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High wire. (Editorial).

I can't think of a place where the beauty of nature and the elegance of engineering come together as well as in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque, N.M.

Here, 400,000 pounds of track cable--measuring 1 5/8 inches in diameter--is tied to concrete counterweights that rise and fall inside a 70-foot-deep pit. The system provides the muscle that transports a tram 2.7 miles to the top of Sandia Peak, where, at 10,378 feet, the view is heavenly.

The Sandia Peak Tram takes passengers on an unforgettable 20-minute trip that hovers over a stretch of pine forest, red canyon, and granite spires. Along the way, deer, black bears, cougars, and bobcats can be spotted climbing the rocky slopes.

I was in New Mexico last month, taking a break from the bustle of New York City, and marveled at the wondrous engineering feat amidst the southwestern topography worthy of an Ansel Adams exhibit.

Developers Robert J. Nordhaus and Ben Abruzzo laid the foundation for the tram in 1960, when they contracted with the firm of Bell Engineering, headquartered in Lucerne, Switzerland, to work on the project. The cables, along with the cars, were all shipped from Switzerland.

After four years of planning, the intricate work began in 1964 and was completed two years later. The project would result in producing the thirdlargest "clear span" tram in the world, and the longest. "jigback" tram. Clear span refers to the 1 .5-mile-long stretch from the second supporting tower in the system to the top terminal. Jigback means that one coach reaches the top as the other approaches the bottom.

A Bell 204-B helicopter was the workhorse of the project. It made more than 5,000 trips up and down the mountain, airlifting workers and getting materials into proper position.

The drive system at the terminal's base includes four safety subsystems, the most important of which is a hydraulic brake held open under pressure. It closes automatically when power is shut off.

Once the track cables were installed, a moving car was attached, followed by the passenger coach. The car is on an intricate system of wheels that glide along the track cables as it is pulled alternately up and down the mountain.

About 270,000 visitors go up and down Sandia Peak on the tramway yearly. And it's one of the most memorable ways to experience the Cibola National Forest, home to Sandia Peak.

Over the years, the summit accommodations have grown to include two double-chair lifts for skiers, mountain bike trails, and renovations to the restaurant. The area's growth was spiked by the fulfillment of a developer's creativity enabled by engineering know-how.

John Falcioni can be reached by e-mail at

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Title Annotation:Sandia Peak Tram, New Mexico
Author:Falcioni, John G.
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Geographic Code:1U8NM
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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