Ski lift mechanics a hardy crew

Anna Sowa / The Bulletin /

Corey Crain has a demanding winter job, but it's one for which Mt. Bachelor skiers and snowboarders are thankful.

When a lift breaks down, riders perched on their chairs sometimes see Crain, or any of the other 10 lift mechanics, climb the icy chairlift towers. High above the ground, the mechanics might have to hammer off chunks of ice or fix a more involved problem, sometimes with fingers numbed by brutal cold, as they work to get passengers on their way.

Time is of the essence, not only to keep skier and snowboarder traffic moving, but for the comfort of riders who may be stranded in driving snow and howling wind that can plunge the windchill factor well below zero.

Crain is Mt. Bachelor's lift maintenance supervisor. He and the rest of the maintenance team keep the ski area running.

Mt. Bachelor gives a lift to the region's economy, giving winter sports enthusiasts from the Willamette Valley, Washington state and elsewhere a big reason to visit Central Oregon during an otherwise slow time of year for the tourism industry.

Now, only a few lingering patches of snow exist on the mountain and Crain is busy prepping for another season, hoping that he's prepared the lifts well enough to reduce major failures.

His job is hard and only for those who like a challenge.

”You can't just do it for the money,” Crain said. ”You have to love being outdoors. It's a pretty rugged job, but that's my nature.”

Crain, who grew up in Central Oregon and has worked at the mountain for three years, hopes to improve the availability of lift mechanics next season. That means the mechanics will be more evenly dispersed between the mountain's seven high-speed quads and five other lifts - something he had problems with last season, when the resort was short-staffed.

Last season, some visitors complained about Mt. Bachelor lift failures.

Ski area officials, though, reported fewer problems than the previous season.

The mountain is currently hiring two more mechanics and a lift mechanic manager. The full-time, year-round positions start at $12.50 per hour and offer medical, vision and dental insurance, and vacation pay, according to Janette Sherman, Mt. Bachelor communications manager.

Rick Brooks, Mt. Bachelor maintenance director, said hiring and retaining maintenance workers has been difficult historically because applicants don't realize how hard the job is.

”They're up there climbing 40 to 50 feet with a harness in 50- to 60-mile-per-hour winds,” Brooks said. ”It's a challenge getting guys who are physical, detail-attentive and mechanically inclined.”

The jobs are important to keeping lifts running smoothly because the chairs experience daily heavy use, he said. The resort reported more than 590,000 visitors from July 2005 to May 2006, among the highest attendance marks since the 1980s.

That means more work for the lifts and mechanics. It take mechanics an average of five to 10 minutes to fix a lift problem once they arrive on the scene, Brooks said.

Last week, Crain and other workers were doing dynamic load testing on the Northwest Express lift. The U.S. Forest Service requires the tests every seven years for each lift, Brooks said.

For Northwest Express, the test involved loading the lift's chairs with 77,000 pounds of water - 110 percent of what the lift is designed to hold. The chairs travel 2,365 vertical feet up the mountain at about 12 mph and if nothing breaks under the weight, the lift passes.

Northwest Express is Mt. Bachelor's newest lift, so this is only the second or third time it has been tested, Crain said. The lift was installed in 1996.

The resort has been lucky not to have any serious lift problems, Brooks said. The resort has had one lift evacuation since 1989, which happened two years ago at the Rainbow Chair.

Pine Marten Express, a high-speed quad that gets the most use feeding skiers and snowboarders to midmountain, is being replaced this summer. The $3.5 million project involves replacing all moving parts, including the cable and both terminals. No new chairs or towers are planned.

Pine Marten was installed in 1986 as the world's first height-adjustable detachable chairlift, according to Brooks.

Even though Pine Marten is not operating this summer, scenic rides are still available. Visitors can take Sunrise Express chairlift to midmountain, then Summit Express to the summit.

Sunrise Express was installed in 1993. Summit Express was installed as the world's second detachable chairlift in 1983, with each chair carrying three passengers. It was upgraded with four-passenger chairs in 1997.