I Was on the Kicking Horse Gondola When it Broke Down!

Past Leavetown employee Abby-Lynn Knorr was on the Kicking Horse gondola when it stopped moving. Here’s her story about how the ordeal unfolded….

My name is Abby, and I’m part of the marketing team here at Leavetown. I really enjoy my work, but one of the best parts of this gig is exploring the activities and experiences that are on offer in this gorgeous country of ours so that I can write about them and give our guests a picture of what to expect when they book a vacation to Canada. Well, on this particular day I was enjoying the slopes at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden, BC and preparing to write an article on my experience…but, as it happened…I was on the gondola that day it stopped and 75 people had to be rope rescued after spending several hours inside a small, freezing cabin. So, in the spirit of authenticity…this is my story…
It was a bluebird day at Kicking Horse on Sunday, January 3, when myself and 4 friends went up for a half-day of boarding and skiing. I’ll call them Audrey, Lisa, Brent, and Ryan. We enjoyed a few rides down the mountain and hung out at the top of Stairway to Heaven. There is an incredibly majestic view of the valley and the town of Golden from the peak, and it was such a clear day that we couldn’t help but get snap-happy and throw a few snowballs.
It was shortly before 3pm and we were all chilled so we decided to take the gondola up to the lounge at the top for tea and some fireside warming. Not very long into the ride however, the gondola stopped. Aside from my group there was also one other fellow in our cabin, an Aussie from Brisbane who was in Canada for the year to enjoy our epic snow and terrain. I’ll call him Paul.
If you’ve ever been resort skiing you’ve experienced the chairlift or gondola coming to a stop. There are several reasons this can occur: it can be someone who needs assistance getting on, someone who tripped while getting off at the top, or any variety of small technical issues that are easily and quickly remedied. Generally the lift will start again within a few minutes if not a few seconds. So, naturally, this is what everyone expected at first.
After 15 minutes went by we started making comments like…
At what point should we start to be concerned?’
Did you ever see that movie where those kids get left on the chairlift overnight?
And the slightly less tasteful…
Let’s eat Audrey first.
No way, she’d be stringy and gamey. Let’s eat Ryan, he’d be juicier.
We introduced ourselves to Paul and made sure he felt comfortable with the strangers he was sharing the cabin with. The poor guy was on his own, and we didn’t find out until after the ordeal was over that it was actually his birthday!
After 25-30 minutes we all knew something bigger was wrong. We could see Catamount chair from our gondola and it was also stopped. We called the Kicking Horse guest services number and she told us she didn’t have any specific information for us right that moment but that she knew the team was working on it. She suggested we call back in 15 minutes.
We began to get colder and so we made sure to remind each other to get up and move around. There was a lot of air squats and silly dances going on.
Some time after the first hour passed, we heard a distant voice yelling hello. We lowered the window so we could hear him. A messenger from the hill checked in with us to make sure we were all ok. He asked us if there were any medical emergencies on board, how many of us there were, and whether there were any children in the cabin with us. He told us that they were working on the problem and that they’d keep us updated. A second messenger came along an hour later to check in on us again. He let us know that they would be doing an evacuation and that it would take some more time to get to us.
It started to get dark around 530. But before we lost our visibility entirely we watched in wonder as helicopter carried a man on the end of a rope and deposited him on the top of the cabin below us. A short time later we watched two figures descend from the gondola on a rope. We surmised they must have rescued a team member whose help was needed with the evacuation.
Once it got dark it was harder to keep morale up, but we sang silly songs, re-hashed funny lines from movies and continuously checked in with one another to make sure everyone was ok. My friend Ryan became silent and was seemed pretty upset with the situation. We asked him if he was claustrophobic and he said no. His answers were short and abrupt and he was obviously having a harder time with the experience than the rest of us. Brent gave him an extra layer to warm him up and I rubbed his cold toes with the heat packs that I had inside my mitts. It was a full 2 days later that we learned that Ryan actually is claustrophobic and was having a panic attack but had a hard time admitting it because the rest of us seemed so ok with everything. If there is one thing I wish I could go back and change it was to go into the situation being aware of the signs of a panic attack so that I could be more in tune with his body language rather than just what he was saying verbally. You can read more about that in this article, where I detail the lessons learned and how I’d prepare for a day of skiing now that I’ve been through this.
I often joke that I’m an amphibian and can generate no heat of my own. I’m one of those people who naturally runs cold and often has freezing feet and cold hands. I always snowboard with heat packs inside my boots and mitts. I was extra thankful for these heat packs on this day. The ones in my boots expired so my toes did descend into a very cold state, but I had the ones from my mitts that were like the energizer bunny and just kept giving off heat.
My friend Lisa had warm fingers and toes, and she helped to warm my feet a few times (thank you, girl!) but several hours into the incident she began to complain of a cold core, so naturally major cuddling commenced to try and warm her back up again. Lisa is one of those people that doesn’t complain, so when she said something I started to get more worried about her. I assumed that once you get a cold core it would be hard to warm back up again. Thankfully we were rescued shortly after she said her core was cold, so she was ok.
