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Fourteen first-year lift mechanics from 10 Alterra Mountain Co. ski areas participated in a four-week training program in June 2023 at Steamboat ski area designed to fast-track lift mechanics into lift maintenance. The students helped Steamboat's lift crew dismantle the 1972 Priest Creek chairlift. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It’s time for Steamboat’s lift mechanics to tear down the Priest Creek chairlift. First up is figuring out how to detach the counter-weight system for the 1972 fixed-grip double, which is tensioned with a massive weight in a steel tube buried vertically in the ground. 

Kurt Castor, the 30-year boss of lifts at the ski area, poses several complicated questions to the 14 lift mechanics from 10 ski areas in five states and his own team of 22 new hires. 

If the bull-wheel carriage on the chairlift moves 1 foot forward, how much will the counter-weight move in the tube and will it move up or down? 

“I’m not a teacher. Am I making sense? This is the real world,” says Castor as hard-hatted aspiring lift mechanics huddle on picnic benches to mull college-level trigonometry problems.  

Next question: The crew needs to leave the counterweight 6-inches from the ground in the housing, so how much should the bull-wheel carriage move? And the tension weight on that cable is 19,480 pounds, so how much does the counterweight weigh? Later, the students estimate the weight they should see on a tension monitor when the cable is routed through a maze of six pulleys tied to three anchors to lift the counter-weight and detach it from the bull wheel.

“Look at what we know. Think about the questions,” Castor says, reminding the students and his crew about accidents that have injured or even killed lift mechanics. “When things go wrong with rigging, it goes really wrong. This is important stuff.”

As a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flies overhead carrying buckets of concrete for Steamboat’s new gondola towers, the lift mechanics in the lush Alpine meadow study complex math problems before threading thick cables through intricate rigging systems in the first stage of removing a chairlift that has not spun in seven years. The students are part of a pilot program created by Steamboat owner Alterra Mountain Co. and Colorado Mountain College to get lift mechanics swiftly trained and stoked on a career that is the cornerstone of all ski resorts. 

As the resort industry faces a crushing labor crisis, Alterra is hoping to fast-track first-year lift maintenance workers with the first-of-a-kind training program for the workers who keep the resort industry spinning. 

“It is so hard to find individuals who really understand the technical aspects of this business,” says Hannah Barrego, the director of mountain operations for Alterra’s 17 ski areas. “And the technical trades are really, really key and they are at higher risk in our industry right now.”

Steamboat ski area lift director Kurt Castor, center, helps first-year lift maintenance workers from 10 ski areas design a rigging system to lower the counterweight of the dormant Priest Creek chairlift at the Steamboat ski area on June 15, 2023. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

During the pandemic, ski resorts saw an unprecedented wave of veteran lift mechanics retire. Others took jobs in higher-paying industries — like homebuilding — as the cost of living in mountain communities skyrocketed. The few remaining veterans on lift maintenance crews were tasked with training hordes of greenhorns while skiers were boarding chairs. 

“So we are seeing people really burned out,” Barrego says. “We pulled together all our resort maintenance leaders and asked what are your biggest challenges. It’s staffing shortages, burn out and the ability to get people onboard and keep the resort running simultaneously.”

John Holm, a Copper Mountain lift mechanic for 21 years who teaches resort operations at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, learned the inside of lift mechanical systems by working with a mentor while skiers were riding chairs. 

“It was incredibly difficult because he just didn’t have enough time to really get into specifics,” Holm says. “That’s how it’s worked for years in this business … we just hoped that people learn by osmosis. We are learning that is not the best way to teach someone.”

It can take years to get a lift mechanic up to speed when teaching during operations, Holm said. The challenges of that old-school training strategy are becoming more acute in this labor crisis as workers with technical skills are hard to find in pricey mountain communities.

On some days last season at Mammoth ski area, there were only five lift mechanics managing the Southern California resort’s 25 chairs, gondolas and surface lifts. 

“And one of them was our vice-president of operations,” says 24-year-old Corinne Bach, who joined Mammoth’s lift mechanics crew last season. “I think they recognize the need for a program like this. That’s why I’m here.”

Students in a first-ever lift maintenance training program join first-year lift mechanics at Steamboat ski area to begin dismantling the 1972 Priest Creek chairlift on June 15, 2023. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Alterra and CMC have built the four-week intensive program as a new standardized system that replaces online training curricula that never gained much traction. The idea is that a student can take four weeks to get the first level of certification in lift mechanical systems, which typically takes at least a year on the job. 

“The workforce of the future”

Colorado Mountain College in 2020 developed a ropeway maintenance technician certificate program as part of a partnership with the National Ski Areas Association. But the coursework was largely online and not many students were enrolling. That partnership is ending but NSAA plans to keep offering its member resorts a free online curriculum and more courses for lift mechanics.   

When Alterra approached CMC earlier this year, the school jumped at the chance to develop a more robust, in-person curriculum. CMC is working with the Colorado outdoor recreation office on a grant to help kickstart the lift maintenance program as part of the state office’s mission to develop a stronger workforce in the outdoor recreation industry.

