R.J. Knight, left, of Bowling Green, Mo., supervises Sunday as a crew weaves wire strands into the core of the new Steamboat gondola haul rope. The work is part of the process of splicing the two ends of the steel wire rope, which is about 3.4 miles long. Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. spokeswoman Heidi Thomsen said the gondola would open soon, but she did not give an exact date.

Photo by Tom Ross

R.J. Knight, left, of Bowling Green, Mo., supervises Sunday as a crew weaves wire strands into the core of the new Steamboat gondola haul rope. The work is part of the process of splicing the two ends of the steel wire rope, which is about 3.4 miles long. Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. spokeswoman Heidi Thomsen said the gondola would open soon, but she did not give an exact date.

Splicing gondola rope a painstaking process

Missouri family oversees work on haul cable; opening expected 'soon'

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Gondola cable replacement

Workers at the Steamboat Ski Area on Monday were completing the installation of a new haul rope for the gondola.

Workers at the Steamboat Ski Area on Monday were completing the installation of a new haul rope for the gondola.

photo

Craig Metscher of Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. uses a handheld hydraulic plunger device Sunday to straighten kinks in strands of the new gondola haul rope. The work was part of the process of splicing the new steel rope that will carry gondola cars to Thunderhead when complete.

— While most of Steamboat played in the snow during the weekend, a small crew of men labored through windblown sleet mixed with snow pellets and a chilly afternoon. They were working on the intricate task of splicing the massive new haul rope for the Steamboat Ski Area's gondola.

The rope consists of six strands of 37 wires wound in a tight spiral around a plastic core. It is about 3.4 miles long and weighs 60 tons. The challenge facing the crews working Sunday was to link the two loose ends of the rope with one long, seamless splice.

The task was completed Monday. Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. spokeswoman Heidi Thomsen said the gondola would open "soon," but she stopped short of giving an exact date.

Overseeing the work on the haul cable was R.J. Knight of Knight Equipment Co. in Bowling Green, Mo. The company specializes in splicing and inspecting wire ropes for the ski industry worldwide. It also splices ropes for the endless drive cables used in amusement park rides.

Knight is no stranger to Steamboat Springs. He worked on splicing haul ropes for the relocated Preview chairlift and the new Christie Peak Express.

On first impression, Knight strikes one as a man of great patience and few words - and one with a sneaky sense of humor. At various times Sunday afternoon, he diffused any tension in the difficult work with a barely audible remark that inspired laughter from the men around him.

"That's it, take it easy now," Knight coached one of his colleagues.

At that moment the men were using a heavy hammer to pound conical metal spikes between the twisted strands of wire that wrap around a plastic core to make the rope.

"Those are called marlinspikes," said contractor John Lafferty of Alpine Cable and Construction in Grand Junction.

Once they had been pounded between the strands in the rope, the long spikes were used as levers to open gaps.

The intent was to snip out lengths of the plastic core so 10-foot long "loose ends" of wire left from the splicing process could be tucked seamlessly into the space previously occupied by the core.

Significantly, the need to replace Steamboat's gondola haul rope arose this fall because of irregularities in the original rope resulting from the "loose ends" that were tucked back into the old rope during installation 21 years ago.

Steamboat Vice President of Mountain Operations Doug Allen said the irregularities in the old rope did not create a safety issue but did cause "operational hassles."

The loose wire strands that had been tucked back into the old rope had shifted over time. When one of the gondola cars happened to clamp onto one of the irregularities, it set off a safety alert. That required the gondola to be backed into the gondola building so the car could be re-attached at a different point on the rope. During the 2006-07 ski season, those events happened as often as three times a day.

The new rope was manufactured in Switzerland and trucked here on a spool from the port of Savannah, Ga. When it arrived, it was one continuous strand about 18,000 feet long. Before it could be put to work pulling gondola cars up and down the route from the base of the ski area to Thunderhead, it had to be connected into a single loop by splicing the two ends of the rope together along a length of almost 250 feet.

The seven-man crew, including individuals from Knight Equipment, Alpine Cable and Ski Corp.'s own lift crew, unwound a lengthy section of the six strands that make up the rope.

Three strands were largely cut away from each end so that they could be spliced back together as a six-strand cable. Several loose ends, 10 feet in length, from the cut strands were prepped with hard rubber tape, oiled and then painstakingly inserted into the core.

Knight Equipment has enjoyed notable longevity in Bowling Green. R.J. Knight's sons Justin and Jason represent the third generation of their family working in the company founded by their grandfather, Aubrey Knight, in 1927.

If the new cable enjoys the same longevity as its predecessor, it will log 54,000 hours ferrying eager powderhounds to the Thunderhead summit.

- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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