After the 3.5 hour point we all started to feel tired, but we knew that was from the cold and the emotional stress. We still managed to keep morale fairly high by distracting ourselves with chatter. We tried to keep our talk as positive as possible, which was easy for this crew since we had been friends for a long time and knew each other well. Ryan was still not doing great, he was now silent and fairly still, albeit awake and alert. He had been fighting a cold for a few days prior and I’m sure he was feeling worse. Brent asked him a few times if he was ok but received terse answers that he was fine. We reminded him to keep moving and he would get up and move every once in a while. Paul the Aussie was remarkable, totally calm and patient while waiting for rescue.
We all knew that things were being done to execute an evacuation because we could see the lights of ski doo’s moving about the mountainous terrain below us. We speculated about how exactly they were going to evacuate us safely. Brent and Audrey are both rock climbers and they were anticipating the experience of being lowered from a cabin on a rope…even if it was dark out.
When you’re sitting in the cabin of a gondola and its dark and cold out, the windows get frosted up and it starts to feel like a tomb. Lisa’s phone was the last to stop working (mine froze up almost immediately) so for a short time we used her flashlight app to light the cabin, and that helped.
Around 7:30 or shortly after we started to feel and hear vibrations coming through the cabin. We could tell that someone was zip-lining on the cable down to us. How impressive! To zip-line down a cable in the dark and cold, high above very steep terrain! We were pretty amazed.
We felt him land on the top of the cabin and we opened the windows. He introduced himself as Brady and said ‘I’ll be your evacuee-er today’. He was friendly and caring. He checked in with us to make sure we were all ok and told us that he had to do a few things outside first but that the door would pop open soon and he would prepare us for the evacuation. When the doors popped open we slid back to give him room. We made a lot of cheesy jokes like ‘Thanks for dropping in’, and ‘Care to join the party?’ He was in good spirits and that really helped.
He asked if anyone was afraid of heights, and while we had two who were a bit nervous, it wasn’t a big deal. He told us he’d be using a diaper harness (sexy name, don’t you think?) and belaying us down two at a time. He explained how secure the equipment was and put any fears to rest that we could fall. He explained that the most dangerous part was when you first lean backwards out the door of the cabin. The edge of the doorway was slippery and the risk was to slip and bang into it or swing back into the gondola and hit the people inside, so he made sure to make us aware of this.
I and my friend Lisa were the first to ‘diaper up’. He told us to keep our arms around each other while we descended. We gave our weight to the harness and used our feet to push ourselves out the door going backwards. We were to keep our feet on the edge until our heads were below the cabin, which feels weird because you’re almost upside down. From there we dropped below the cabin and swayed a little bit. We swung there face up for a moment and both of us were absolutely amazed at the incredible night sky above us. It was a clear, still night and the stars were in full display. It was absolutely stunning. We were very thankful that there was no blowing snow.
Brady shouted to someone on the ground that he was lowering us and we felt the cable lower us down into space. It wasn’t scary at all because we couldn’t look down. And even if we had been able to, I don’t think we would have seen much. The stars were so epic that we didn’t want to look down anyway, we even saw a shooting star.
A friendly female voice came up from below letting us know she would rotate us so that our feet would be pointing downhill and directing us to land on the snow on our backs. From there she helped us stand and advised Brady to pull up the harnesses for the next guests. She then cracked and rapid-fired heat packs at us faster than I’ve every seen anyone move. She was alert but relaxed and calm, and very kind and professional. She gave us as many heat packs as we wanted and recommended that if we could put a few near our femoral arteries that it would help to warm up our toes.
We heard Audrey and Brent take their turn exiting the cabin and the first thing we heard Audrey say as soon as she left the cabin was, ‘Oh WOW! The stars are amazing!’ Her voice echoed out into the night and made us laugh.
They had us move down the slope towards the cat track where the ski-doos were waiting. They advised us not to wait for everyone, just to get down the hill and get warmed up as soon as possible. I rode behind the driver of the ski-doo and she went very slowly and handled the terrain and any traffic expertly. My friend Lisa however, rode in front of her driver and her face nearly froze on the way down. This is where you’d want to pull up your scarf or face-protector again. We all made it back to the chalet where hot food and drinks were waiting as well as support staff to check on frozen toes and emotional states.
We sat at a table and peeled off our gear and boots to let our feet warm up, building little teepees out of heat packs for our toes to live in. There was chili and hot soup, tea and other snacks available so we sat around and chatted about the event while we warmed our bellies. The staff at Kicking Horse were friendly and caring, coming over to check that we had what we needed. There were medically trained team members to check people for frostbite and make reports so that everything was documented.
The drive home was quiet for the most part as we were all exhausted. We all felt drained for a few days afterwards (it’s now 3 days later and I’m still a bit more tired than usual) but we were all thankful, grateful, and relieved that it all turned out ok.
While it’s incredibly unlikely that you’ll ever experience being trapped on a gondola, odds are good that in everyone’s life there will be an emergency of some kind. It’s never very fun while it’s happening, but, if you’re anything like me, afterwards you’ll find yourself looking back at it with awe and gratitude.
True character is revealed under pressure and it’s in situations like these where you’ll learn who you truly are. There will be multiple lessons learned, and that is why I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.
My thanks to my friends for being so incredibly positive and supportive, and to the Kicking Horse safety teams and staff for getting us evacuated in such a professional manner. I would never hesitate to ride there again, or anywhere else for that matter. However, there are a few things in terms of prep-work that I would do differently now that I’ve been through this ordeal.