Alyeska Resort's tramway remains closed after wind slammed a tram car into a tower on New Year's Eve, leaving its occupants stranded for more than five hours and the car, skewered by a guide rail, hanging for days.
A teenager riding in the tram car, who suffered a cut to her head and a concussion, said Saturday she is continuing to recover. The resort said the tramway and the luxurious, mid-mountain restaurant it serves are expected to reopen sometime this season. Still, it's unclear how long it will take to repair the tram.
Catie Quinn, 15, said Saturday that she and a friend boarded the tram with three Alyeska employees, including a tram operator, to see the view and maybe stay to watch the resort's annual fireworks display from above.
The tram car was traveling uphill, about to pass the left side of the tower when the wind picked up, Quinn said. She said she was facing downhill.
"They said something about it starting to get windy. I turned around and this huge gust of wind came by, and we swung out," Quinn said. "The tower is not supposed to be directly in front of you. Well, I was looking straight at it."
A guide rail on the 150-foot tower pierced the tram car's right side, breaking a window and ripping the car open. Quinn said she flew forward and hit her head on a hinge under a bench.
It felt as if she were unconscious for 30 minutes or more, she said, but it was probably more like five to 10 minutes. With help, she sat up, touched her head and realized she was bleeding. It took eight surgical staples to close the cut behind her right ear. Quinn said she has a lingering headache, bruised arm and leg and torn finger ligaments.
Wind and snow were blowing through the tram car. Quinn and the four others worried the car would come loose, sending them crashing to the steep slope below. It would be more than five hours until help arrived.
Quinn said the car's occupants told jokes and stories while keeping pressure on the head wound with a hat. A first-aid kit had fallen out of the car, and even with two blankets to keep warm, they shivered in the cold.
Rescuers sprang into action as soon as word spread of the accident, said Alyeska's director of marketing, Jessica Pezak. The resort canceled its torchlight parade, because many of those involved were needed to rescue the tram riders, Pezak said. About 80 people dining at Seven Glaciers, the resort's restaurant at 2,300 feet, descended the mountain by chairlift or in snow cats.
The stranded riders had to be lowered from the car, Pezak said. But because of dangerous avalanche conditions on the North Face, the area beneath the car, the rescue team was unable to remove them by snow cat.
"That's why it took five hours," Pezak said. "We have very capable, very well-trained staff members. They knew exactly what to do, but there were a lot of variables that lined up in a very challenging way. We had to resort to Plan B, really."
Alyeska staff put a specialized rescue car on the tram cables and descended from the upper terminal, Pezak said. The rescuers put harnesses on the five inside the stricken car, then carefully lowered them on ropes to the snowy surface, she said. Still wearing the harnesses, the five climbed, one at a time, up to the rescue car, Pezak said. The rescuers took them back to the upper terminal, then down the mountain in a snow cat, she said.
During the rescue, Quinn and her friend watched the clock strike midnight on a cellphone, she said.
"We watched it click over to New Year's Day. I was looking at the ski patrol guy and said, 'I'm just so glad you're here right now.' I wasn't as worried about missing the fireworks. I just wanted off the tram and to get down," she said.
An Alyeska spokesman told the Daily News after the incident that mountain managers often talk about putting the tram on hold in 20-to-25-mph wind. Pezak said she did not have an exact figure for a wind cutoff, nor did she have precise information on how hard the wind was blowing just before the roughly 45 mph gust sent the tram car into the tower.
"When they measured the wind speed, they have a certain threshold where the tram can operate. And it was within that threshold," Pezak said. "This is Alaska. The weather changes pretty violently, pretty quickly."
Pezak said rumors about the tram being closed for the rest of the season are untrue. It could be "a number of weeks" before it reopens, she said. It's unclear exactly when the tram or Seven Glaciers will reopen, but the resort is ordering repair parts from Europe and consulting with the technicians who will fix it, she said. Pezak said she did not know how much the repairs would cost.
The resort is committed to the safety of its patrons and did not keep the tram running because of holiday bookings at Seven Glaciers or any other financial pressures, Pezak said.
"We would never intentionally put people in danger to make a profit. I mean, that's not a good business decision," she said.
Quinn, an avid snowboarder, was thankful for the care and kindness she received from Alyeska staff. But she said she felt let down that no one from the resort has since called to see how she's doing.
"I've gone there for years. I've ridden that tram countless times. I've purchased God knows how much there," Quinn said. "It's kind of disconcerting."
"It's all right," she said. "I'll have an interesting story for years to come. And a cool scar."
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.