Twice a year, gondola workers and members of the Mobile Area Rapid Rescue System (MARRS) get together for rescue training. On Wednesday, seasonal gondola employees, as well as this Daily Planet reporter, sit in the cabins and wait to be rescued by MARRS members.
Currently, there are 14 people on MARRS staff, explained Jim Loebe, Mountain Village’s transit and recreation director. MARRS rescuers are always on call in the area, but do not necessarily have to be in Mountain Village.
“Six people are on call at any given time. They work a three-day shift and must be able to show up within a 30-minute response time,” Loebe said.
There has not been a public rescue on the gondola since 2011, but organizers and rescuers still must plan for such an incident.
“We do this training to make sure their skills are totally honed and that the evacuation process is still second nature to them. You have to be really comfortable riding the cable because you don’t want to be using your brainpower riding the cable. You want to be using your brainpower making sure you are getting people safe out of the cabins,” Loebe said.
If the gondola stalls for whatever reason, rappel rescues are the last resort, explained gondola operator Paulie Sorensen.
“The first line of defense is calling gondola maintenance. We wait for them, and it’s just listening to what they say. While they work, we try and keep in contact with the people on the whole line,” Sorensen said.
The training and rescue process requires people on the ground and “line runners” above. The line runners call out to each cabin. They ask questions, like are there any wheelchairs on board? Any dogs? Any special requests? They then report back to the rescuers. Multiple cabins can be rescued at the same time.
The gondolas are accessible to most, so the team has to be prepared for any situation.
“Over the summer, a lot of people had strollers for their dog and would bring them on the gondola. It was very in,” gondola operator Tony Gianino said.
Once the information is collected, rescuers climb up a gondola tower, hook a zip line to the cable and make their way towards the nearest downhill cabin.
During Wednesday’s training, a loud whirring sound could be heard as MARRS made their way down the cable. Then, a loud thud and footsteps shuffled above. Suddenly, the doors magically opened, and a man in a harness and ropes enthusiastically jumped down and displayed himself like a starfish outside the gondola. It was like being saved by Spider-Man.
He handed everybody a harness, which is a large blue triangle that wrapped around me like a diaper, and then securely fastened at all three points to a larger carabiner. It felt like I was getting ready for a stork to grab the metal piece and fly away with me in a swaddle, except my legs and arms were free. If there had been a dog or child, the rescuer would have brought along the appropriate harnesses.
After the harness was secured around me, the rescuer clipped the three points to a rope and instructed the first damsel in distress to sit on the edge of the gondola with their legs outside of the cabin. He counted to three, and then they pushed themselves out of the cabin. It’s not a straight drop like bungee jumping. Whoever is being rescued dangles outside of the cabin for a few moments before being slowly belayed down. When I neared the ground, an organizer was there to help steady myself and unclip from the harness. Then, the hardest, park is trekking up the hill to the station.
The training is repeated in the spring offseason. The drill takes place on the line between Mountain Village Core and San Sophia Station; however, rescuers must be prepared to work from all six gondola stations. The line between San Sophia and the Town of Telluride is the highest, with the tallest tower, standing at 80 feet and the highest point roughly 115 feet above the ground.
MARRS requires each of its members to ride at least six lines by themselves annually. This entails going down a line and unhooking then rehooking their zip line and gear around each tower. This drill has to be practiced when the gondola is not running, so MARRS members find themselves out past midnight conducting the drills.
Fletcher Otwell, MARRS member, has been certified for the past seven years and views the job as an opportunity for public service.
“Also, it brings out my inner Indiana Jones,” Otwell added.
While Wednesday turned out to be a nice, sunny day for the drill, Loebe reiterated this may not always be the case.
“Today went really good,” said Loebe. “It was a beautiful day. We always enjoy training in the sun. But we’ve done these evacs in the rain, and in a blizzard. During our training we do night rides, and we do night evacs because the gondola runs just as much at night as it does during the day. We try and think of every scenario to test these guys and make sure they are ready for the task at hand.”