By Karen D. Lorentz
Several key workers have orchestrated Killington’s operations from behind the scenes since the area’s beginnings in 1958.
They were responsible for opening the ski area each day with spinning lifts and snow-covered slopes, much like a theater director is responsible for raising the curtain.
But unlike traditional theatre, the script changes frequently, even daily. Weather ‘events’ — whether it’s the r-word, an ice storm, or a major Nor’easter — test their individual and collective planning and problem-solving abilities to see if the show continues. The same goes for mice and the occasional hawk!
Today, with 45 years working on the lifts, Gene Syria is the longest serving mountain operations worker in Killington.
Syria has come a long way from a time when there was no ski area beyond the original gondola and several ski lifts operated with 50 horsepower motors at 200 feet per minute up to the technological marvels of today that spin at line speeds of 1,200 feet per minute.
Born in Rutland in 1957, Syria grew up in Mount Holly and learned to ski at the age of seven, noting: “It was my sister who taught me, and I quickly passed her and I then frequented by runners. I learned to ski at Round Top for a $5 day pass and brought my own lunch. He graduated from Black River High School in 1975 “and had fun doing it,” he said.
Syria studied mechanical engineering at the University of Vermont for two years, explaining, “My dean and I agreed that I would do better in the field as a mechanic. The third derivatives proved that something could exist in an interdimensional state beyond three dimensions. I was too pragmatic to agree that it would help me in my future in college.
Q&A with Gene Syria
mountain weather: How did you end up in Killington?
Syria gene: In high school, I worked at Okemo at the rental store or on elevators as an operator – where they needed me most. I was Green Gene. The green lift went down the middle of the mountain to the top and was a Poma plateau lift. Back then, we did all of our own services and repairs. That’s where I started.
I came to Killington looking for a summer job in 1977, planning to go back to college in the fall. I was hired on June 20 as the operator of the old gondola. The 3.5-mile, four-passenger, three-deck prototype elevator was replaced by the 8-passenger Skyeship in 1994.
I was kept full time and was able to familiarize myself with all maintenance and mechanical aspects of the pod. The gondola base, now the base of Skyeship, became my home as I was reliable and took route 100.
I became a gondola base team leader in my second year, followed by a gondola mechanic, then a supervisor. Then maintenance supervisor for all elevators in Killington, followed by the elevator maintenance manager. Tim Brosnan is in that role now and as Elevator Maintenance Technical Manager I have trained him to replace him but don’t have a retirement date yet.
MT: What is the job of manager?
GS: Supervise a team of mechanics and electricians for the 28 lifts, including the Pico lifts. I still work on the lifts daily.
MT: What are the biggest elevator changes you’ve seen?
GS: Elevator changes are similar to those seen in automobiles, which now have computers. The difference is like that of a 1966 Mustang versus today’s hybrid. You can’t take the hybrid to just any mechanic, and to service the Mustang, you have to find one who can fix a car that has points. Electronic drive systems are now all solid state. Electric drives turn a motor, but they are done very differently now with computers. Elevator equipment is much more sophisticated, so we deal with IT people through the elevator manufacturers. They can make their computers talk to our computers and can troubleshoot from Colorado if necessary.
MT: What does elevator maintenance involve?
GS: The maintenance of the elevator depends on the requirements of the manufacturer. For example, the lubrication of an elevator will vary depending on the type of elevator – some are done monthly, some every two weeks, and some every three days.
Different lifts like detachables require more inspections of moving parts and therefore require more maintenance and daily inspections. We go through the workouts and come back two or three times a day – listen to them to learn how they work and observe and feel the vibrations.
In the summer, codes require us to remove a percentage of the chairs from the lifts and take the handles apart and look for any cracks or imperfections, then reassemble them. We review the number suggested by the manufacturer and rotate the sample annually.
We also lift the cable from the sheaves and spin the sheaves to check the bearings of each turn all over the mountain. (The pulleys are the wheels that carry the line or cable).
MT: Elevators can still break down. Why?
GS: It can be weather like icing or wear. A lot has to do with electrical issues, whether it’s caused by water intrusion from rain or something like that or a mouse chewing on something.
We had a pair of Falcons land on the Skyeship Stage One cable next to a pulley train; one was sucked in and died. The other escaped but was mad at his mate and caused havoc by pecking at the wires.
You never know what you’ll find. When the Snowdon Six recently stopped, a technician had to come from Boston to fix it because it’s still under warranty. He is dealing with engineers on how to do this because this elevator has very complicated electrical components.
MT: What is the biggest challenge for lifting operations?
GS: Weather. When there is freezing rain and sleet, you need to check every turn. The men on the ground communicate by two-way radios with the person driving the elevator as they inspect each turn to see if the pulleys are turning. If they don’t, they tell the driver to turn off the elevator and go up the tower – chipping the ice if the ladder rungs are frozen – then pounding the ice so the pulleys can turn . Then they move to the next tower and the process repeats. it repeats itself all over the mountain.
Icing increases the time it takes to get removable elevators up and running, as we also need to defrost the handles. There is a place for lifts with fixed handles which can be prepared more quickly.
MT: What do you like best about your job?
GS: Changes, challenges and variety. Nothing stays the same. At Killington, it’s all about diversity and change.
It’s a challenge to have as much open area as possible each day and involves a lot of planning and interaction with grooming and snowmaking the day before.
Every day I can do a wide variety of things and it may change from anything that’s been done before, but we adapt each time. It’s like watching the sunrise – it’s beautiful every day but it’s not the same every day.
MT: What about professional awards?
GS: Teaching new mechanics and passing on what we’ve learned is rewarding. I love nature – sunrises, bobcats, deer, moose, bears – black bears are funny. The animals are still there on the mountain – it’s nice to see how little we disturbed them.
MT: Free time hobbies?
GS: I rebuild a 1954 Jeep truck, a 69 Mustang and a late 60s VW Bug; and I drive an old Harley.