Elevating Elkhead, new lift promises less time on the lift for local skiers and snowboarders
October 30, 2016
Bright blinking lights on the bottom and tail of his helicopter cut through the early morning darkness and bounced off the nearby evergreen trees as pilot Brian Jorgenson and a crew mechanic ran through a final pre-flight ritual near a landing zone at Steamboat Ski Area earlier this fall.
Less than 30 minutes later, the sun was beginning to rise, and the veteran pilot was seated behind the controls of a metallic blue Sikorsky UH-60A Blackhawk helicopter as it lifted in the thin mountain air. His task for the day involved installing 10 lift towers and cross arms, which would become the backbone of the Elkhead Express chairlift.
"He is the premier lift construction pilot in the country," said Pete McKinnon, construction supervisor for Doppelmayr. "He's amazing. When you think about it, we are asking him to push his helicopter to the limits … it would be like driving your car at top speed on the highway for hours or driving all out, up a steep hill."
On this job, Jorgenson was replacing the slower "fixed-grip" Elkhead chairlift, which has carried skiers and snowboarders from the Priest Creek basin to the top of the Tower run for more than 30 years with a faster, more reliable detachable chair lift.
Ski area officials are hoping the faster lift will cut ride times in half and allow skiers and snowboarders to access terrain that has been overlooked in the past.
Jorgenson laughs when asked if he skis or snowboards.
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"It's been about 10 years since I've been on skis," Jorgensen said. "It's something that I enjoy, but I just haven't done it in a while."
Maybe that's because the helicopter pilot and owner of Timberline Helicopters has been busy installing lifts at ski areas across the West.
"I suppose there are probably 20 guys in the United States that do what we do," Jorgenson said. "It's a pretty small pool."
The Idaho pilot says he has been around helicopters his entire life. Jorgenson's dad was not a pilot but owned a helicopter company that serviced logging operations in and around Idaho.
Jorgenson fell in love with the idea of becoming a pilot, so he saved up his money as a young man and traveled to Spokane, Washington, where he learned to fly at the Inland Helicopter flight school.
He returned home to Sand Point, Idaho, and started his own helicopter company that specializes in installing power poles, pouring concrete and completing logging projects in places where using a helicopter is cheaper and faster than other methods.
During fire season, many of Jorgenson's helicopters are on the front lines helping crews fight fires in the western United States.
"My wife and I own this company," Jorgenson said. "…I was looking at my schedule a couple of days ago, and I've been in my own bed eight nights since the middle of July."
For the past 16 years, Jorgensen has flown helicopters, and for the last 10, he has worked for ski areas and lift manufacturers removing and installing lifts and pouring concrete in areas not accessible by other means.
Timberline has installed or removed seven different lifts in Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona and Oregon since July. In the past, the company has also provided work in California and Washington.
Building his fleet
The pilot got his start utilizing one Kaman K-Max helicopter to perform logging operations around the Northwest United States. After about three years, Jorgenson started working on ski lift construction projects, and he quickly earned a solid reputation among top lift manufacturers.
Now, a big part of his summer is spent helping ski areas install lifts that will get the skiers and snowboarders up the mountain on those bluebird powder days and throughout the season.
"There isn't really anyway to practice this stuff, or train for it," he said. "A lot of what I do is on-the-job training."
The company utilizes two Blackhawks each with a capacity of 8,000 pounds. He also owns two Kaman K-1200 K-Max helicopters that can lift about 6,000 pounds each, and a Bell UH-1h Huey that can lift about 3,500 points.
Jorgensen's fleet also includes a MD Helicopter MD530 that can lift 1,000 pounds and a Schweitzer 300CB, which is used for flight training, photo flights and flight instruction.
But having the right helicopter is only one part of the equation. It also takes an experienced pilot to complete the job — especially at altitude.
Getting the job done
Though Jorgensen employs dozens of people, he said he spends most of his time installing ski lifts. It's something he loves to do, and while many other pilots don't share his enthusiasm, he can't get enough.
"I don't know why I love doing it, maybe it's a disease," Jorgenson said. "It's hard to explain … every ski lift presents a new challenge. I think I'm driven to do it by a sense of accomplishment. At the end of the day, I can look back up the hill and say, 'We now have a ski lift where there wasn't one before.'"
But the job is more than just dropping towers into place on hills that are too steep and too rugged for more traditional methods. Flight time is expensive, so the folks that Jorgensen works for want to see the job get done quickly and safely.
"Every time the rotors are spinning it costs money," Jorgensen said. "I think the typical lift takes three to four hours to install, but it just depends. Every job is different."
With towers weighing as much as 5,500 pounds, there is no room for error.
"As the pilot you have to be in control the entire time," Jorgenson said."You can't think about what you are doing or the risk involved. I know that I have something that's extremely heavy above somebody's head. It's dangerous, and everybody knows the risk. We don't talk about it or try to explain it. We have a job to do, and we just do it."
Putting the pieces in place
Last September, Jorgenson and the crews on the ground made it look easy as they methodically placed each part of Steamboat's new Elkhead Express. It took hours for Jorgensen to fly large towers and assembly pieces from a landing zone near the Vagabond ski run to the lift site less than a mile away.
By lunchtime, all 10 towers and cross arms were in place.
The process resembled a production line as Jorgenson completed loops while the crews on the ground secured each tower. Jorgenson would place each towner and then return with a cross bar a few minutes later as crews climbed to the top of the next tower to guide and secure the next piece of the puzzle.
Crews used a guide wire that was feed through the bolt holes to make sure each piece fell right into place. A long metal pry bar was also used to make the final adjustments before the bolts were tightened and the assembly secured.
"I worked in logging for three years before I started doing ski lifts," Jorgenson said. "There is no way to practice, so you just have to go out there and do it. I have good and I have bad days. When we put in the Elkhead lift, it was a great day, but on other days, you can struggle a bit to get there."
This past few week, construction crews have been busy completing the long list of things that must be completed before the Elkhead Express is ready to shine. Those tasks are expected to be completed by the middle of November, and as soon as the ski area opens, the new lift will be ready to carry skiers and snowboarders up the mountain.