Working at a Remote Hydro Facility: Advice from an Operator

Operating the 11-MW Mystic Lake hydro plant at the edge of one of the most rugged regions in the western U.S. presents unique challenges. Tips for overcoming these issues can be useful for operators working at remote facilities.

By Ryan L. Olson

The 11-MW Mystic Lake plant is on the edge of one of the most rugged mountainous regions in the West – the 920,377-acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in Montana. Three personnel work at the plant – a foreman and two journeyman operator/maintenance personnel. These personnel live at a camp site that consists of three houses for the employees, an extra house for visiting contractors, and a shop. This camp site is about 250 feet from the powerhouse, at an elevation of about 6,500 feet. Based on three years of experience working at Mystic Lake, the author shares tips for operators working at remote facilities.

Getting to the dam

Mystic Lake started out as a natural lake. An arch dam – 388 feet long and 41 feet high – was built in the 1920s to raise the level of water in the lake. The dam sits at an elevation of about 7,600 feet. Each November, plant personnel draw down the lake so that the water level is below the natural barrier that formed the original lake. Thus, the dam does not impound water year-round.

In the spring, summer, and fall, personnel must make the 2.5-mile trip up to the dam (often in inclement weather) once a week to perform a visual inspection. Also, personnel must go to the lake to pull stoplogs (flashboards) and spill water if necessary to maintain the lake level. In the winter, only an emergency situation necessitates a trip to the lake.

Plant personnel have four primary ways to travel to the lake.

The first involves taking an inclined rail car from the powerhouse to the top of the penstock, at an elevation of 7,500 feet. The rail car rides on a 1-inch cable. Once at the top of the penstock, personnel take two trains up to the dam. The first train, called the lower train, features an engine and one or two cars to carry passengers and materials needed for repairs. This train travels 1 mile, to the point of a deep gulch. From there, personnel disembark and cross over the gulch via a 100-foot-long bridge. On the other side of the bridge they board the upper train, which takes them another mile to the lake.

The rail car and trains are the preferred route to the dam. However, in the late fall, winter, and early spring, snow on the tracks often prevents use of the trains. In this case, there are three alternate routes to reach the top, all of which involve a long hike.

One option is Wood Tick Trail. This trail parallels the penstock and runs from the powerhouse to the top of the penstock. The trail is steep and covered with rocks the size of baseballs and grapefruit. Snow on the trail can get waist deep at times. Personnel must wear showshoes fitted with large cleats in order to climb the steep angle. Once at the top of the penstock, personnel can walk on the train tracks the rest of the way to the dam. This route usually takes two hours one way.

Another route is a 3-mile-long U.S. Forest Service trail that goes to Mystic Lake and continues on to Granite Peak, the highest point in Montana. The trail starts about 200 feet from the camp site. This is a good trail, until heavy snow gives it a steep side angle or an avalanche covers it. It also is the path where personnel are most likely to encounter other people because tourists use it to reach Granite Peak, which is about 11 miles from the powerhouse. This trail usually takes an hour and 45 minutes one way.

The third route is the most dependable but also the most challenging. This involves traveling 2.5 miles up the mountain through the bottom of the canyon that contains the powerhouse and dam. Typically the snow is deep on this route – up to 5 feet – and personnel must wear snowshoes. The bottom of the canyon is littered with boulder fields, which can be dangerous when snow covers the rocks and creates empty depressions that personnel can fall into. When the snow is deep, personnel also must be alert for tree wells – dangerous holes or depressions of loose snow that typically surround a tree, particularly evergreens. Tree wells pose a constant threat to hikers, skiers, and snowboarders. If you fall into a tree well it is challenging, if not impossible, to climb back out with snowshoes strapped to your boots. In addition, it is possible to encounter moose in the canyon. These animals can be hazardous to people. This route takes three to four hours one way.

Tips from the operator

It takes a special type of person to work at a remote hydro facility for an extended period of time and stay healthy. Here are my tips for operators who work at remote facilities like Mystic Lake.

Plant and dam operations

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of working at a remote hydro facility is making sure your equipment orders are as complete as possible. It can take several days for deliveries to reach you, so you need a good materials list when preparing for large jobs and even routine maintenance. It is not convenient to have to delay completing a task while waiting for parts to arrive.

