Replacing gondola bullwheel an electrifying experience |

Replacing gondola bullwheel an electrifying experience

Talk about electrifying experiences.

A lift-maintenance crew at Aspen Mountain pulled off the extraordinary task Monday and Tuesday of replacing the massive bullwheel that helps power the Silver Queen Gondola.

They pulled it off despite sharp lightning and thunder Monday afternoon and drizzle on Tuesday.

The crew yanked a worn-out, 6-ton bullwheel out of the upper gondola building last week, then installed a beefier, 13-ton version.

The old wheel developed cracks during its 13 years of service, according to Don Boyer, lift-maintenance director at Aspen Mountain, Highlands and Buttermilk. The cracks were repaired, but appeared again, so engineers felt the wheel should be replaced, according to Rob Baxter, the former Aspen Mountain manager who has transferred to Snowmass.

The hub of the new wheel was made in France, then shipped to Grand Junction for further manufacturing work at the Poma of America plant. The new bullwheel has the same diameter as the old one – four meters or about 13 feet – but it’s designed to last a lifetime.

“I’d hate to do this twice,” said Boyer.

The massive bullwheel was hauled up Little Annie Road to the gondola building, where a crane was temporarily borrowed from the Sundeck Restaurant construction project for the special job.

Thom Saunders of Webb Crane Service used a crane with a 125-foot boom fitted with a couple of slings to pluck the wheel off the flatbed truck. He delicately inserted it into a hole in the gondola building created by ripping off some of the tin roof.

The transport was slow, agonizing work because one false move would have rammed the bullwheel’s edge into something and risked damaging its carefully milled rims, said Mike Truelove, a lift-maintenance crew worker who helped direct the job.

Just after the wheel came sliding in like a giant quarter in a piggybank, the lightning cracked all around the 11,212-foot-high construction site atop Aspen Mountain. The crew was forced to take a break as a brief shower and small hailstones bombarded the gondola building and nearby lightning temporarily knocked out the power.

After the break, Saunders used his mastery at the crane’s controls to ease the bullwheel from a vertical to horizontal position and Boyer’s crew fitted it into place with the primary and secondary drive systems.

Final adjustments were being made today and the wire rope, commonly but erroneously called a cable, was being fitted around the new wheel.

Boyer said the gondola will be operating by the end of the week, well before summer tourist operations begin Saturday, June 26.

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