Wednesday, February 20, 2013

New life for old toboggans

Bellevue man to manufacture Sun Valley-style sleds

Express Staff Writer

Nelson Bennett, left, 98, discusses toboggan design, use and restoration with Sun Valley Ski Patrol leaders Rich Bingham, front, and Mike Lloyd, right, on Bald Mountain last Friday. Toboggan restorer Randy Edgar, rear, looks on as Bennett talks about how he made the toboggan fins out of a bed frame he found at the dump. Photo by Willy Cook

The Sun Valley rescue toboggan—a breakthrough in ski area rescue technology developed in Sun Valley in the 1940s by a former Ski Patrol director—will soon be manufactured in the Wood River Valley again for the first time since its invention.

Bellevue resident Randall Edgar, a skilled woodworker, recently bought a woodworking jig that will allow him to make and repair the still hand-crafted, hickory-bottom sleds in his Bellevue shop. Edgar said he transported the jig to the valley from Las Vegas last week.

“Basically, the jig is a setup table that holds everything together before you bolt everything together,” he said.

Edgar said the jig also “steams and rolls” the wooden staves from which the sled is made into shape to form the curled-up nose of the sled.

Edgar bought the jig from Las Vegas, Nev.,-based Toddbogan Manufacturing Co., which Edgar said went out of business when owner Paul Hendricks passed away last spring. According to Edgar, Hendricks’ father, Jim Hendricks, had developed the jig to make rescue toboggans—modeled in the Sun Valley style—beginning in 1954.

Edgar said that in addition to buying the jig, he also bought a “pristine” sled made by Jim Hendricks. Edgar said he bought both items from Paul Hendricks’ widow, Diane Hendricks, shortly after Paul’s death. According to Edgar, the sled cost more than the jig, but when he saw it, he decided to buy it and donate it to the Ketchum Sun Valley Ski and Heritage Museum.

“It was something I couldn’t see go,” he said. “And it’s got too much history to just keep it in my shop.”

According to Edgar, Jim Hendricks crafted the 8-foot-long sled in 1980 and it is labeled serial number 696, the last one Jim Hendricks made.

Edgar said he will use the jig to repair and rebuild many of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol’s current fleet of about 20 toboggans, at the patrol’s request. According to patrolman Mike Dessler, who is responsible for general maintenance of the fleet, Edgar’s purchase of the jig is a timely blessing. 

“With Toddboggan going out of business, what would we have done to rebuild the old toboggans?” he said. “The stars aligned when Randy bought the jig.”

Edgar said several of the Ski Patrol’s rescue toboggans are more than 30 years old and many of the wooden bases need to be rebuilt.

“I think it’s great that Sun Valley Rescue Toboggans will be made in the valley again,” Ski Patrol Director Mike Lloyd said.


Toboggan inventor reveals design process

At the top of Bald Mountain on Friday, Sun Valley rescue toboggan inventor and former Ski Patrol Director Nelson Bennett, 98, regaled Edgar and several ski patrolmen with a knee-slapping oral history of how he developed the sled during 1946 and ’47.

Though Bennett did not invent the rescue sled itself, his design greatly improved operator control and patient comfort, and his innovations remain in use today.

“You see these fins?” he said, grabbing one of the toboggans and tossing it over with surprising strength. “You know where they came from? The dump.”

Bennett said much of the time involved in developing his sled was focused on constructing a fin system to keep the sled behind the operator, as opposed to sliding away down the hill.

“I took some garbage to the dump one day, saw a box spring frame, and thought, ‘That would make a perfect fin,’” he said. “The first design was just one long fin in the middle at the back of the sled. It didn’t work. Then I cut that fin in two and put one piece on either side at the back of the sled. That worked great.”

Another problem Bennett overcame was how to engineer an effective braking system. He said he was testing his design one day when it suddenly started to pick up speed at an alarming rate before he managed to regain control.

“You better believe I was thinking the whole time about what I could come up with to slow the thing down!” he said.

Bennett’s solution was to install a chain under the sled’s nose that contacts the snow only when the operator pushes down on the poles used to pull the sled. The resulting friction stops the sled.

Bennett’s most groundbreaking innovation however, the one that makes the Sun Valley-style sled unique, is the basket-like “stokes litter” that he incorporated to hold passengers more comfortably and securely.

“The litter allows the sled to snake over the snow without transferring the energy to the patient,” he said. “It’s a Cadillac ride down the hill. The wood flexes more than cheaper materials such as fiberglass, and that also contributes to the comfort.”

Bennett said he never pursued a patent or business opportunity based on his innovations, which is why Jim Hendricks was able to use his design.

“I gave the plans to the National Ski Patrol,” he said. “I thought, ‘What the hell. It’s been working well for us, maybe it’ll work well for other ski patrols too.’”

Lloyd said Sun Valley-style toboggans are currently used by about 10 ski patrols across the country.

Before Bennett left the top of Baldy, Edgar invited him to his shop, joking that he needed a “helper” to rebuild the Ski Patrol’s sleds. Bennett accepted the invitation to visit, but politely declined the job offer.

“I’m not going to work anymore,” he said.

Brennan Rego:

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