A wind gust slammed an Alyeska Resort tram car into a support tower Monday night, injuring a passenger and forcing New Year's Eve diners at the resort's mid-mountain restaurant to descend via chairlift and snowcat, according to the resort.
Alyeska staff used a special rescue car they placed on the tramway's cables to reach the injured woman, who suffered cuts to her head and bruises, resort spokespersons said. The resort described the wounds as "minor" and said there were no others injured.
Meanwhile, the popular tramway that whisks skiers to the slopes and diners to Seven Glaciers restaurant -- at 2,330 feet and about three-quarters of the way up Mount Alyeska -- is closed indefinitely as technicians try to look for possible damage and investigate the incident.
Resort spokesman Jason Lott said it's the first time in the tram's 17-year history that a car has struck the tower or such a rescue has been carried out.
Resort staff generally start thinking about shutting down tram operations when winds reach 20 or 25 mph, Lott said. On Monday, the wind speed registered in the teens, but the 45 mph gust that caused the car to hit the tower was an "anomaly" and struck without warning, Lott said.
"It was a gust that came up out of nowhere," he said. "We just didn't see it coming."
Lott said there had not been pressure to keep the tram running in heavy wind due to the possibility of lost revenue on New Year's Eve. Safety for visitors is the resort's utmost priority, he said.
The car was heading downhill when it blew into the 150-foot tower about 7:20 p.m. Monday and became stuck on the tower's guide rails, Lott said. Five people were inside: an operator, two passengers and two off-duty Alyeska employees. Another car, also stranded, held an operator and an employee, he said.
Safety staff in a specialized rescue car reached the stricken tram car while wind and snow pounded them as the sudden storm built in strength, Lott said. The injured woman and the four others inside were placed in harnesses, clipped to safety lines and loaded one-by-one into the rescue car, Lott said. The rescue car delivered them to the upper tram terminal, and a snow cat -- an enclosed vehicle with tracks -- took them to the mountain's base, he said. The woman received medical attention throughout the journey and at the resort's medical facility at the bottom, he said.
Lott was unsure whether the hurt woman went to a hospital. Alyeska Resort has not publicly named her.
The operator in the other tram car used a harness and rope to lower the Alyeska employee down to the steep, snow-covered slope known as the North Face with help from ski patrollers, Lott said. Then the operator lowered down, and another snowcat drove them down the mountain, Lott said.
"I guess the positive that comes out of this is that we do enough training throughout the year that really allows us our staff to be prepared for situations that come up," Lott said. "If you don't prepare for the worst, you can't react when something happens. Our team was spot on when they got there."
As a precaution against worsening wind, New Year's Eve dinner was cut short for some of the guests at Seven Glaciers, Lott said. About 65 diners descended the mountain via chairlift, with another 15 or so taken down in snowcats, Lott said. The guests were provided with coats and blankets to stay warm, he said. Some of those whose evening plans were suddenly changed were issued refunds, Lott said.
Many of the guests kept up their festive mood, Lott said.
"I know that the experience that they had was probably not the one they had signed up for, but we got them down via Chair 1 and via snow cats, so it's probably an experience they'll talk about for a while," Lott said.
Because Alyeska safety staff were forced to turn their attention to the rescue, the resort's annual torchlight parade was canceled. A fireworks display went off as planned that night, but the wind and heavy snow limited ski lift operations on New Year's Day, Lott said.
The wind, thick clouds and snowfall were making it difficult to assess the tramway for damage, Lott said. It would remain closed until further notice, he said Tuesday afternoon.
"We're still evaluating everything. It's blowing pretty heavy up there right now, so our teams are trying to safely get up and evaluate the situation and see where we're at and where we're going to go," Lott said. "You never know what Mother Nature's going to do. You can never plan all your attacks on it, but this has been, definitely, eye-opening."
Reach Casey Grove at email@example.com  or 257-4589.
By CASEY GROVE