An unexpected family thrill ride at Glenwood Caverns |

An unexpected family thrill ride at Glenwood Caverns

Carla Jean Whitley

What happened?

Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board Public Information Officer Lee Rasizer said the park was not required to report this incident because it didn’t result in deropement. “However, the CPTSB was made aware of the facts at hand on July 28 by Iron Mountain Tramway operators out of an abundance of caution,” he wrote in an email.

The system is designed such that a sensor will shut down the tram’s operations when the cable leaves the roller’s center groove. It operated as designed, preventing deropement, during the incident.

Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park’s Iron Mountain Tramway has never received any disciplinary action.

What could happen?

When the tram is stopped for lightning, passengers are safer on it than they would be disembarking, General Manager Nancy Heard said. When lightning strikes within a set distance, staff cease loading and work to get everyone off the tram. However, when a storm approaches more quickly than expected or develops on top of the park, the tram may be shut down with passengers on board. Heard said that’s a last resort.

When this occurs, operators power down the tram to limit damage. If the tram is struck by lightning, which has occurred about five times in Heard’s 10 years at the park, it causes about $25,000 worth of damage.

When are people left ‘on the line’?

The manager on duty and the maintenance person on call confer before leaving people in the tram cabins, or “on the line,” Heard said. “Together they make the call, and we always err on the side of caution. So if they disagree, we go with the more conservative decision.”

How often is the tram inspected?

CPTSB requires its licensees to be examined a minimum of twice annually or per 2,000 hours of operation, whichever comes first. A variety of incidents must be reported to the board, including any malfunction that results in injury or death; injury caused by a fall or jump outside of the loading and unloading zone; unintentional deropement; unplanned evacuation; fire; electrical or mechanical failure that results in loss of control; or failure of a number of tramway components.

Watch a portion of the rescue online at

If you find yourself stuck on a tram, I hope you have a mom in tow.

Friends and I left Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park on July 28 after a short visit. Our group — three women and two children — took the tram to the top of the mountain and climbed stairs to the viewing deck. The vistas were stunning, as always. But we didn’t linger; a storm was clearly headed downvalley, and we hoped to beat it back to our cars. We popped a few “magical bravery gummies” — Lifesaver Gummies my mom friend bought for the occasion — and loaded up.

It was a valiant, but failed, effort.

The park stops the tram — formally known as the Iron Mountain Tramway — for inclement weather, including high wind and nearby lightning strikes. Several times in my months here, I’ve seen alternate transportation offered when wind kicks up. Weather-related stoppages are rare, said General Manager Nancy Heard, but when lightning is near, they may be the safest option.

So I wasn’t surprised, exactly, when our cabin stopped as it descended the mountain. The sway was more dramatic than usual, and we could hear the wind whip through the cabin’s open windows. But this was within the realm of normal, I assured my friends. The wind came on suddenly, but we would start moving again soon.

Or so I thought.

My friend’s 4-year-old daughter positioned herself between two of us. She was clearly frightened at first. When it became clear that we wouldn’t move right away, her mother began digging through her oversized tote. Out came multiple colors of Play-Doh, followed by a variety of snacks. She offered more Lifesaver Gummies — “Those magical gummies are not magical,” her daughter proclaimed — and we occupied ourselves with the art of distraction. I molded an orange cat. Another friend fashioned a Play-Doh dog. And our 4-year-old companion forgot her fear.

The adults, however, remained hyperaware. When we spotted three men in safety harnesses hiking beneath us, we knew this was more than a precautionary stop. Something was up.

We would later learn that 40 mph winds rolled the lift cable from its normal position, according to the supervisory tramway engineer’s voluntary report to the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board. Heard said this has occurred only three times in her tenure. But at that moment, we knew only that help had arrived.

We watched from on high as the men ascended the ladder on a nearby pole. Their goal wasn’t immediately clear, but ours remained consistent: occupy the 4-year-old and her easygoing 11-month-old brother while we waited. One of the other women pulled out a bottle of nail polish and the 4-year-old lit up. “Let’s get beautiful for the guys,” she exclaimed. Which guys? She pointed to the nearby pole.

Well, OK.

As little bit got a manicure and I focused on my toes, her mother worried about what would happen if this repair effort failed.

Heard later explained: The staff trains on rope evacuations twice a year. The park has never had to put that training into effect. But should it become necessary, a crew member would traverse the cable in a manner similar to a zip line. He or she would climb onto a tram cabin and open the door from above — the most physically challenging aspect, Heard said. The crew member would then climb into the cabin and harness each passenger, who would belay to another team member waiting below.

The harnesses are available in a variety of sizes, so even the 11-month-old would have been accounted for. The crew is also prepared to assist elderly people and those with disabilities. Although the belaying process may make some nervous, Heard said the toughest part of an evacuation would be guiding passengers over the steep terrain to the nearest service road.

None of that was necessary for our adventure, nor another recent incident prompted by nearby lightning. We watched as the crew used a pry bar to return the cable to its proper position. The cabin resumed its descent 113 minutes after we stopped.

As the adults began tidying our mess — by this point, the cabin resembled the morning after a slumber party — the 4-year-old stood and shouted to our rescuers above:

“I love you!”

Her mother wrote in an Instagram post afterward, “They advertise ‘thrills’ and delivered.” True, it wasn’t the experience we expected. But her daughter? More than two weeks have passed and she’s still asking, “Momma, remember the time we were on that ride and the men came to save us? I want to do it again.”

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