1976 – gondola crash tests Vail’s ski patrol
The comment sent a chill through me. “Can we do that?”
“No one knows. No one has ever tried,” Paul said.
Our Vail patrollers had drilled for years on evacuating gondolas, but they had never had to evacuate skiers in real life, not even by daylight. To evacuate a gondola car, a patroller has to climb a tower carrying a 40-pound evacuation “bike,” a small aluminum contraption with wheels that lock onto the track cable. The patroller then stands on foot pieces and glides along under the cable to the disabled car.
Attached to the bike by a safety sling, he then hoists himself onto the slanting roof of the car and rigs a rope drop for the occupants trapped inside. It is a performance as daring as a trapeze act.
The first gondola car to be cleared after the accident, of course, had to be the one that had been hanging on its strand of steel for more than an hour. The occupants were three married couples. John Murphy, assistant patrol director, climbed the rungs of Tower 5 to see what could be done. Immediately he saw that the car would have to be chained to the cable to stabilize it.
He climbed down to tell patrolman Richard “Chupa” Nelson, who quickly looped a length of rope and a length of chain around his neck, then strapped an evacuation bike to his back. The two patrolmen went back up.
Nelson attached his bike to the cables and slowly rolled to the stranded car. He explained to the three couples that he would pass the rope out one window of the car and back through another, then tie it with a bowline around the car’s center pole. That done, he passed the chain through the windows and fastened it with a snatch-hook, just in case the 5,000-pound tested rope somehow severed.
Nelson then climbed onto the roof of the gondola car and opened a hatch. He told the occupants to remove an evacuation line from under a seat, drop it to the ground and pull it back up after a special harness was attached.
The six rode down, one by one. It took 15 minutes. When the last person was on the ground, a smattering of applause came from the passengers hanging in nearby cars. The full evacuation of the Gondola II line had begun in earnest. It was a little after 11 a.m.
Editor’s note: This is the 56th installment of the Vail Daily’s serialization of “Vail: Triumph of a Dream” by Vail Pioneer and Founder Pete Seibert. This excerpt comes from Chapter 11, entitled “Tragedy on the Mountain.” The book can be purchased at the Colorado Ski Museum, as well as bookstores and other retailers throughout the Vail Valley.
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