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It's no secret that it's hard to find specialists to keep resorts running. From top-level electricians and IT specialists to first-rate lift and vehicle mechanics, resorts have a tough time keeping up. But there may be perhaps no greater impending shortage in the next 10 years than that for rope splicers and inspectors.

The rise of the independent splicer/ inspectors illustrates many of the changes that have occurred in the resort business as it has grown and evolved. Many began their careers working for wire rope manufacturers where they learned the art of splicing. When liability issues became large in the 1970s and 80s, wire rope companies looked to shed risk. At the same time, liftbuilding slowed. Faced with layoffs, many splicers became independent operators.

Inspector/splicers are essential because they ensure the viability of the wire ropes that carry riders uphill. Not that wire ropes are prone to problems; there's not much wear on ropes. But eventually they weaken from the bending that occurs as they go around the bullwheels. Such wear takes place slowly, over many years. On fixed-grip lifts, the ropes can last 30 to 40 years. On gondolas and detachable chairs, which make round trips (and go around the bullwheel) twice as often, the ropes last 15 to 20 years. "Cables don't fail catastrophically," says Richard Ryer, a splicer and inspector with 45 years of experience. "They give you plenty of warning."

There are less than a dozen inspector/splicers who service the several thousand lifts in the U.S., from Randy Blenis in New England to Ryer in Tahoe. This cadre is highly talented; many have been in the business for 25 years or more. But that's also the problem. Most of these old hands are nearing retirement, if their 401ks ever recover. And there are few younger splicers coming along behind them.

That's an issue, because the need for quality is higher than ever. A poor, rough or bumpy splice causes faster rope wear and a bumpier, slower ride for passengers-the bumps add shocks to the rope, which can trip the system.

Given the importance of the job, why are there so few splicers? Not many people are willing to put up with the learning curve-it takes years to become good at the work-or the amount of travel involved. Most splicers spend about seven months on the road away from home. Plus, it's physically demanding.

And there are few ways to break in other than to work for one of the current practitioners. "It's hard to get started today," says Blenis. "It takes a lot of equipment, insurance, and so on. You would have to get into an existing company, or go to the areas first and line them up."

Even then, it's expensive to train someone. "Nobody wants to pay for it," Duke continues. "You have to travel a lot, put someone up, it costs."

INSPECTION AND SPLICING

Inspections consume most of the time of the inspector/splicers. Ski lift haul ropes are inspected yearly. Mostly, this involves visual inspections of the ropes, but codes now require some electromagnetic testing. In both cases, though, inspectors check out the condition of the splice and of the rope itself at random intervals.

takes a practiced eye to do a proper visual inspection; damage, primarily broken wires in the rope, often occurs on the inside. That makes visual inspection as much art as science. "I look for anything that's abnormal," Ryer says. "It's hard to describe."

What sorts of abnormalities might turn up? "Occasionally you find a lightning strike that requires a repair right away," says Randy Blenis, who's been building lifts and splicing wire ropes since the mid-1970s. "In bad cases, you might have to replace the rope, but often you can replace the strand that's broken. On two occasions, I found a rope hit by a bullet."

Electromagnetic testing provides a better view to what's going on beneath the surface. "It can give you a detailed graph of what's inside the splice," says Norm Duke, who's been doing splicing and inspections since 1980. "You can't do that with older equipment."

Still, electromagnetic testing is not the ultimate solution. "There is no ultimate solution," says Ryer. "It's a combination of things. An experienced inspector using electromagnetic testing is very good. But there's still quite an art to what we do."

Inspectors also note how the rope wears over time. "We keep a track record of the rope," says Blenis. "You get broken wires, especially in the tucks. The crown and length of lay will change slowly." This last indicates stretching.

The splices themselves are important, too. First, when a rope is installed, the splice is what takes a single long wire rope and turns it into a continuous loop. A smooth and strong splice provides for a longer rope life, smoother ride, and thus fewer stops. In addition, over the course of time, as wire ropes stretch, it is often necessary to shorten them by resplicing. This might be done up to four or five times over a rope's life.

ALL IN THE FAMILY

Splicing has been, for many, a family business. Of the the current splicers, Richard Ryer, Danny O'Connor, and R.J. Knight learned from their fathers. Bill Alsup learned from another father-and-son team, Poma founder Jean Pomagalski and his son Bernie. Norm Duke learned from Bill Diener, a contemporary of those early splicers. Dale Walters learned the trade at Paulson, an American wire rope company, and later taught Randy Blenis.

Today, the family tradition has continued. Walters has trained his son-in-law, J.T. Anderson, to do both inspection and splicing, and his daughter Whitney to be a wire rope inspector. R.J. has trained his sons, Justin and Jason. Randy Blenis is teaching his son, Brandon. One exception: Bill Alsup has trained Terry Zakotnik, VP of operations for the Palm Springs Tramway, to replace him as the 71-year-old Alsup scales back.

Danny O'Connor's story is typical. "I started working for my dad when I was 14, 16," he says. "I'm now 62. My father was one of the old timers in the ski business. He got involved when they brought the first T- and J-bars from Europe, in 1936. I always thought I would do something else, because this work is way too hard." Instead, he inherited O'Connor Ski-Lifts, which he still owns.

TRAVELING BANDS

The old hands, though, have adapted to the splicer lifestyle. The busiest are on the road almost constantly from April through November. "I kill a lot of bugs," says R.J. Knight. He and son Justin are based in Missouri and do a lot of work throughout the Midwest; their clientele stretches from Washington State to Vermont. They are often on the road for a week at a time, and sometimes longer.

"The hard part about the traveling is sleeping in a different bed and eating in a different restaurant every day," says Walters.

They all have their strategies for dealing with the traveling lifestyle. Blenis simply chooses to keep his travel to a minimum. He limits his splicing and inspections to the customers of his Ropeway Construction company, which focuses on building lifts.

Walters puts about 60,000 miles on his truck each year; he and J.T. work with about 135 areas from their home base in Pennsylvania. Their work is spread across the East and Midwest. "At most, we're away for two weeks at a time," Walters says. "We try to get home every weekend. We'll try to cover four areas in a week, say."

Or, you can take the family with you. "My wife and I travel together," says Duke. "In Utah [where he has numerous customers], we get a condo for five weeks. In Truckee, we get one for five days. That way you avoid clogged arteries and restaurant food."

Not many folks understand the appeal of that. "Everyone looks at us like we're nuts," Duke says.

FRIENDLY COMPETITORS

With so few splicers and so many lifts to work on, there's competition among splicers-but it's a friendly competition. "R.J., his family and mine have been in competition for 60, 70 years," says Ryer. "Our dads started up the business right after World War II. But we're good friends. We talk to each other whenever we have problems."

"We don't look for new customers, just take care of our existing ones," says Walters. "We can't take on any more than we have, about 135 right now. We picked up a little of Norm Duke's work last fall, when he was up at Whistler working on the gondola [the Peak 2 Peak]. But we don't want those customers, they are his." The main thing is, resorts know that "one of us will show up," Walters adds.

That might not be the case in six, eight, or 10 years. "The industry will be screwed," says Duke. "There are lots of ropes 30 to 40 years old, a lot of them will have to be replaced in the next 10 years," Walters adds. The consensus is that some of the work will be done by splicers from Europe, where many are still employed by the rope manufacturers. "But when crunch time comes, they will be busy in Europe," Walters says.

So enjoy the luxury of having these itinerant experts around while they last. The industry will find a way to survive once they leave the scene, but life likely won't be as simple as it is now. \

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