Top image: George Boyden with a big view atop Tower 2 of the Sandia Peak Tram high over Albuquerque. Photo courtesy Boyden Family. |
By Daniel Gibson |
George Boyden is a self-made, one-of-a-kind man. Now 77, he still skis fast and fluidly at Taos Ski Valley, drives a Harley, and takes meticulous care of his trademark handlebar mustache. Modest and unassuming, you’d never know he was once responsible for helping to build and run one of the world’s engineering marvels, the Sandia Peak Tram, and served for many years on committees that oversee operation of tramways, chairlifts, and other cable lift systems globally. Not bad for a man who dropped out of college to pursue a job working at Vail, especially when that job failed to materialize.
His amazing story began with an ailment. His family moved to Albuquerque in 1955. Its dry air and sun would help, it was thought, cure George’s childhood asthma. It did. Here, his father and mother quickly got the entire family skiing. “My first day was in 1955 at La Madera (today’s Sandia Peak), on a rope tow, but we’d would also go to Santa Fe frequently,” he recently explained in his comfortable home in the far Northeast Heights of Albuquerque. “It ended up, we had family season passes at both Santa Fe and La Madera. For the first couple of years, it cost us fifty dollars for the six of us at Santa Fe, and a hundred at La Madera.
“After Taos opened, around 1957, we went up there. They had just a short platter pull lift, but Taos got to be one of our favorite spots. We’d go up a few times a winter, and would stay in a casita at the Taos Inn,” George continued.
Their Albuquerque residency was interrupted for two years when they lived in Japan. His father, a Navy doctor, served in Japan during the Korean War. Afterwards, they returned to the Duke City. They were also early supporters of the Albuquerque Tennis Club, which included many skiers as well. This provided the young George an endless source of rides to the slopes when his own family stayed home, and skiing became his passion. He served as president of the Highland High School Ski Club, and raced locally, as well as at Sun Valley, Idaho, against advanced racers from across the West.
School Days Cutting Trails
“Most of my early jobs were ski-related. An early one was doing ski repairs, fixing busted edges, waxing, and so forth. Then I began working summers at La Madera. That started when they offered a free ski pass to anyone working for free for six days. Mostly it was older guys on staff up there, but there were a few other kids, like Tommy Long (today manager of Pajarito Mountain) and Sandy Szerlip “We’d roll rocks off to the sides of the slopes, and did a lot of trail cutting. Once we bought our own chain saws, and came regularly, we got paid. We were getting a dollar an hour. One of my most hated jobs was trimming down the Russian thistle Nordhaus (Robert Nordhaus, principal founder of La Madera) had mistakenly planted at the base, with the idea it would hold snow. It threatened to take over the place, and still does!”
A frequent older member of the cutting crew was George Hatch. “He was one of the wild men, and ended up in the hospital a couple of times. He had a huge chainsaw, and we cut many runs still in use, like Exhibition and Diablo. That was the start for me. Then, I began working on lift operations, under Al Evans and Will Jackson. They were both former telephone utilities guys, so they could climb! The T-bar had these wooden towers, and had a lot of issues that required us to be on top of them,” so Boyden became a climber as well.
In winter, he would work weekends at the area while getting in some skiing and racing, where he often fared well. He recalled a September snowstorm that left almost three feet of snow on the slopes. He and some other crew went up and, unbeknownst to upper management, fired up the T-bar and skied a few runs!
Racing at UC
In 1963 he graduated from high school, and headed north to the University of Colorado. “They had a really good ski team. I said to myself, ‘This is going to be great,’ and it was, but just not as I’d envisioned it! Bob Beattie, the football coach, took over the ski program and brought in a batch of hotshots.” This included many now-famous racers, such as brothers Spider and Steve Sabich, Jimmy Huega, Billy Kidd, Bill Marolt, and brothers Bruce and Jim “Moose” Barrows, the nucleus of the U.S. alpine ski teams at the 1964 and ’68 Winter Olympics. “I went to the first day of dryland training, and at the end of the day I said to myself, ‘If there’s a B Team, I might get on it.’ In fact, there was no B Team and Boyden missed the cut, but he continued to train for two years with the team in hopes of an opening.
