Heavenly ski patrollers prepare for the worst – 100 feet above ground
As the setting sun splashed red and orange light on the lake and snow at Heavenly Ski Resort Sunday, two men stepped from a tower high above the ground and into the air.
David Immeker and Fred Greaves of the Heavenly ski patrol were practicing a new way to save people trapped on the tramway that runs up the face of the resort’s California side. In the event of an accident rescuers will hang as much as 100 feet above the snow and slide down the cables on which the tram is suspended.
“What a rush,” Immeker said after sliding several hundred feet and then rappelling down to the roof of the tram car stopped halfway down the mountain. “This is a new system and we wanted to work all the bugs out of it.”
After securing themselves above the ground, Immeker and Greaves, were lowered down the steep cable by another member of the ski patrol still on the tower, who controls the speed of their descent.
Rescuers used to slide down cables on a pulley system that was slowed by the weight of the person clinging to the wire. That system is now considered too dangerous.
“I don’t know of anyone who uses it anymore,” Immeker said.
The new way of reaching trapped cars is much safer, he explained.
“Even if you were to fall, you would never fall to the ground.”
Once rescuers reach the car they will climb inside and lower the passengers to the ground through a hole in the floor.
“The technology is making this safer to do. Over the last 20 years we have played with a number of different ways to (evacuate the tram), but this is a new system for us,” said Jimmy Lawrence, the resort’s risk manager. “It was amazing. I thought it went off really smoothly.”
That such a rescue operation will be necessary is highly unlikely according to Lawrence, who said, “In the history of the tram it has never been done.”
The only tram accident in the Sierra occurred 22 years ago at Squaw Valley USA.
In April of 1978 four people died and more than 30 were injured when a tram car plummeted more than 100 feet before being slammed to a halt by a safety wire. The tram, which was carrying more than 60 passengers, fell at night during a late winter storm that made rescue efforts extremely dangerous.
“That is the kind of catastrophic event that would have to happen for us to send someone out on the cable,” Lawrence said. “Believe me not everyone on the patrol wants to hang from that cable.”
“This is just a worst case scenario” Immeker said. “Realistically this will probably never happen but if something does go terribly wrong we want to have a plan.”
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