Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The ‘Men in Black’ behind Baldy’s stairways to heaven

Sun Valley maintenance crew reveals chairlift nuts and bolts

Express Staff Writer

Sun Valley Co. Lift Maintenance Foreman Mark Korchinski inspects on Friday the Roundhouse Gondola’s main, 800-horsepower electric motor (gray, left), high-speed end brakes (red, center) and gearbox (blue, right). The gearbox connects to the large horizontally oriented bull wheel (not shown) that drives the lift. A second set of brakes, the low-speed end brakes (not shown), attach directly to the bull wheel for safety redundancy. Photo by Willy Cook

Ripping straight up to the top of Bald Mountain on snowmobiles at nearly 40 mph in the dark is just another dawn at the office for Sun Valley Co.’s lift maintenance crew members.
The self-professed “Men in Black” must leave the River Run base before 7 a.m. to rev up the ski mountain’s chairlifts and gondola and ensure that they are operating safely before the resort opens at 9 a.m. For those who have not experienced it, a snowmobile ride to the top at that time feels like what one might expect from a direct injection of iced espresso, plus the wind chill factor.

“We’re keeping machines that are up to a mile and a half long running safely at high speeds while monitoring every part of them,” said Lift Maintenance Foreman Mark Korchinski shortly after arriving at the top early Friday morning. “I’ve always found that fascinating.”
Lift Maintenance Manager Robb Thomas said the Men in Black are the world’s original lift maintenance crew since the world’s first chairlift was installed in Sun Valley. Thomas said that even though his crew is “as good as it gets,” the Men in Black pride themselves on keeping a low profile while keeping the lifts running.
“We like it when things are going smoothly and not many people see the Men in Black,” Thomas said. “We do a lot to make sure riding the lifts is an uneventful experience. The better we do our job, the less you notice us.”

As Korchinski throttled down his sled Friday morning at the top of Baldy, he said the bulk of the 21-member crew’s work is “preventive” maintenance performed during the summer, another reason the Men in Black are rarely seen. However, he added that the crew must still conduct safety checks and maintenance throughout the winter to ensure optimal lift performance and safety.

Baldy has seven detachable quads, five fixed-grip chairlifts of varying capacities and a detachable gondola that can carry eight people per car. Detachable lifts provide slower load speeds and higher operational speeds.

Korchinski’s first job Friday was to start up the Challenger lift, a detachable quad that runs nonstop from the Warm Springs base to the top in about 10 minutes. Challenger boasts an operational speed of 900 feet per minute, a slope length of just over 9,000 feet, a vertical rise of nearly 3,150 feet and a 45-millimeter-wide, polypropylene-core, steel-wound rope that suspends its chairs.

As Korchinski ran through his ignition checklist, he explained how the resort’s lifts work. He said the top terminals house the drive and brake systems because it’s more efficient to pull against the force of gravity than to push against it. The bottom terminals house the tension control systems for the ropes. According to Korchinski, each lift has at least two separate drive and brake systems.

“We’re all about safety, safety, safety and redundancy,” said Korchinski, who has 22 years of experience maintaining chairlifts.

The lifts’ main motors are electric, while the auxiliary engines are either diesel or gas. The gondola also features an extra auxiliary drive and an extra brake compared to the other lifts. Korchinski said that in the event of a power outage, the auxiliary engines can drive the lifts to evacuate passengers. He also said the 24-volt “control power” that feeds the lifts’ start, stop, slow, and emergency stop (which he said is a faster stop) functions is supplied by two 12-volt car batteries, not by the grid. Should the lights go out in the valley, the lifts are still fully controllable.

According to Korchinski, the electric main motors operate at high speed and must be geared down before they’re connected to the large, horizontally oriented bull wheels that drive the lifts. He said the first of the two braking systems attaches between the motor and the gearbox, at the high-speed end of the system, and the second attaches directly to the bull wheel.

Korchinski said the lifts’ brakes also have fail-safe systems built in to their design, should even the control power go out.

“The brakes are hydraulically opened and spring applied,” he said, which means control power is required to disengage the brakes whereas, if no control power is available, they clamp shut by default. He said each lift’s brakes are tested at least once a month.
“The worst-case scenario in the industry is an uncontrolled rollback,” Korchinski said. “If the lift starts going backward, you can build tremendous momentum very quickly because there’s so much weight. That’s why each chair must have a set of brakes that attach directly to the bull wheel. If the bull wheel stops, the lift stops.”

Additional safety measures include sensors that ensure that each lift tower is supporting a lift’s rope properly, that the grips on detachable chairs attach correctly and that chairs move at the correct speed while detached. According to Korchinski, the last item on the checklist is that a Man in Black must physically ride each lift, inspecting it up close while doing so, before guests are allowed on board.

“I love this job,” Korchinski said as he test-rode Challenger while the sun rose over Baldy’s virgin runs. “I always will. It’s an adventure every day up here.”

Brennan Rego:

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