New cable installed at Mt. Eyak Ski Area

Installation of the 7,000-foot cable by Wilson Construction—with support from Mt. Eyak Ski Hill Manager Dave Branshaw, a crew of volunteers and a pair of visiting experts—began in wind and rain on July 25 this summer.

Although, the efforts to replace the cable started before that day.

In preparation for the installation, Branshaw removed all 87 chairs from the famous single chair lift, which originally operated in Sun Valley, Idaho. One of the first of its kind, the lift was constructed in 1939 and serviced Bald Mountain until it was replaced by newer models.   

In 1973, it was salvaged from Sun Valley by Cordova ski enthusiasts. Through the amazing efforts of the Sheridan Ski Club, plus grant funding from the state, it was transported by train to Seattle, and then by ferry to Cordova.

The Sheridan Ski Club painted the towers and repaired the original chairs before U.S. Army helicopters lifted the towers in place in 1974.

The original cable was replaced in 1986, and due to stretching, was shortened 12 feet by splicing in 1997.

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“It was due for replacement,” Branshaw said. “The cable can only be spliced once.”

Considerable engineering was involved in the replacement process, which basically required attaching one end of the new cable to the end of the old cable and using Wilson’s heavy equipment to carefully pull it all the way up and back around through all the towers.

Jonas Zurbrugg, a Swiss rigging specialist who bases in Canada and supervises cable installation in the United States, came to oversee the operation.

Wilson Construction begins setting up the reel of new cable on July 25 so it could be pulled through the Mt. Eyak Ski towers. Dick Shellhorn photo.

Wilson’s crew created a system of heavy pulleys that ran from the base of the lift to the bottom of the ski area parking lot. They then used a boom truck to gradually ease the six-ton new cable off its large spool in 500-foot stretches by driving up and down the road to the top parking area. 

The weather improved, and on July 28, Travis Knight, an expert from Knight Wire and Rope in Missouri, arrived to splice the ends of the new cable in place. The process involved unwinding 110 feet of cable strands and then weaving the ends back together  

Expert Travis Knight from Knight Wire Rope and Equipment in Missouri gives Mt. Eyak Ski Hill volunteer Steve Vican pointers on the fine art of splicing 110 feet of cable together this summer. Dick Shellhorn photo.
From left to right: Dave Branshaw, Paul Swartzbart, Jonas Zurbrugg, Tom Nothstine and Carlos Gonzalez banter as they reattach another section of the old ski hill cable used to pull the new cable up the hill. Dick Shellhorn photo.

When complete, Branshaw admired Knight’s work, saying he couldn’t even tell where the splice was.  However, because the chairs are evenly spaced 72 feet apart and cannot be re-attached on the spliced stretch, the chair count will be reduced by one.

The Cordova lift is the oldest working single chair lift in North America and only one of two single chairs still in operation. The other is located at Mad River Glen, Vermont. 

And one can be sure, come winter, all 86 chairs will be full of snow enthusiasts headed up to enjoy blue skies and white powder on the ever-expanding runs of Cordova’s unique Mt. Eyak Ski Area.       

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at dshorn44@gmail.com.