Volunteers hang out in Breck gondolas for evacuation exercise
Entering a gondola and having it stop suddenly halfway to the top of a mountain would usually be considered a worst-case scenario.
But more than 150 people willingly got inside a gondola they knew wouldn’t make it up to solid ground. Instead, they would have to be rescued by Brekenridge Ski Resort patrollers and be repelled down to safety.
These people didn’t know exactly how long they would be stuck inside the swaying cubes, how many feet above the ground they would be hanging and, in some cases, who they would be waiting with to be rescued.
But, for these willing volunteers, the Breckenridge Ski Resort gondola evacuation exercise was just another adventure to add to the books.
“I have never been stuck in a gondola, and it sounded fun and interesting to me,” said Dillon resident Brian Donalson.
He was joined in Gondola 27 by Jane Hankison, a Silverthorne resident.
“I’m really looking forward to ski season and this sounded like a good start to the season,” Hankison said.
The duo said they felt in good hands being rescued by the ski patrol.
“I’m not too worried about the safety aspect because I know they are trained and it’s a good experience for them,” Hankison said.
Members of the ski patrol ushered the group of volunteers into gondola cabins at the resort base at about 9 a.m. on Saturday.
The occupants of gondola cabin No. 27 chatted as the gondola glided along the cable above town and along the resort’s curved mountainside.
Then the movement ceased and the group was left hanging.
“Oh, here we go,” one of the volunteers said.
The gondola cabin swayed slightly back and forth about 70 feet in the air as the morning sun shown in, warming the cabin for its inhabitants.
The group inside got to know one another in the hour or so they waited. Conversation ebbed and flowed from the exchange of ski stories to marathon running, bicycling and tales from around the globe. Finally, one asked, ‘I wonder how much longer we will be in here?’
Soon, a team of ski patrollers approached the tower nearest the hanging gondolas.
Breck ski patroller Karen Lapides scaled the ladder up the colossal tower. Calmly, she secured herself to the cable and shimmied toward the cabin. Suddenly the occupants felt movement on the rooftop and heard radio chatter.
“I’m going to open the door, so make sure you are secure,” Lapides said to the volunteers inside. A figure appeared in front of the door, and Lapides made her way in.
Once inside, the ski patroller secured another set of ropes and pulley systems, inciting giggles as she instructed the gondola occupants that they would be wearing a “diaper” as they were lowered to the ground.
The once brave talk turned to nervous chatter and wide-eyed exchanges, but the occupants all made their way out of the gondola without a hitch.
“It was good,” Donalson said when he arrived back on solid ground. Hankison was slightly speechless in the seconds after returning to the earth — but both said they regarded the experience as a success.
Gondola evacuation team leader Duke Barlow said he was impressed with the turnout for the volunteer event. About 160 people filled 37 gondola cabins for the evacuation exercise.
“That’s the whole heavy side of the gondola — the one that goes up the hill — loaded up from the bottom to the top,” Barlow said.
Twenty-five members of the ski patrol served as the rescuers. Barlow said the gondola exercise provides invaluable experience for the ski patrol team.
Opening day at Breckenridge Ski Resort season is set for Nov. 8.
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