Eventually CMC hopes a lift mechanics program can qualify under the federal Department of Labor’s apprenticeship program, says Amy Smallwood, the Leadville campus’ director of outdoor studies programs. Smallwood sees the program expanding into advanced certification and maybe even touring the lift mechanics program through mountain town high schools to recruit young students into the resort industry’s technical trades. 

Smallwood says she is planning a meeting with Vail Resorts to discuss a similar lift mechanics training program at the company’s resorts. Alterra’s vision includes an intensive training program that visits all corners of the country, with instructors visiting resorts several times a year to offer certification for both newcomers and veterans in lift mechanics. 

“The biggest hurdle we are going to have to overcome is who actually conducts this course on an ongoing basis,” says Alterra’s Barrego, who tapped the company’s senior manager of construction projects to join Copper’s Holm in developing the curriculum. 

Lift mechanics students needed to use six pulleys to disperse the load of a 10,000-pound counterweight that tensioned the 1972 Priest Creek chairlift at Steamboat ski area. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

It’s likely the lift mechanics program at CMC will apply, eventually, for a grant under the new Opportunity Now Colorado plan that is directing $85 million into workforce development, says Ben Cairns, the dean at CMC’s Leadville and Salida campuses. 

That could lead to the program partnering with not just Alterra, but Vail Resorts and Powdr Corp., which owns Copper Mountain and Eldora ski areas. 

Cairns is seeing a shift in what students are hoping to glean from a college degree. There’s a growing demand for a blending of technical training with traditional college skills. The college’s Fire Science Technology program, for example, has a waiting list for students eager to pursue a career as a firefighter, he says. 

Employers too are seeking graduates with both technical and traditional college skills, Cairns says. 

“As much as they want these current technical skills right now, they also really want to know that in five years that person can write emails and use spreadsheets and have social skills, critical thinking skills and are good communicators,” Cairn says. “They want someone who can do all that rigging right now, but in five, 10 years, they want a person who can be a manager. We need to take that enthusiastic 20-year-old and turn them into the workforce of the future.”

“These are hands-on learners” 

Steamboat is a perfect first classroom this summer as the mountain installs new chairlifts, including the second leg of what will be the country’s longest gondola. Alterra resort managers across the country hand-selected the first students, who came from ski areas in Colorado, California, Washington, West Virginia and Vermont. 

The students spent 10 hours a day this month bouncing between the resort’s lift installation crews and a classroom. Sometimes they crammed into lift shacks for quick PowerPoint demonstrations. Technical rigging experts visited, offering lessons on how to be safe and even conduct a rescue while dangling from lift towers.

“These are hands-on learners,” says Pete McKinnon, Alterra’s manager of projects who helped design the lift maintenance school program. “They want to be out here seeing this firsthand, not in a classroom.”

Chase Clark, a lift mechanic from Washington’s Crystal Mountain, attended a first-ever intensive lift maintenance training program at Steamboat ski area in June. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Things go smoothly in classrooms. Very rarely do things go as planned at ski resorts. At Steamboat, daily thunderstorms sent students scrambling for cover. Roads were sporadically closed as cement trucks crawled and helicopters trawled. The crews could not get their vehicles too close to the Priest Creek chair, which is surrounded by wetlands, forcing them to carry gear to the worksite.  

“It’s conducive to our work environment that every day something will change,” McKinnon said. “That’s a guarantee of working at a ski resort.”

The students from the Alterra resorts are constantly sharing stories. Each of their resorts — per the Alterra operating strategy — have their own particular operations and standards. Some resorts let lift mechanics choose what lifts to manage on any given day. Others assign the mechanics lifts they will work on for the entire season. Each lift shop is laid out differently. 

“Honestly, I’m learning just as much with storytelling from these guys,” says Chase Clark, a mechanic from Washington’s Crystal Mountain. “And when the instructors go off on tangents, wow I’m picking up so much. This is such an immersive experience.”

Castor, the Steamboat lift director with the complex math problems, has 22 first-year workers on his 30-person maintenance crew. All the newbies were on hand at Priest Creek last week to help with the first steps of dismantling the chair. He’s planning to offer the same Alterra-CMC coursework to his first-year workers after the busy summer to better prepare them for the coming season. 

“We are hiring,” he says to a visitor taking notes. “Can you put that in the newspaper? Tell everyone this is such a great job.”

At the Priest Creek chair — for lift nerds: it’s a Heron Poma that was retrofitted by Yan in the 1980s — Castor and McKinnon have the students sketching on a dry-erase board. They need to set up a system that will hoist the 10,000-pound counterweight so it can be unpinned from the bull-wheel carriage. The students need to make sure they don’t stress the cables with too much weight or overburden the skid steer that will be hauling the cable. They spend a couple hours meticulously laying out the maze of cable, pulleys and anchors.

“We did this at Snowshoe but it was so quick. It’s awesome to see this slowed down as we can see how it all actually works,” says Wyatt Mallow, a 20-year-old lift mechanic from West Virginia’s Snowshoe ski area. “My boss did all this math though.”

Does that mean he’s training to be a boss? 

“Maybe,” Mallow says with a grin. “That’s kind of the idea, right?”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...