Their on-snow training was on St. Mary’s Glacier at Winter Park. He learned that if you showed up pre-season and spent two days side-stepping the mountain — to compact the snow and prepare it for the public — they’d give you eight lift tickets. “So, I got that cost covered. At the end of my second year at CU, I was asked to come work at Vail full time, tuning skis and working on mountain development. I decided to leave school and take the job. A friend and I decided to get there via Independence Pass to ski on Mt. Elbert, the state’s highest peak. We did it, but the job didn’t materialize, and it was then too late to enroll at CU. I’d already worked at Cook’s Sporting Goods in Albuquerque, in the ski shop, so I went back to Albuquerque knowing I could find a job.”
He was soon hired to work part time at Mulcahy’s, another sporting goods shop, and took a few courses at UNM, but he’d never again be a full-time student. That winter, the 1965 – 66 season, when the snow flew, he obtained his ski teaching certificate, and taught skiing at Sandia Peak, while also coaching the UNM Women’s alpine ski team. Working under Fred Dalem, he was soon elevated to assistant ski school director, at $15 a day.
But big changes were in the wings. “One day Ben Abruzzo showed up at an Albuquerque Ski Club meeting and by the time it was over he’d been elected the new president. He got in with Nordhaus and they went gung ho. That’s where the kick-start came. I remember years later riding the chair at Sandia with Tommy Long and saying, ‘Boy, if it weren’t for Ben, we’d still be riding the T-bar.’” He explained that while Nordhaus, a New Mexico native but Yale-trained lawyer and outdoorsman, had the vision and the political and economic connections to make plans fly, it was Abruzzo who saw they got done — a perfect team.
Building Sandia Peak Tram
In 1964, Abruzzo and Nordhaus, with a handful of other prime supporters like general contractor Jerry Martin and architect Ray Luther, undertook their most audacious and risky project to date — the construction of Sandia Peak Tram. When finished, it included the longest span between towers of any tram in the world, and at 2.7 miles, the greatest overall distance. The 60-passenger trams climb almost 4,000 feet, departing from cactus and sandy soils to arrive some 14 minutes later amidst fir trees and snow. Most people said it could not be built, but with the aid of a team of Swiss engineers, in May 1966, it was successfully opened. It is still operating and has safely carried roughly 12,200,000 people up to the 10,378-foot summit of the Sandia Peak Ski Area.
Boyden, then a ski school instructor, initially had little to do with the tram construction. He was water skiing at Elephant Butte in late March of 1966 when he was called by Will Jackson, and told to quickly get back to Albuquerque. All hands were needed to get the tram ready for its opening in two months, he was told. The most defining phase of his life was about to unfold.
“Willy Jackson was in charge of a lot it, but Nordhaus and Ben were on site, a lot. They were having a really tough time, though. There were many complex tasks still be completed.” Characteristically, George jumped in with both feet and was soon a key member of the work crew, working alongside Adolf Zurbruchen, head of Bell Engineering’s tram division.
“Some guys came and went after eight hours, but others of us were there every single day and working pretty long hours,” he noted. They faced many perplexing challenges. There was the irksome fact that the Swiss figured everything using the metric scale and the U.S. team and contractor worked off the Imperial scale. They came up with many innovative, seat-of-the-pants solutions to specific problems. For instance, how do you string up a haul cable that weighs 25 tons? Use helicopters; their chief pilot was Max Sonnenberg. How to make counterweights to keep the cables in place, taunt yet pliable? Massive concrete blocks fastened to the cable ends suspended over rolling gears work fine.
It also involved pure effort and sweat. For instance, for construction purposes, they had run a pipe for delivering compressed air to the middle tower. Deer would regularly knock the pipe loose and a team would have to climb up thousands of feet to reattach the pipe, and then they’d have to spend hours getting it re-pressurized.
