New Heavenly gondola has gusty first gala

Heavenly Ski Resort officials and their guests reached the pinnacle of a 41-year-old dream Thursday but couldn't get out to enjoy their achievement.

Inaugural riders on Heavenly Valley's $20 million gondola were greeted by 40 mph winds that trapped them inside the eight-man cabins at the highest elevations prohibiting them from exiting at the resort's six-chair Tamarack lift. The blasts made it impossible to offload the passengers at the midmountain deck or at the top of the lift.

The gondola opened for business at noon but the winds remained high and customers few.

The concept of a gondola just a few feet off Highway 50 lifting snowsporters and visitors to 9,100-foot level of Nevada goes back 41 years when a pioneer ski industry man bought a gondola and cut a trail for it about 500 feet from the present trail.

About 10 years ago, thinking became serious about building the gondola as part of the redevelopment strategy for South Lake Tahoe.

In 1997 when American Skiing bought Heavenly from the Japanese Kamori family, money became available and construction began in the spring of 1999.

Now it is the crown jewel of Lake Tahoe, looking out from a 280-degree vision circular deck on the lake in what one speaker described as the most "breathtaking view of the lake from anywhere in the Sierra Nevada."

Another reason for celebrating the opening of the gondola was the announcement by Harmon that Joanna Mendes had just been promoted to the A Team of the U.S. Ski Team. Mendes, who lives in South Lake Tahoe, was on hand, taking a few days off before leaving for World Cup events in Europe.

"I've been dreaming of this since I was six years old," she said.

Les Otten, chairman of the American Skiing Co., which owns Heavenly, also announced his corporation is being merged with MeriStar Hotels and Resorts and will be renamed Doral International.

The handsome base station of the gondola is around 100 feet from Highway 50 and a few minutes walk from the hotel/casinos. Parking in the immediate area is not available but bus transport from the California base is available. Buses will also make more than 30 stops at motels and hotels around the area bringing skiers and boarders to the gondola.

Harmon said, "We never aimed to have a parking area. We want people to use public transportation or to walk to the gondola. We want fewer cars in the Tahoe Basin, not more."

Otten and Heavenly President Dennis Harmon both lauded the company executives who spearheaded the construction: Stan Hansen, vice president of real estate development; Gary Burch, construction manager for Heavenly; and Malcolm Tibbets, vice president of mountain operations.

The gondola has two unloading sites - a steel deck facility at midmountain and one close to the base of the six-seat Tamarack detachable, high-speed lift. The six-seat lift opens the Nevada side to skiers and boarders.

This will end a long-standing bottleneck of guests who were formerly forced to take three lifts to get to the top of the mountain, 10,100 feet, and to Nevada from California.

"The gondola finally gives South Lake Tahoe the look and feel of a major ski resort," Otten said.

He pointed out that once development of two major hotels on each side of the gondola is completed in two years, South Lake Tahoe will finally have a town center. "And we expect to have more gondola riders in the off season than in the ski season."

For an industry that suffers cash flow problems in the summer months, that has to be a major benefit, say business observers.

Gondola facts:

--The as-yet unnamed gondola took six months to build, using parts from the Dopplemayr company of Austria along with three crews of 24 Heavenly workers.

-- At 2.4 miles long, the gondola is the longest in California.

-- With 138 cabins each carrying eight people, the gondola offers the most up-hill carrying capacity on West Coast.

-- The gondola moves at a rate of 1,200 feet per minute, among the fastest in North America.

-- The massive gondola cable itself weighs 230,000 pounds, is the biggest in North America and was delivered in two pieces. It took three days with two crews of 30 to splice the cables into one piece. A foot of the cable weighs about nine pounds and it has a circumference of 56mm - about the size of a racket ball.

-- Each gondola lift tower weighs about a ton.

-- The gondola cabins were designed specifically for Heavenly with narrow bottoms. This meant the trail cut could be narrower and thus have less impact on the environment.


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