Iron Mountain Tramway going up, testing workers’ mettle |

Iron Mountain Tramway going up, testing workers’ mettle

Enormous flying tramway towers descend on Glenwood Springs!

It may sound like a premise for a sci-fi flick, but on Wednesday, a Bell 214 helicopter actually did fly a total of 18 monster steel towers over Glenwood Springs.

The towers are part of the 4,300-foot-long Iron Mountain Tramway that, come spring 2003, will carry visitors up to the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park – and back.

“This is unique in all the world,” said Irene Rasmussen, spokeswoman for Glenwood Caverns, of the new adventure park’s amenities. “Nowhere in the world is there this combination of a tramway originating from a town base to a setting with such spectacular scenery and impressive caving. We’re very excited.”

Glenwood Caverns co-owner Steve Beckley shared Rasmussen’s excitement Wednesday morning. He was at the top of the tramway’s viewing platform, which offers views from the Elk Mountain Range to Grand Mesa.

Beckley said the tram will run from 9 a.m. until “10 p.m. or so” though exact operating times haven’t been confirmed yet.

Beckley talked with foremen from the Leitner/Poma cable transportation company, shot video of the tram installation, and surveyed construction of the Caverns’ 9,400-square-foot mountaintop building.

When completed, the building will include a restaurant and bar open for lunch and dinner, a retail shop, children’s activity area and viewing decks. A 68-room hotel will be built later at the base area in Two Rivers Plaza.

For Beckley, watching the Leitner/Poma towers hover overhead and get secured into place was part of a dream that began nearly two decades ago.

“I found out about this cave from a book called `Caves of Colorado’ I read when I was in college,” said Beckley, a lifelong caver and Colorado School of Mines graduate from Cortez. “I remember calling the landowner about buying this property back then.”

Now, almost 20 years later, Beckley watched as crews atop one of the planted towers guided a cross arm into position.

The process of placing the two-part tram equipment was planned to take a total of three hours.

First, the helicopter would fly a couple hundred feet north to a flat area on the top of Iron Mountain where all the towers and cross bars were stored.

After a worker attached a numbered tower to the helicopter’s long cable line, the helicopter carried it to its designated concrete pad. The helicopter hovered as ground crews guided each tower into place and disengaged it from the cable, bolting it down with eight giant bolts.

Meanwhile, the helicopter would fly back to the staging site and pick up the corresponding cross arm, while two workers scrambled up the tower ladder. While strapped into the tower with climbing harnesses, the workers used both hands to fit the cross bar to its resting spot atop its tower. The whole process took less than five minutes.

Glenwood Caverns owners and Leitner/Poma opted to install the tramway’s towers by air rather than by land. Beckley said no trees were cut down to make way for the tramway, part of an agreement he reached with City Council during approval negotiations.

When the tramway opens next spring, six-person gondola cars will carry riders up Iron Mountain in 7.5 minutes.

“This is going to put Glenwood on the map,” Beckley said. “It’s us and the pool.”

Dangerous work

Leitner/Poma is an international company that designs and installs ski lifts, gondolas and tramways for the winter sports, tourist and urban transportation industries. Its North American office is in Grand Junction and services North America, New Zealand and Australia.

Tom Clink, a sales manager with Leitner/Poma, was on top of Iron Mountain Wednesday morning overseeing the tram’s installation. Besides the Glenwood Caverns’ project, Clink is currently installing two lifts at Breckenridge.

“This is such dangerous work,” he said, looking up at the hovering helicopter. The pilot peered down through a clear bubble on the side of the cockpit at the cement pad below.

“Over the years, I’ve lost five helicopter pilot friends of mine,” Clink said of helicopter installation work.

He said the deaths weren’t a result of pilot error.

“On jobs like this, it’s mechanical failure,” he said while the helicopter whopped overhead. “This kind of work is tough on helicopters. We hire most of these guys out of Montana. They do a lot of logging work. I haven’t met this pilot, but he has an excellent reputation. ”

“He better be good,” Beckley said to Clink with a smile. “He’s costing us $3,800 an hour.”

A massive undertaking

Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park is an ambitious project with an expensive price tag. When the park is complete, it will cost its owners and investors upwards of $13 million. Beckley believes that’s money well spent – and so does WestStar Bank, the local bank providing financing.

“The bottom line is we knew we had to get behind this project,” said Dave Coflin, regional president of WestStar Bank. “It’s the right project for the community, and it’s right for WestStar.”

The project has been long coming for Steve Beckley. After years of waiting for the Caverns’ former owners to sell, he and his wife, Jeanne, finally purchased the historic caves and surrounding land in 1998.

The Beckleys consulted with tramway engineer Chuck Peterson when planning for tram access to the site, and soon, Peterson and his wife, Nancy, joined the Beckleys as partners in their endeavor.

“The Beckleys and the Petersons had done so much of the preliminary planning before they came to us, we were able to decide on backing them within two days,” WestStar’s Coflin said.

The new and improved Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park will continue a rich history that began 7 million years ago when the caves were first formed from water and limestone. The caves were discovered in the late 1890s and operated as an 800-foot commercial tourist attraction. Since then, cavers have discovered more than 15,000 more feet of caves on the site.

“This place is really unprecedented,” Beckley said. “There’s no place like it in the West – a cave of this magnitude that’s privately owned and open to the public with these kinds of amenities. There’s really no place like it in the world. It’s going to be really good for Glenwood.”

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