BRECKENRIDGE - It was a chilly but sunny and clear morning as the gondola at Breckenridge was stopped with approximately 120 stuck inside - volunteers that is, for the annual training exercise.
The exercise Saturday brought a group of interested volunteers - children, adults and dogs, to participate in training for Breckenridge Ski Patrol.
Duke Barlow, the gondola evacuation coordinator, said the exercise is a fun way to simulate an event that, though unlikely, could happen on the mountain.
"This is a great way to get our ski patrol exposed to different people that may be afraid of heights or have health concerns," Barlow said. "In the event of having to evacuate the gondola, our team's biggest job is to remain calm."
Organizers divided the crowd into groups of two or three and loaded the cabins according to plan: Patrollers wanted to practice evacuating guests from the steep incline of the lower part of Shock Hill, just above the base load station.
At the highest point, a 120-foot tower, some volunteers were lowered in to heavily wooded areas, requiring the help of additional ropes to ensure safe grounding.
"When we lower from the highest points, we use a rope that is nearly 200-feet long and an additional rope from the ground up to direct the evacuee to a safe place to land," said ski patrolman Hunter Mortensen.
The mechanics of the gondola were powered off during the exercise and the 40 total gondolas evacuated took approximately two hours, as chairs were stopped to ensure safety for volunteers and ski patrol who belayed on top of the gondola, entering through the side gondola door.
Volunteers were asked to sit on the far side of the gondola while a member of ski patrol communicated from outside and then entered the gondola from the front door.
Barlow said the ski patrol team tried to maintain customers' comfort level while conducting the incident simulation.
"Keeping people calm prevents mistakes from happening," he said. "If we're able to communicate and show our confidence in our system, that's contagious and everything goes smoothly."
The training exercise is not the first training ski patrol receives in evacuating the gondolas.
"There are several training exercises that ski patrol must go through to become certified, and then they need to update that twice annually," Barlow said.
Adults, children and dogs made up the group of volunteers who were all belayed from the gondolas in what ski patrol called "a diaper," similar to a small hammock. The safety belay for dogs is slightly different: Smaller in size and equipped with a harness to attach carabiners.
The volunteers were fitted with a blue safety belay secured by carabiners and ropes to be lowered down onto the ground form the gondola by patrol.
At the training, which mimics the process in the event of a real evacuation, ski patrol worked in teams of two with one person navigating the top of the gondola and the other on the ground to navigate and receive the evacuee.
Though the weather Saturday provided chilly, but clear and sunny conditions, considering adverse weather in similar situations is on the top of ski patrols' mind during training.
"It's likely that if the gondola ever did stop it would happen during a storm or unfavorable weather, so we really train our staff on keeping conditions on their minds and how the process would be different in snow," Barlow said.
On the ground too, weather conditions play a huge role in a successful evacuation.
"Sometimes the landing ground that we repel guests from the gondola onto is very icy and that adds another element to being as safe as possible and communicating and making them feel comfortable," said Chad Clary, a ski patrolman.