caldwell Heavy Lifting

Sixteen years ago, Troy Caldwell went to buy 10 acres from Southern Pacific and got a sweet deal on 400 acres of land, most of it mountainous, near Lake Tahoe. A ski bum who left college to learn the sport, Caldwell eventually became part of the U.S. Ski Team in the 1970s, and he says he’s been part of the ski industry (which he pronounces “SKI-in DUS-TREE”) ever since.

Caldwell’s dream is to build his own private ski facility. Lacking the big bucks, he decided to build it himself, and he’s been working the past six years on designing and constructing his own chairlift. Some of the work has been bartered as “Tahoe trade-outs.” He made office cabinets in exchange for the structural engineering of the chairlift.

Last fall, he placed 17 towers up the mountain, with the help of a helicopter and 30 volunteers who hope to ski on the property one day. The towers, which weigh up to 3,000 pounds, were built in his garage using a series of pulleys and hoists. This allowed him to move these heavy objects himself, as he built stairs and platforms and welded them to the large pipe. “You have to do the towers right,” Caldwell says, “because you don’t ever want to have to do them again.”

Caldwell has been challenged by lawsuits that drain his bank account but not his enthusiasm. “You want your mind to be focused on the positive things and not the real-world problems that can make you bitter,” he says.

Weather has also been an issue. Two early season snowstorms of 20 inches seemed to wipe out his chance to place the towers last autumn, as the footings were full of snow. However, his volunteer crew encouraged him to continue by offering to dig out the 7-foot-deep holes and make them ready.

Caldwell says that when the helicopter arrived on site to move the towers, he could tell he had a nervous pilot who had worked on forest fires but not this kind of heavy lifting. He had to direct him not to try to drop the tower into the hole but just to hold the weight of the tower and let the ground crew move the tower into place.

One of the volunteers, Ken Gracey, vice president of Parallax (makers of the BASIC Stamp microcontroller), says: “You’ve seen how large this tower is on the ground and then you see it coming at you, as the helicopter is lowering it, and you’re aware that all you’ve got to protect you is a hard hat.”

Caldwell has tried to leave the mountain close to how he originally found it, not removing trees and boulders. He hopes to have a ski mountain that looks natural without several big scars down the side of it. Of course, doing it this way has its challenges. “Here’s a mile-long job site that I can’t get any heavy equipment to,” he says. “I’ve had to figure out how to use hand tools to move massive weights, such as lifting a 5,000-pound rock out of its hole. You get to find out what real leverage is.” He adds, “The other problem is that if I don’t have the right tool with me, it’s three hours to go back and get it.”

Caldwell’s goal is to prove he can create his own ski resort on a low budget in an environmentally sound way. He hopes to be up and running in the winter of 2008. With the eager participation of volunteers, his dream seems about to be realized in the manner of an old-fashioned barn raising.

Dale Dougherty

I’m founder of MAKE magazine and creator of Maker Faire. I am CEO of Maker Media, the company that produces MAKE, Maker Faire and Maker Shed. I am Chairman of the Maker Education Initiative (www.makered.org).


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