower lifts, which required deicing from the overnight storms and more importantly the freezing rain we encountered Saturday morning.

Mt. Hood Express – Pre-opped to roll, but then…

Crews started preparing Mt. Hood Express by 5:30 AM, and had removed ice from chairs, and were completing pre-op - meaning it was being readied for operation. As the crew was testing all the safety switches which stops and starts the lift, the lift line began icing up again. This was not the typical rime ice we routinely manage and remove from our upper lifts, this was much more of a fast freezing, slick glaze, thin layer of instafreeze that iced the haul rope. Because of this rope-ice, the chairs would not pass through the upper terminal machinery and the monitoring circuitry repeatedly stopped the lift. 

The mechanisms that detach the chair from the cable allowing it to slow down for passengers to unload, before it speeds up to be reattached to the haul cable are driven by the haul rope, which was so iced up that it slid along without turning the mechanism. Stopping the lift added to the ice buildup. Additional crews were deployed from other lift pre-op assignments. Mt. Hood Express is our primary lift and under these circumstances, commanded the greatest amount of resources to get it operating. At least 10 people were at the top of the lift physically pushing chairs to make them travel through the terminal.

The same work was happening at the bottom terminal, as the iced line from above traveled down and through the lower terminal. But even with these efforts, and two team members on each chair, the relentless icing prevented the chairs from moving through the terminals consistently, shutting down the lift. This process can be painfully slow and tedious, but is required in order to keep the haul rope moving. The movement of the rope around the bullwheels and over the tower sheaves helped to remove ice. Our lift crews kept at it until the rope cleared of ice as weather cooled and ice stopped forming.

Once the cable was relatively ice-free our team still had to adjust the spacing between chairs that were too uneven. Chairs that are too close together are detected when they are in the lift terminals stopping the lift to avoid collisions.

The Perfect Storm

Vice President of Mountain Operations Steve Warila has 42 seasons of operations at Mt. Hood Meadows and said this situation rarely occurs, calling it “a perfect storm”. “With the freezing level lowering to just below the upper terminal, our only option was to push the chairs to keep the haul line moving, or close it down. This perseverance ultimately prevailed and we were able to open Mt. Hood Express at 11:25 AM, after six hours of deicing and fighting these conditions. I’m proud of the determined efforts of our lift crew to not only get Mt. Hood Express operating, but deice, open and operate Shooting Star as well.”

Lessons Learned

Vice President of Marketing Dave Tragethon commended the mountain crew effort, and apologized for the lack of communication going out to the guests who waited (some for hours) while the deicing operation was in progress. “Our mountain team, including management staff, was focused on opening Mt. Hood Express as quickly as possible. I’m proud of their efforts as at any time they could have given up on the lift and just closed it. I chose not to interrupt those efforts for status reports, which could have been shared with our guests, even though there was no way to estimate how long this process would take. Should a similar situation occur we are now better prepared to provide timely updates to our guests directly at the resort as well as through our social channels and conditions page.”

Tragethon noted the resort routinely updates it’s website and sends out tweets as conditions or lift status change. The 5 AM report warned of high winds affecting lift operations and the email snow report sent to subscribers. But the extended freezing rain episode was not anticipated.

Tragethon continued, “The timing of this freezing rain event could not have been worse, taking our main conveyance from the base area out of service, during the time that the base area crowds were at their greatest. Lifts were already delayed due to high winds, but then this icing situation really messed things up.”

Thanks to Blue

The original Blue lift - still used as a back up to Mt. Hood Express and to alleviate peak crowds, ran Saturday morning. The fixed grip lift avoided the detachable spacing issue – so sometimes simpler is better. However, being only a double seater the uphill capacity was greatly reduced. Lift lines stretched across the base area and harkened the days before high speed quads effectively reduced long lines.

Lift line at the Blue lift in 1972 at Mt. Hood Meadows

Blue Lift - 1972 photo by Dick Powers