Other responsibilities

Working at a location as remote as Mystic Lake provides many interesting and unique challenges that are outside the scope of operating the hydro project. For example, we maintain 14 miles of mountain road. This includes plowing snow in the winter and moving fallen trees and large rocks that come off the mountain during rain storms. We also maintain our own camp water system. Our water comes out of the creek, upstream to a 10,000-gallon holding tank. Each house in the camp has its own filtration and ionization system that plant employees maintain.

A sturdy backpack, ski poles, and snow shoes are essential equipment for hydro plant operators during winter weather at PPL Montana’s 11-MW Mystic Lake project.
Click here to enlarge image

In addition, we are a weather reporting station for the National Weather Service. We measure and report precipitation and provide current weather conditions on a daily basis. Finally, we serve as a fire reporting station because we have direct communication with local law enforcement. In fact, we have the only telephone system in the canyon, which means the public relies on us to summon medical care and first aid, among other things.

Clothing and equipment

First, choose proper footwear. You have to be able to rely on your feet to carry you through the day. Look for a good waterproof hiking boot for summer, with a sole of welt construction so that it can be resoled when necessary. Also look for soles that will not slip on rocks, preferably an air bob sole. If you work in an area where there are venomous snakes, consider boots with higher uppers. For winter, choose boots that are lined with Gore-Tex, contain 600 to 1,000 grams of insulation, and have air bob soles for good traction. I prefer a lace-up boot because boots that pull on can slip off your feet if they get wedged in rocks, mud, or snow.

For outerwear, I prefer a coat and pants made of Gore-Tex for all seasons. The material is lightweight and keeps you dry.

Invest in a good backpack. I recently purchased a Cache Hauler backpack, which is designed to carry heavy loads comfortably and has a fold-up shelf that can hold up to 100 pounds of gear and tools. This allows me to carry tools necessary for jobs. In the winter, I can carry my snowshoes on the shelf of the pack, rather than slinging them over my shoulder. If I am just gathering information or performing an inspection, I wear a day pack that has an inner frame and will support 35 to 50 pounds of gear.

When I am taking a trip up the mountain, I pack extra clothing, rain gear, a head lamp, matches or a lighter, sunblock, lip balm, sunglasses with ultraviolet protection, bandages, gauze pads and tape, and a mouth barrier. In the winter, I carry ski poles. Good food to carry includes granola bars, fruit, gum, and your lunch.

In the summer, when Mystic Lake Dam impounds water, the dam must be inspected weekly. Personnel also must make the 2.5-mile trip up to the dam to pull stoplogs (flashboards) and spill water if necessary to maintain the lake level.
Click here to enlarge image

Finally, I usually take four 20-ounce bottles of water when I work on the mountain, even on a small task. For long trips, I take a hydro pack, which is a backpack with a special bladder to hold larger quantities of water. Other options include carrying water purifying bottles or drinking right out of the small creeks.

Personal care

Being fit is an important component of doing this job. Regular exercise helps in many ways. First, it keeps that spare tire off. Second, it helps your mind to focus, which strengthens your senses. It also keeps up your physical strength, as well as your agility and endurance. Finally, it is a good way to wind down your day and promote relaxation.

Before you start work, spend some time on a stretching program. It will help you get through your day easier as well as prevent injuries.

You need to have good, keen senses when working in remote outdoor places. Your five senses – sight, smell, hearing, equilibrium, and touch – give you a natural understanding of the environment and help you detect things automatically. To preserve your senses, it is important to wear personal protective equipment – such as steel-toed shoes, safety glasses, hard hats, and ear plugs – when working around noisy, moving, or rotating equipment and while doing other projects.

After spending a week or more away from civilization, you need a change of pace. Go to the nearest city and spend all that money you cannot spend in camp. I suggest splurging a little, such as buying a 64-inch high-definition television (HDTV) and subscribing to HDTV-compatible satellite television for those long winter evenings. This also would be a good way to get family and friends to come see you more often!

Mr. Olson may be reached at PPL Montana, 2065 West Rosebud Road, Fishtail, MT 59028; (1) 406-670-4637; E-mail:

Ryan Olson is hydro foreman at PPL Montana’s 11-MW Mystic Lake plant.

Previous articlePV Powered Receives US $5M Award
Next articleRapid Growth in the Algae Market; Managing Risk in the Renewables Space

No posts to display