Alex Cushing is regarded as the visionary who grasped the potential of the mountain from his first glimpse of it, but every visionary needs someone who can implement their vision. For nearly forty years, Cushing’s ideas were carried out by Hans Burkhart, although the two had a contentious and often combative relationship.
Hans Burkhart and Pete Bansen collaborated in the writing of Hans’s autobiography during 30 months of weekly meetings over coffee and storytelling – two old guys recounting the most fun they had in their lives. The book “Above and Beyond” is available for purchase at Mind Play in The Village at Palisades Tahoe.
In 1960, Burkhart – then a ski instructor for skiing legend Stein Eriksen at Aspen Highlands – came to the 1960 Olympic Winter Games as Ericksen’s guest. At the end of the season, Burkhart came to California in his VW Bug and found that there was work available shoveling the sawdust with which the Navy Seabees had constructed a huge temporary parking lot for the Olympics in the meadow. After several more seasons in Aspen, Burkhart – who had helped install several large lifts in Europe and a gondola in Banff, Alberta – was offered a job on the crew installing the original PHB four-passenger gondola.
Photo: Original PHB Gondola
The gondola added significantly to Sq**w Valley’s prestige as a resort and provided enclosed transportation to the Gold Coast mid-mountain lodge, a feature that Cushing used to good advantage in building the resort’s brand, which in the mid-60’s had greater renown as a playground for the rich and famous than for extreme athletes. Cushing hired Burkhart at the conclusion of the gondola project and shortly put him in charge of the operation and maintenance of the lifts – a tricky proposition, because while Cushing had deep pockets when it came to expanding the resort, he was notoriously reluctant to spend anything on maintaining or repairing infrastructure. The resort had a sketchy reputation when it came to safety.
Photo: Hans Burkhart assessing pressure grouting at Tower 1
AERIAL TRAM CONSTRUCTION
In 1966, Burkhart was anxious to work on the aerial tramway to be constructed at Sandia Peak in Albuquerque and told Cushing he was leaving. Anxious to keep Burkhart in his employ, Cushing countered, “What if we built a tram here and you were in charge of construction – would you stay to do that?”. Burkhart asked where it would go, and Cushing told him to meet him the next morning and he would show him. The next day, the two met in the parking lot and Cushing indicated the corner across Shirley Canyon Road from the Sq**w Valley Inn (now Plumpjack) and said he wanted a big building for the lower terminal there and then pointed at the top of the Rockpile and said, “…and the first tower there!” Burkhart asked where it would go from there and Cushing replied, “I don’t know – you can figure that out.” Burkhart supervised the construction of the aerial tram, which opened right on schedule (and under budget, he hastened to add) six months to the day after the crew arrived from Switzerland.
Photo: Top terminal of Aerial Tram
Burkhart left in 1971 to build another large aerial tramway and three lifts which created Snowbird, Utah, but returned in the mid-1970’s for a rebuild of KT-22 and Exhibition. He installed Solitude and the Newport double chairlift in 1977 and rebuilt the aerial tramway after the 1978 accident, then became general manager and president of the resort.
BECOMING GENERAL MANAGER
Cushing announced that he would retire in 1981 and that Burkhart would be fully in charge, but it was not in Cushing’s nature to ever let go and a decision in 1983 to install a prototype gondola over Burkhart’s strong objection led Burkhart to leave the company again to pursue other projects. The gondola turned out to be a disaster and in desperation, Cushing called Burkhart to install a replacement. While negotiating the deal with a vendor in Europe, Cushing first experienced a detachable chairlift and was sold on the advantages enough to buy one; in the summer of 1985, both a six passenger Poma gondola and the Siberia Express detachable chairlift were installed.
Photo: Hans in the Alps
Burkhart moved back into a management role at the resort and his deep understanding of operations and experience managing people led to significant improvement in many areas. He took key elements of the guest experience that had been provided by concessionaires and brought them under the aegis of the company and expanded others – like grooming and transportation – to create a more integrated and accountable operation. The moves paid rich dividends in customer satisfaction and Sq**w Valley – for the first time in its history – received rave reviews from the national ski press, consistently placing in the handful of resorts at the very top of the industry in the United States.
THE FUNITEL PROJECT
Burkhart’s love affair with wire rope transportation never flagged and in the mid-90’s – after a season in which the upper mountain was closed 30% of the season due to high winds – he and Cushing were determined to find a more wind-resistant mode of uphill transportation than the ten-year-old gondola. The two travelled to Europe to explore all of the technologies for moving skiers: literally nothing was off the table, although after riding a underground funicular in the Alps, Cushing fumed, “I’m not going to have my skiers ride in a submarine…”.
They settled on a new type of aerial lift where large cabins were suspended between haul ropes, promising significantly better operational capability even in high winds – a combination of funcular and telepherique: a funitel – and what Burkhart would characterize as the most ambitious and challenging project of his career. The difficulty was that the drive and return machinery were very complex and the towers were larger and heavier than any conventional lift. Burkhart realized that the lift would take two building seasons to construct, but the operation of the mountain couldn’t tolerate a season of operation without a large transport lift linking the base area with Gold Coast. It seemed like an impossible task until he hit on the idea of using the first summer of construction to build the lower terminal for the Funitel behind the existing lower terminal for the gondola and then removing the gondola and constructing the upper terminal and installing the towers and line machinery for the new lift during the second summer of construction. It was a brilliant solution that ultimately allowed adequate time for construction of the Funitel – still the only lift of its type in North America – while providing uninterrupted operation of the gondola right up to the end of the season. The project was not without extraordinary complexity, including the excavation of the counterweight shaft at the upper terminal through 80 feet of solid rock, but the Funitel opened on time and under budget and has been running like a Swiss watch for nearly thirty years.
Photo: The very first ride in the Funitel. Pictured left to right: Hans Burkhart, Nancy Cushing, Jimmy King (current Palisades Mountain Manager), Alex Cushing
THE HARDEST WORKING MAN IN THE ROOM
Ask anyone who worked for him about Hans Burkhart and they’ll tell you what an extraordinary character he was. Always the hardest working person on any project, his enthusiasm for hard work hardly diminished as he aged: on the Funitel project, when he was in his 60’s, he took two days off in the seventeen months it took to build the lift. An expert equipment operator, he had a sixth sense for what he could get away with in a crane and pushed the machine to the very limits of its capacity and sometimes a little bit beyond. He had a similar habit with people and had a knack for recognizing people capable of taking on new challenges and succeeding at them – a great mentor and inspiring (if demanding) boss. Hans died on February 1, 2023 at age 87 after a brief illness – he worked literally every day right to the end of his life.
Burkhart was the perfect complement to Alex Cushing, implementing Cushing’s ideas in concrete and steel – both were highly intelligent, supremely confident, unyielding, and equally capable of being abrasive and charming – two remarkable men who together created an amazing mountain.