Clad in a dark oilskin winter coat, brown coveralls, a camouflaged ball cap partially hidden by a black knit cap, Bill Naylor stood out Friday from the brightly colored suits worn by Snowy Range Ski Area opening day patrons.
“Hi! I’m going to have another grandchild,” the 64-year-old said introducing himself with a wide smile. “And, I have a granddaughter, too.”
As Snowy Range Ski Area’s lift maintenance supervisor, Naylor is responsible for ensuring skiers a smooth ride to the tops of the resort’s hills without worries of being stranded on a broke down ski lift.
“I’ve been doing this most recently for these last seven years,” Naylor said, rubbing his oil-stained buckskin gloves together. “But in total, I have 12 years of experience.”
After learning to ski at 7 years old, Naylor said he knew he wanted to spend his life on the slopes. So, he went to school in Colorado to learn how to maintain ski lifts before working at Teton Village, where he met his wife.
“We were ski-sweethearts,” he said.
Naylor left the slopes to build furniture in Saratoga, but when his wife was offered a job in Laramie seven years ago, the couple moved, and Naylor found work at the Snowy Range Ski Area maintaining chair lifts.
“I do this year round,” he said, slipping on a pair of sunglasses so only his mottled beard was exposed to the frosty temperatures. “We monitor, we inspect, we fix problems when they are small, so they don’t get big.”
As Naylor opened the Virginian lift’s motor room door, the smell of warm oil and machinery cut through the frigid, odorless, outdoor air. Inside, a large, electric motor spun a metal shaft as big around as the full-grown lodgepole pine trees that lined the ski runs.
“We have a daily checklist we go through each morning,” Naylor shouted over the mechanical din. “Two different entities inspect the checklist each year — the U. S. Forest Service and our insurance office.”
He said the lifts must pass both inspections or they cannot be operated until the problems are resolved.
The lift maintenance crew is only two people, but Naylor said two more ski resort employees help when needed.
“Every employee goes through basic lift operations during orientation,” he said. “The more everyone knows how the lift runs, the better it’s going to run.”
Beside the electric motor, tools and spare parts adorned a wooden work bench. Snowy Range Ski Area uses older lifts that are no longer manufactured, because they are easier to maintain and more cost effective.
“They are actually called ‘orphan lifts’ by the industry, because the company that built them is out of business now,” Naylor said. “Sometimes, you can find used parts to fix and maintain them, but they are getting older and older, so used parts are getting harder and harder to find.”
Orphan lifts are also prized for their minimal moving parts.
“One detachable chair lift has more moving parts than all the lifts on this mountain,” he said.
The resort uses four chair lifts — Virginian, Pioneer, Chute and Sundance — and one Magic Carpet surface lift, which resembles a large treadmill carrying passengers up the mountain.
“These are very, very simple, easy to maintain lifts,” he said reverently. “They’re old classics is what they are.”
(Digest) Smooth ride
As Naylor allowed the Pioneer lift’s wooden bench to scoop him off the staging pad, he pointed to the massive spoke wheel overhead, which he said was called a “tension bullwheel.”
“The wire rope that’s holding all the chairs is elastic and springy,” he said. “It changes length under tension and temperature. This system keeps the tension the same all the time.”
The chairs lack seat belts or safety bars to hold passengers inside.
“People have jumped out, but it’s really hard to fall out,” he said. “If it stopped faster than the brakes were designed to stop, you would just swing up like you were water in a bucket. You can swing a bucket of water clear over your head, and it’s not going to spill.”
The chairs were design to hold a skier’s weight in a manner that during a stop the skier will not be pitched forward, he said. During the summer, he said his crew replaces the rubber “tires” on wheels that carry the wire rope to ensure a smooth ride for passengers.
Below his feet, man-made snow gleaned under the morning sun. Tilled snow rows stretched the length of the run.
“They get the Snowcats out, and they spread it out with the blade, pack it down with the tracks, then they come back and finish it off with a tiller,” he said through a cloud of vapor breath. “It churns up all the snow, then you can see the lines created by the comb behind the tiller.”
Because of a lack of snowfall this year, the resort opened a week later than usual, and two lifts — Sundance and Chute — have yet to open as crews work around the clock to create enough snow for the runs.
(Digest) Preventative maintenance
After a crisp snowmobile ride up to Chute lift, Naylor steps into the motor room. The concrete walls dampened the sounds of skiers flying down multiple runs just outside. Stomping the cold out of his feet, Naylor pushed snow off a nearby work bench.
“You’d be surprised where snow can get into with enough wind,” he said.
The air carried only a faint whiff of oil, and without sunlight or moving machinery to warm the interior, the cold was palpable.
During the summer, Naylor said his crew replaced the lift’s low-speed coupling, a bucket-sized metal clasp on the shaft driving the tension bullwheel. While the coupling was not broken, he said it wouldn’t have lasted through the season.
“If that coupling were to fail … people would be stranded on the lift,” he said.
An order to manufacture a replacement took six months to be filled and cost nearly $20,000. To remove the old coupling, the dumpster-sized motor was moved across the room with hydraulic rams. It took two workers three weeks to remove the old coupling and install the new one.
“That would not have been feasible during the winter,” Naylor said.
On the Sundance lift, Naylor’s crew upgraded the electrical system for smoother, safer operation. The upgrade cost about $30,000.
“Sure, we get people who hike up the slopes to ski down,” Naylor said. “But the lifts are absolutely essential to keeping this place alive.”