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New Lutsen gondola drops into place

LUTSEN -- The pilots leaned out each side window of the twin-engine Sikorsky S-61 helicopter watching the 8,000-pound hunk of metal swing below. It took about 30 seconds to set the tower, which by November will help hold a new gondola system into...

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Jeff Ylatupa, maintenance supervisor at Lutsen ski area, describes the construction of the gondola cars which are expected to be in place for the upcoming ski season. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
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LUTSEN - The pilots leaned out each side window of the twin-engine Sikorsky S-61 helicopter watching the 8,000-pound hunk of metal swing below.

It took about 30 seconds to set the tower, which by November will help hold a new gondola system into place. Workers from the Doppelmayr ski-lift company scurried to bolt the tower to its base on the hardscrabble slope of Moose Mountain.

Within another minute, the cable swung loose, and the Sikorsky was off for another load - this one the wheel assembly to perch on top of the tower.

Before the last bolts were even tightened, two crew members climbed the tower, ready to grab and bolt the wheel assembly when the helicopter returned just a minute or two later.

"Helicopter assist is common when we are working at mountain resorts," said Steve Mayhew, foreman of the crew from Austrian-based Doppelmayr. "The terrain is too rugged to bring in heavy equipment, and a helicopter becomes the most practical option."

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Piece by piece the ground and air crews worked in a well-rehearsed ballet Monday, erecting 11 towers for the new Lutsen Mountains gondola that will carry eight people in each car, or cabin - up to 1,000 people an hour - to the top of Moose Mountain.

That's exactly twice as many people per cabin and more than three times the 300 people per hour the old gondola now carries.

"Eventually, we can add more cabins and the capacity is 2,400 people per hour, so can be eight times more capacity than the old one," said Jim Vick, marketing director for Lutsen Mountains Corp. that owns and operates the ski facility and much of the hilltop resort community here.

The 45-year-old gondola, which came to Lutsen used from New Hampshire in 1989, will continue to operate for the fall color season through Oct. 18.

The replacement will be ready for the start of the downhill ski season in December.

"We had to keep the old one going while we built the new one because we had weddings already booked on top of" Moose Mountain, Vick said. "You don't want to make those brides angry."

Prep work on the project, such as cutting trees, leveling sites and placing concrete footings - has been going on all summer. But on Monday the pace quickened dramatically, with the 11 towers in place within a few hours. The last four towers will be set by ground-based cranes. The cable will be strung and gondola cabins hung over the next two months.

"I'm amazed how fast they work with that helicopter," said Jeff Ylatupa, Lutsen maintenance supervisor. The helicopter and aircrew are from CHI Aviation based in Howell, Mich.

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The new $7 million gondola is just the latest in a series of updates, expansions improvements aimed at "keeping Lutsen relevant as a destination resort," Vick said. "We have to keep growing ... doing things that are going to draw people back and bring more people in."

Already the largest destination ski resort in the upper Midwest, with nearly 100,000 guests each winter, Lutsen is looking at potentially doubling that over the next decade.

The new gondola follows the $5 million investment in a new, super-fast six-person express chairlift on Moose Mountain two years ago that gets skiers up the hill three times faster than traditional chairlifts.

"We're competing with Montana and Colorado, and we have to keep up," Vick said, noting that Lutsen has expanded gradually since it opened in 1948.

Now, that expansion is speeding up even as dozens of smaller Midwest ski resorts have closed in recent years.

The Lutsen Mountains complex of hills, lifts and connecting trails - along with ski shops, chalets, taverns, restaurants, condos and hotels - now sprawls across 1,000 acres, with nearly 140 acres of ski slopes on three distinct hills. The complex is now estimated to contribute some $29 million to the Cook County economy.

In recent years the resort ownership has spent millions on new snowmaking equipment (they now have 75 snow guns) and on erosion control efforts to keep sediment out of the Poplar River during heavy rains and snowmelt.

They also have, with help from state taxpayers and the Legislature's bonding authority, converted to a new water supply, taking water from nearby Lake Superior instead of the Poplar River.

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Next up, pending a lease with the U.S. Forest Service, Lutsen is hoping to expand with new ski slopes more than doubling its skiable space to more than 300 acres.

Lutsen plans to expand onto 400 acres of land that are now part of the Superior National Forest, allowing the ski area to more than double the size of its ski operations. The $30 million project continues to develop on paper and managers say employment could grow from 250 at peak ski season to 450.

For skiers or others who might want a souvenir from Lutsen, the cars from the old gondolas will be sold in an online auction, estimated at about $500 to $1,000 each, with part of the proceeds going to charity. Watch for more information later this year.

Related Topics: SKIING
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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