The Mountain Times

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Once upon a time in history: Memories of two early pioneers

There were a number of "Killington pioneers" who worked in the start-up years whose stories were both unusual - and at times funny - but always illustrative of the spirit that built the ski area.

Asked about the big moments or most important changes in Killington's history, workers inevitably mention the building of the first gondola (1968-70) as an exciting, albeit stressful, time.

In a late 1980s interview, Ed McDonnell acknowledged that his duties as a construction supervisor on the project were indeed stressful. Responsible for the "cement, excavation, re-rod, and carpentry crews which were strung up and down the mountain from Route 4 to Skye Peak," McDonnell had to make sure each crew had materials to work with and that they did their work properly.

He also surveyed the lift line and had to "check lift-tower bases to see that they were put in the right spot and at the right slant - a lot of responsibility." In describing the construction of the Skye Peak terminal in winter conditions, his words echoed the spiriti and pride of many workers. "The wind, cold and snow on Skye were really brutal. But the last piece of steel went up the day before Christmas 1968. The helicopter pilot had an awful time - his controls were freezing - and we were freezing, but we got it done."

Demonstrating the sense of humor that often helped the men deal with stressful jobs, McDonnell told of one worker's flight over the treetops. They were building the gondola, the first lift to be installed with the aid of helicopters, when Mike Chamberlain, having pulled the handle to release a cement bucket's contents, found himself off balance and unable to let go because he would have dropped onto the steel rebar sticking up at the pour site. [Chamberlain explained that because he was on the backside of the bucket, the spotter couldn't see him. So not knowing that he had a human cargo, the helicopter pilot took off.

But instead of going sideways, which would have given Chamberlain a chance to drop off, the chopper went straight up! Managing to get his leg up on the handle, Chamberlain "hung on for dear life."

The pilot, still unaware of his passenger, flew him over the trees to the Northbrook Station ten towers below. The spotter there saw Chamberlain and signaled the pilot to bring the bucket in gently - the normal routine being to "crash" the empty buckets to the ground!

 "When he got to the bottom, Mike ran right back up to his tower because he knew I'd be looking for him. I had the helicopter pilot make out a bill to give him for the flight, but he hasn't paid it yet," McDonnell said with a twinkle in his eye.

But while Chamberlain got by unscathed, McDonnell experienced a rather stark side effect due to the stress of being a supervisor on the project. His hair turned totally white and then fell out, something no one ever forget although it eventually grew back in in is original color.

As a lift supervisor in winter, McDonnell operated the Killington Chairlift for two years and recalled a time when he and Royal Biathrow ventured from the top of the chair to the (original) Glades Poma, which had broken down. "Instead of taking a trail, we headed right over the top of the mountain through deep snow." At one point, McDonnell noticed a hat in the snow and, bending over to pick it up, discovered it was on Royal's head! "I hadn't seen him fall in and just missed stepping on him. I spent the next half hour trying to dig him out. I had to be careful that I didn't fall in - they wouldn't have found us till spring," McDonnell recalled with a chuckle.

Remembering the hard work and long hours, McDonnell commented, "Days began at 7 a.m. and often went to midnight. I was ten years older than the others [he joined Killington in November 1959 at the age of thirty-nine]. We'd come down off the mountain tired and dirty, and Smith would get us to work longer saying 'just a little more and then we'll have a party.' I used to feel sorry for Sue because she'd have a nice clean house and he'd bring us home and we'd bring in mud and dirt.

McDonnell switched to an inside job in 1975 answering phones. He "set up a dispatch system starting with just two portable, two-way radios." Familiar with all the lifts, he was able to coordinate with lift operations and log information as well as summon rescue personnel for skier accidents. Proud of his contribution and the accomplishment wrought by the efforts of so many hard workers, McDonnell retired in 1980. Part of his legacy was to start a family tradition with sons Terry and Chris continuing to work at the mountain.

Raymond Billings of Plymouth found "winter work" at Killington in 1961-62 and when asked to stay on that spring, he embarked on a career in maintenance that spanned 24 years. As head mechanic, he contributed to the smooth operations of the equipment from lifts to bulldozers and groomers, but as the area got bigger, he specialized in vehicle maintenance, helping out on lifts as needed.

Summers he built trails, operating heavy equipment and large bulldozers into the early 1980s.

Billings recalled grooming his first winter and driving the Case tractor with the three-foot-long wood pads on the tracks for packing snow (and no cab for the driver). "Sometimes the wind blew so hard that you had to drive backwards and you had so many clothes on you could hardly move," he recalled in a 1980s interview. Among the early grooming implements were the round drags, which he helped build (made with pipe and spikes) and the "magic carpet," a conglomeration of chains with angle irons to smooth out the snow.

One of his pioneering grooming runs occurred when "Paul Bousquet said to pack everything. Clayt Turner had the Case and I had the Kristi Kat. We were grooming and came upon this trail we hadn't done before."

Soon Billings had the machine on its nose in the steep moguls, and, when he turned to go back up the trail, he could see Turner, his face "oiled black from the spraying hydraulics of the Case."

When Bousquet learned where they had been, he was incredulous, exclaiming, "What? We don't do that trail!"

"But after that we did pack some steeper ones," Billings siad of the first time grooming Bunny Buster.

Billings also put in "a lot of time under the groomers. The work could be dangerous, but I'd do it all over again. I was a careful worker. We would work under a machine for hours at a time, sometimes lying on the snow and most of the time working bare handed. I never got frostbite though one night, when a machine broke down on Skye Peak, I thought we'd freeze to death. But we made it."

Billings summed up the early years, saying: "The variety of work made things more interesting. What I liked was that Pres Smith was a hard-working man who didn't ask you to do anything he wouldn't do. He and Paul Bousquet were always out there with us. Once we were rebuilding the undercarriage of the tractor on a Sunday, and when our families came up for a picnic, Bousquet crawled out from under the tractor dirty like the rest of us."

Ed and Ray are no longer with us today, but they are remembered fondly - along with their stories.