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May 2011

On the Hill: Alyeska Spring Training - Extreme Tram Evacuation

In this first installation of SAM's Field Report series, we interview Michelle Cosper from Alyeska Resort about their off-season training routines.

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Last week SAM Magazine asked our Facebook fans to share what they were up to this spring. Are you still open and running? Making repairs on equipment? Training staff?

Alyeska's Michelle Cosper, Lift Ops Supervisor, wrote and offered to give us the scoop on the resort's "extreme tram evacuation training" in late May. Here's our Q and A with her. Thanks, Michelle!

1. You refer to the tram evac training as "extreme." Sure looks that way. What's the maximum distance between the tram and the ground? Is some of it over water? What's involved in dealing with these circumstances?

Maximum distance from the tram to the ground is 322'. In the photos the cabin is probably 250'+ from the ground. There are some "kettle" ponds under and adjacent to the drop zone in the high span. Also, there are some very steep cliffs and tall trees in the area, which would require someone (patrol) on the ground with a tagline, depending on where the tram stops. The tram is currently the 16th steepest lift in the U.S.

There are the seasonal dangers as well: avalanches in the winter (the tram flies above the North Face, a double black diamond slope, which regularly releases both naturally and during control work) and wildlife in the summer. Black bears and moose are regularly spotted from the tram, and several times have shown up during training sessions to scare the person being lowered.

Then there is the human factor. While most of our winter guests are relatively in shape and prepared to be outside for the day, our summer and fine dining (the AAA 4 Diamond-rated restaurant, Seven Glaciers, is at the top terminal) might not be as ready for such an adventure. That is part of the reason we train so often (at least twice/year, and employees CANNOT operate the cabin without the basic evacuation training first), so that our crew can be confident and competent in the process.

2. How does the evacuaton process work?

There are two parts to the process: evacuating the passengers, and self-evacuation.

For evacuating passengers: we keep the rope on the tram and run the end through a "Wonder Bar" friction device. A tri-fold evac seat is attached to a loop at the end of the rope and lowered out of a hatch in the floor. As people clear the floor, we add an additional 3 tri-vac seats that are attached via ascenders (and prussic ropes as backups), one at a time, as space allows (see photos).

The evacuees are then lowered to the ground and the ground crew orients and addresses needs from there.

The rope is then pulled up (by hand, which can be very laborious) into the cabin, and the process is repeated until everyone but the last operator is clear. The operator should have a backup assisting with rope handling during the operation, but there will be a point when only the operator is left in the cabin. At this point, the rope is lowered out so that any slack is on the ground, and the Wonder Bar is just used to hang the loop that the initial person was lowered out on during passenger evacuation. The operator then uses a figure 8 descender to lower him/herself out.

3. Can you describe what an extreme evac feels like? Just how hairy is it the first time? Or the 100th?

How does it feel to be lowered? The first time is usually pretty scary. Some people have previous experience (like climbers and military folks) and it's no big deal, but for the unfamiliar it takes almost a leap of faith and some serious trust in your crew and supervisor(s) as you make your way out the floor hatch. After almost 10 years of doing it now, it doesn't faze me much anymore.

For the self evacuation you have to have faith in yourself that you'll do it right. There are multiple senior crew members present and available to check that gear is correctly set up and attached, and also to "show the ropes" to the newer employees. Generally, we practice only 15' to 75' off the ground, and that is part of what made this exercise "extreme," since it was from 250' in the air.

4. How does the tram evac compare to, say, a chair evac? How much more involved is it?

During a tram evac, the tram operator is in charge of the procedure, and the gear is on the roof of the tram. For a chair evac, patrol is in charge, and the evac chairs are stored at the lift terminals and a few other patrol-managed areas.

For a chair evac, ground support can do more to help keep things moving. For tram evac, the operator in the cabin is critical. The device we lower folks down in is different (tri-vac seats for tram, and a flat, metal seat with a bar between your legs and backup chest strap for lifts). Also different is the ability to lower 4 at a time from the tram, vs. 1 at a time from the lift. I cannot stress enough how much more critical it is for a tram operator to be familiar with the evacuation process, as they will most likely not have anyone in the cabin to support them. It is important for lift operators to know the process for lift evacuation, but it is mostly a patrol call, and lift crew is just there to assist.

5. Given that evacuating the tram has got to be a daunting possibility, how often do you practice it? Have you ever had to do an evac with paying customers?

We practice every spring and fall, but it is generally just the tram crew practicing. Also, you cannot drive the tram solo with out basic evac training, so we have sessions when there is a new hire, or as questions arise.

We've never had to evac guests, thanks to our very capable lift maintenance team.

6. What staff are involved? I would think that you would want as many people trained as possible, to handle all imaginable scenarios. How many people are trained and ready to get involved when you need them?

Generally just the tram crew is involved. But there have been some changes in management lately, with more communication, as well as an increased number OSHA visits industrywide, so we've been doing a lot more cross training. We've even had some of the food & beverage and building maintenance employees participate in basic training.

As part of that cross training, we decided this spring to go big and get some other departments (lift maintenance, patrol, lift ops, risk management) involved in the tram evac training and work a scenario. It was a good practice to work out all the bugs and figure out the parameters of each department's duties.

Training sessions usually have 10-15 participating. The Extreme tram evac had about 25 employees involved. In the winter, patrol is available to help, and that could be 15-30 people on any given day. We're pulling more employees in with every training session.

7. What are your tram evac goals? Do you shoot to complete it in a certain time frame?

Number 1 goal is safety. We did time a few aspects of the scenario, such as how long it took the rescue car to be lowered to the car (35 minutes) just to have that information available. We didn't want anyone to feel rushed, some things just take time.

The rope evacuation of 18 people out of the car took almost 4 hours, but there were times when we were experimenting with taglines and such. As with a lot of scenarios, nothing is set in stone as far as timeline, but we are getting better approximations of how long it should take with every practice.

8. Describe the differences between using the rescue car and doing the rope evac. Are there situations where one or the other is the only option? What are the advantages/disadvantages of each?

The rescue car is an awesome resource to have in our bag of options for evacuation: 1.electric motor, 2. diesel, 3. hydrostatic power from winch or snowcat, 4. rescue winch, 5. rope evacuation. The rescue car holds 8 plus an operator. An advantage is that it takes people to the top terminal station, which is good for the comfort of the guests and gives us a little more time to figure out how we'll get them down from there (chairlift, snowcat, service road, work truck, etc.).

The track ropes must be intact for the rescue car to be run, though. If we had a scenario like the Squaw tram in 1978, where the track rope lost position and sliced through tram cabin, this would not be an option. The scenario in the photos was the first time in at least 10 years that we used both the rescue car and rope evacuation at the same time. Since there is only one winch rope for the rescue car, there could be a scenario where one tram car was evacuated by rope and the other by rescue car. It really depends on what made the tram stop.

I've seen our lift maintenance team get the tram moving in so many different challenging situations, that something catastrophic would have to happen to resort to using rope or winch evacuation.

9. And finally, what is the magnitude of the tram? What's the capacity of each car, the vertical, capacity/hour? How important is it to the overall lift system?

The tram is one of our key lifts. It runs for both summer and winter guests. In the winter it serves as the primary lift up from the hotel, and when the North Face is open, we run back-to-back full trams all day. The capacity is 800 people an hour, with 60 people per car. It covers 2,028 vertical feet, with a line length of 9/10 of a mile.

Stay tuned for SAM's next Field Report installment...