Acrobatics Atop Towers
The work required acrobatic maneuvers atop towers, and many, many hours spent out on the cables themselves, sometimes more than 1,000 feet above the canyon floor. The docking bay at the top, cut into solid rock, turned out to be a tad too small, when water tanks were added under the cars to increase their weight and stability. George was hung from a rope and lowered down to jackhammer away at the bay walls.
Dedication day came off without a hitch, with tram leaders, Governor Campbell, and other dignitaries loaded into the first car up. George recalls, “We were glad to see it done! We’d been running lots of tests, so we were pretty confident of its operation and safety. But we were still fine-tuning our braking system.”
In fact, over the coming years the team had to undertake a continual learning process, modifying procedures like descent and ascent rates, docking speeds, weight limits, and challenges posed by wind, lightning, ice, and other elements. Baseball bats, they discovered, were a great tool for clearing tons of ice from the cables.
George Boyden, promoted to director of maintenance, realized that a procedural manual for every aspect of tram upkeep, operations, and safety was really needed, and with help of Jay Blackwood and others, they created one. It was a huge undertaking but ultimately a very useful tool. Operational procedures continue to be updated to this day and adhered to rigidly. “This served us well,” said George, and other ski areas began to do the same.
Adding impetus to this effort was the fact the U.S. Forest Service threatened to shut them down early in their operation due to a few broken wires found in one heavy cable, citing some obscure passage in the massive book of international standards for mechanical lifts of all kinds. “Ben called me in to the office and said, ‘I want you to know every single line of this book.’ That put us on even better terms.”
Professionals in the field of lift engineering — in mining, ski area operations, tourism, and related fields — gather annually to share information, and update standards and procedures. An accident anywhere in the world creates huge ripples through the industry, and they are carefully studied to avoid similar situations in the future. These gatherings are held in the U.S. and internationally. George started going to these meetings, once or twice a year. “The first I went to was at Snowbird, Utah, and the second in Banff, Canada,” with subsequent conferences in Italy, France, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, England, and even Argentina.
Chairman of Wire Rope
He served as chairman of the Wire Rope Technical Sub-Committee of ANSI-B77.1, a charter member and past president of the North American Continental Section on Wire Rope, a member of the European Norm Wire Rope and Strand Committee of OITAF, and was very active in the Rocky Mountain Lift Association.
He began his association with these international bodies as an observer, but was soon adopted by the those holding doctorates and professional engineers as a voting member, and was eventually elected chairman of the wire rope (cable) committee, and appointed to the chairlift committee, the evacuation committee, and the electrical committee — positions he served for many years. With Max Baumann, he once help organize a weeklong tour for 29 Americans of Swiss manufacturing plants: a tramway factory, a gondola factory, a chairlift plant, and visits to a rotating tram and a double-decker tram. “We called it the Heavy Metal Tour,” mixed in with schnapps samplings, he explained with a laugh.
“Revising the standards and procedures was not an easy task! There were lots of parties to deal with: the forest service, insurance reps, resort owners, and the mechanical guys, and each had a different opinion on how to improve safety.” But George brought consensus to the group. “Boy, it just clicked,” and under his leadership in the mid-1980s they rewrote the entire manual and code for ANSI’s wire rope (cable) systems.
Over the years, Sandia Peak Tram compiled a remarkable record of safety and performance. In 2018, George retired as its general manager, ironically years past the standard “operational life” of such a professional. His contributions to skiing, both on a local level and internationally, were recognized by the New Mexico Ski Hall of Fame, when he was inducted into their ranks in 2011.
But it’s not been all work. In the 1970s, he and his wife, Virginia “Tooey,” built a cabin at Taos Ski Valley for themselves and their three boys, and today he still gets out on the slopes, sometimes with his grown children and grandkids. He collects old skis, rides his Harley, and a sports car hides under a tarp in his driveway. He’s gotten to ski all over North America and at Garmisch, in the Bavarian Alps. His love of sliding on snow has taken him around the world.
“It’s been unbelievable,” he concludes. “A fantastic ride! I’ve met and worked with so many nice people, people with great spirits.”
CONDITIONS & EVENTS as of feb. 23, 2022
Once again — yeah! — a storm is moving in as this is written, so conditions should be better than noted below.
