Mountain Experts: The Squaw Valley Ski Patrol | SierraSun.com

Mountain Experts: The Squaw Valley Ski Patrol

Seth Lightcap
Sierra Sun

Seth Lightcap/Sierra SunEver wondered what would happen if the Squaw Valley USA Funitel stopped running while you were sitting comfortably inside 200 feet off the ground? Rest assured, the Squaw Valley ski patrol has a comprehensive and well-practiced rescue plan ready for action on a moment's notice.

SQUAW VALLEY “-Have you ever had second thoughts before loading a ski resort chairlift on a stormy day because you had a bad feeling that the blustery ride up the mountain might take a little longer than usual?

While short lift delays are not uncommon on windy days, lift stoppages of an extended duration are increasingly rare. Between bombproof back-up mechanisms, mandated inspections, and strict wind-hold policies that regulate max wind speeds for lift operation, it’s safe to assume that if the ski patrol lets you load the chair, you’ll ride to the top.

But even with the most conservative lift management practices all ski resorts must still prepare for the nightmares ” a torrential rogue wind gust or a freak mechanical failure that imparts temporarily irreparable damage to a lift. As in, you will be sitting on the chair or in the gondola for hours.

Just like a delay on the subway or the airport tarmac, the State of California has rules for how long a resort can legally let you hang in the breeze before the lift must be evacuated. State inspectors determine this time duration based on the specifics of each lift and the difficult of the evacuation process.

Responsible for 29 aerial lifts in a valley notorious for high winds, the Squaw Valley Ski Patrol has a comprehensive rescue protocol in place for every lift in their system.

Of those policies, the procedures for evacuating the Funitel, a 41-car gondola that holds up to 28 passengers per cabin and crosses spans up to 300 feet off the ground, are undoubtedly the most complex according to Squaw Ski Patrol director Curtis Crooks.

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“Because of the location, number of passengers and the added steps in accessing the interior of the cabins, evacuating the Funitel is the most time consuming and involved rescue procedure we might undertake,” said Crooks.

Funitel rescue operations begin with Crooks allocating teams of patrollers to specific tower sections. The patrollers climb the lift towers carrying heavy loads of ropes and equipment. Once on top of the tower, the pair of rescuers split up as each will focus on the cabins of the two separate uphill and downhill lines.

To reach the Funitel cabins from the tower platform, the patroller attaches a contraption known as a “bike” to the thick metal cable. Equipped with a friction brake and a bike seat to sit on, the red “bike” allows the rescuer to slowly slide down the cable to the top of the Funitel cabin.

“We like to say riding the bike is a Disneyland “E-ticket” ride,” said veteran Squaw patroller and staff trainer Paul Gugliuzza. “Exciting to say the least.”

After climbing onto the cabin, the rescuer constructs a lowering system out of industrial strength rock climbing equipment that will allow him or her to rappel into the cabin and then safely lower each passenger to the ground using a rescue harness.

Passengers are lowered two at a time using a rope that is twice the distance to the ground such that when one party touches the deck the next couple is ready to clip in without having to pull back up the line.

Each lowering cycle takes approximately six minutes so evacuating a mostly full cabin of 20 takes just over a hour as long as the passengers stay calm.

“During the lowering procedures we want guests to understand we have the situation under control and that they are being taken care of with the utmost safety,” said patroller Gugliuzza. “It will be understandably scary for some, but staying seated in the cabin and remaining calm are the best ways to help speed up the process.”

When the last passenger of the cabin is safely on terra firma the rescuer moves on to the next cabin by climbing back on top, transferring the “bike” to the other side of the cabin, and moving down the line to repeat the rescue procedures. Depending on the number of cabins on the line a rescuer will evacuate two or three cabins.

All told, a complete Funitel evacuation would take about two-and-a-half hours, said patrol director Crooks. But despite all the training, logistical preparation, and equipment that is put into the planning such an operation, Crooks doesn’t lose sleep worrying about when it will be necessary.

“The Funitel is the most reliable lift in our system,” said Crooks. “It has two means of auxiliary power and an amazing operating staff so it’s hard to imagine ever having problems with it.”

To find out more about Squaw Valley USA, visit http://www.squaw.com.