WHITEFISH – In three trips Friday, the helicopter picked up tower six off of Big Mountain and deposited its pieces in the Willow parking lot of Whitefish Mountain Resort. The tower – which supported the resort’s Chair One lift – didn’t fail; the ground did. And it’s unclear when Chair One might be up and running again, and what the impact may be on Whitefish Resort’s summer operations.
Resort officials will offer now offer scenic lift rides from Chair Two, and aim to begin that operation July 2, after building ramps for pedestrians to get on and off the chair, along with bike racks. Mountain bikers will be able to access the Summit Trail from the top of Chair Two also.
“Running Chair Two will be a nostalgic experience, as the old T-Bar ran up the same line in the 1950s with single chairs,” Whitefish Mountain Resort President Dan Graves said.
The previous weekend, two lift maintenance employees inspected tower six after an internal alarm system indicated a problem. They ran the lift that Saturday, June 18, all day without incident, according to Riley Polumbus, the resort’s public relations manager. But the crew noticed a fracture, or “slump,” about 25 feet above the tower’s foundation.
The fracture runs roughly parallel to the chairlift’s direction of travel, down the hill from Toni Matt. Skiers will also know the area as just beyond the tree festooned with underwear and plastic Mardi Gras beads.
The maintenance staff marked the width of the fracture with stakes on either side, and measured their distance.
“When they went up Sunday, it had opened by 10 inches,” Polumbus said, adding that over the course of the day it continued to spread. Visual inspection revealed the tower was tilted about four inches.
Crews removed the gondola cars and chairs, relieving tension on the cable around the tower and allowing it to be secured with a winch to a cat up the slope on Toni Matt.
The fracture appears to be caused by the heavy moisture in the ground due to snow melting, and as the temperature rose last week, creeks descending the mountain flowed noisily. Polumbus said the resort has contacted hydrologists, geologists, soil specialists and Doppelmayr, the manufacturer of the chairlift.
The instability of the ground and tower prompted the temporary closure of hiking in the area, including on the Danny On Trail and upper sections of the Go Fish and Gopher biking trails. (Those trails are now open.) The Chair One stoppage also forces the Summit House restaurant to close, though Polumbus said the 11 employees affected will be reassigned.
Routes to the summit for scenic lift rides via Chair Four and Chair Five are not an option, she said, because those lifts are not detachable, and the chairs swing around too quickly for summer riders not on skis.
It’s too early to tell how long Chair One will be closed. Upper mountain bike trails are still closed due to snow and crews are working on getting the Summit Trail open below Chair Two by July 2. But Polumbus emphasized that the majority of summer activities on offer at Whitefish Resort are unaffected: The alpine slide, zip line, “Walk in the Treetops,” and mountain biking trails along lower sections of the mountain are up and running, along with a new bar at the base lodge. The Summit Nature Center has been temporarily moved to the top floor of the base lodge, with an opening day of June 25. And when huckleberry season begins in earnest, Polumbus said the picking will be good from the top of the Chair Two area as well.
“Fortunately we have a pretty diverse list of activities that are not affected by this,” Polumbus said. “Come on up.”
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