Ski Santa Fe sits on a 44-inch base, with 83 of 86 runs open. On Saturday, DJ John Sheridan and Friends will perform live on the deck of Totemoff’s from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a tap takeover by the Little Toad Creek Brewery & Distillery.
Taos Ski Valley reports a 49-inch base at mid-Shalako and 61 inches atop Chair 7, with all runs open. It’s been getting a few inches each day for three days, and more is coming, which is great as many rocks still lurk on the stepper terrain, and fallen logs in the woods. Large swaths of the frontside, like the forests flanking Snakedance, have been largely cleared of dead and down wood and this has opened up acres of new terrain formerly too forested to enter. Lots of thinning has also been done on gladed runs Ernie’s and North American, greatly improving their appeal.
Taos is once again hosting a 2* and 4* Freeride World Qualifying events in conjunction with the International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association and the Freeride World Tour. The 2* Taos Freeride Competition will be held as a one-day competition March 1, and the 4* Taos Freeride Championships will be held March 3 – 4 (weather day, March 5). This premiere big-mountain event is New Mexico’s largest and most prestigious ski and snowboard competition. Athletes from around the globe descend on Taos to test themselves against the resort’s famed steeps, chasing the top podium spot and trying to get one step closer to making the Freeride World Tour. Spectators are warmly welcomed.
Wolf Creek was visited early by this storm and has picked up 25 inches in the last two days, taking its base to 110 inches at the summit and 99 inches at midway. It is 100 percent open and the Meadow Loop and the Lake Spur of the Nordic Track were groomed and track-set on Feb. 17.
Angel Fire Resort has picked up two inches already, and has a two-foot base, with 52 of 81 runs open and both terrain parks.
Red River has a base of 24 – 30 inches, with almost every run open, including Sluice Box Glade, and two of its three terrain parks: Hollywood and Pot O’ Gold.
Pajarito is enjoying its 16-inch base, with four lifts serving most of the mountain. It is open on a Friday – Sunday basis. Rental equipment is not available this season.
Sipapu has a 25-inch base, with all lifts running and 38 of 43 runs skiable. This Friday – Sunday, it hosts its most popular annual event, February Fun Fest. Free activities will include play in a two- to three-story snow castle with stairways, slides, and other features; scavenger hunts; a penny toss; a costume contest; and a snowboard “worm” race. See their website for details.
Ski Apache has a foot, with limited beginner and intermediate terrain open.
Telluride is on the storm track, gaining 21 inches in the last two days, taking its base to a sweet 61 inches and 167 so far this season. Some 121 runs of 148 are open, with just some of its double black hike-to terrain still roped.
Purgatory has been in the sweet spot too, picking up 19 inches over the past few days, and it’s snowing as this is written. It has a 60-inch base, and 97 of 105 runs open, with just a few double blacks currently off limits.
Crested Butte has been getting new snow and now reports a 55-inch base, with 193 inches so far this season. After being open, about half of its Extreme Limits terrain has closed but will reopen when conditions allow.
Monarch Mountain has a 57-inch base, with all runs open. On March 4 it will present a Slope Style Comp open to skiers and snowboarders in its Steel City Terrain Park; $10 registration fee.
Arizona Snowbowl has also picked up a foot and reports a 55-inch base. All lifts are operating and 43 of 48 runs skiable, though none of its quite good hike-to terrain.
Daniel Gibson is the author of New Mexico’s only comprehensive ski guidebook, Skiing New Mexico: Snow Sports in the Land of Enchantment (UNM Press, 2017). His new book, Images of America: Skiing in New Mexico, was recently released from Arcadia Publishing with 183 historic photos. He is a member of the North American Snowsports Journalist Association and has written on the topic for newspapers coast to coast, web sites, and magazines including Powder, Ski, and Wintersport Business. His first day on wooden skis with wooden edges came at age 6 in 1960 on a snowy day at the former Santa Fe Ski Basin. He can be reached at [email protected] or via DanielBGibson.com.This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead