Towering achievement

Jane Stebbins

BRECKENRIDGE – A steady, low drone reverberated off Upper Blue Valley walls Thursday morning as a heavy-duty SkyCrane helicopter placed ski lift towers in cement bases on Peaks 7, 8 and 9.

This summer, Breckenridge Ski Resort has been working on a long list of improvements, including a six-passenger, high-speed chair lift on Peak 7 and a high-speed quad from the base of Peak 9 to an area just above the Vista Haus restaurant on Peak 8.

The Peak 8 SuperConnect replaces Chair 4 and makes it easier for skiers to move among the resort’s four peaks. The Independence SuperChair on Peak 7 will help skiers and boarders access 165 acres of terrain on Peak 7 that, until now, skiers could access only by traversing from the top terminal of the T-bar on Peak 8.

Ski area officials said the two lifts are scheduled to be in operation this season.

“I think we underestimate what this lift can do,” said Chief Operations Officer Roger McCarthy. “We’re grading the area above the Vista Haus so we can put in benches for ski racks, we’re making an 8 percent grade so snowboarders can leave their back foot in to get to the T-bar, and we’re making it easier for people to get around the mountains. This is the glue that sticks everything together. We’re killing three birds with one stone.”

Bringing the project to fruition has been a long process, McCarthy said. It started with planning and obtaining permits and will culminate with load-testing next month.

Crews hired by Poma, a leader in the ski lift industry, poured tower bases last month and bolted towers sections together after that.

Tower placement was delayed for a couple of hours Thursday morning because mechanics had to go to Radio Shack to get a new electrical plug.

“We’ve got a pocketful of tie wraps and a couple of rolls of duct tape,” McCarthy joked over his cell phone to someone at the base of the mountain. “We can come down and get that thing flying.”

The bright orange helicopter, which looks more like a prehistoric dragonfly than a piece of heavy machinery, lifted slowly – and loudly – from the ground and picked up its first tower about noon.

The SkyCrane helicopter is based in Center Point, Ore., and has been conducting hydro-seeding operations southwest of Denver, where the Hayman Fire burned hundreds of thousands of acres this summer.

The helicopter is usually used in logging, construction and firefighting operations because of its tremendous lift capacity. Dubbed “Bubba,” the machine is capable of lifting more than 20,000 pounds at sea level. At this elevation, however, that is cut to 10,000 pounds, McCarthy said.

The 71 towers scheduled to be placed this week range in height from 39 to 74 feet and weigh an average of 7,800 pounds. That means the jet-powered SkyCrane must carry a minimal amount of fuel to ensure it doesn’t exceed its 10,000-pound weight limit, McCarthy said.

There are two pilots in a SkyCrane, McCarthy said. One pilots the giant helicopter up and down the mountain; the other faces the other way in a clear enclosure behind him and is responsible for guiding the tower onto the concrete pad below.

The first tower was lifted from a staging area in the Peak 8 parking lot and flown to the top of the new SuperConnect. There, it hovered in moderate winds while a crew of eight tightened bolts at the base below. The SkyCrane then slowly backed away and flew down the hillside to the staging area to pick up another tower.

Thursday morning, the pilot alternated tower delivery between Peaks 7 and 8, bringing on-mountain crews one-, two- and three-section towers and tower heads. Below, a truck with two tanks filled with fuel waited below to refuel the helicopter.

Despite the delay, ski area officials hoped to see all the towers placed on the mountain Thursday. Once the operation is under way, pilots and ground crews can place about 15 towers in an hour, McCarthy said.

After that, the towers will be surveyed and shimmed to ensure they are level. Then a guide line will be threaded over the wheel assemblies, and the heavy-duty cable will follow that. Load testing will take place after that, and then the lift will open for the season.

“It’s been a lot of hard work these guys have done to get to this point,” McCarthy said. “All the lift guys are so excited this thing’s going up. These guys get some new toys. It’s a big day for us.”

Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 228 or

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