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Big White is a ski resort that lives up to its name. Like many of its counterparts in British Columbia, the upper mountain gets pummeled by Pacific storms leaving trees and lifts looking like “snow ghosts” all winter. On January 27th, Doppelmayr issued a service bulletin due to cracks found on the crossarms of depression towers of lifts in California, Colorado and New Hampshire. Big White crews found damage to tower 14 of the Gem Lake Express and took the lift out of service on January 28th.
More than 8,000 feet long and rising 2,300 feet, Gem Lake accesses a huge portion of Big White’s terrain. The detachable quad lift was built by Doppelmayr in 1996 and has 24 towers. Tower 14 sits about two thirds of the way up the line at 5,914 feet in elevation. Gem Lake has a parking rail for some of its 128 chairs at the bottom terminal but not for the entire line.
After the cracks on tower 14 were discovered, Doppelmayr fabricated a new crossarm in St. Jerome and shipped it from Quebec early last week. Of course, the 20-foot long, 2.5 ton part got stuck in a winter storm of its own and ended up taking 119 hours to cross Canada. Meanwhile, Big White maintenance staff rigged the haul rope and removed the broken crossarm.
The return station of a detachable quad burned last night at Ski Bromont in Quebec. The 2003 Doppelmayr CTEC lift is called Versant du Lac or Lift 5. More pictures of it can be found here. This is the third such terminal fire in Eastern Canada in as many years. The drive terminals of high speed quads at Mont Tremblant and Marble Mountain burned in 2014 and were subsequently repaired. The good news for Bromont is the Uni-G terminal model is still in production so it shouldn’t be too hard to get a new one this spring. Doppelmayr’s St. Jerome factory is less than two hours away.
Intrawest announced in its second quarter earnings call today that Steamboat will get its 8th detachable lift this summer, a high speed quad replacing the Elkhead chair. The new lift will better serve beginner and low-intermediate skiers. Intrawest CEO Tom Marano noted, “Elkhead services a high-volume area of the mountain and facilitates lunchtime and end-of-day egress from the popular beginner and intermediate terrain pods on the south side of the mountain. The increased speed and capacity of this new lift will substantially improve the guest experience at Steamboat.”
Elkhead is a Yan fixed-grip quad built in 1984 with newer Doppelmayr line equipment. At just under 2,500 feet, the current 5.8 minute lift ride will be cut to just 2.5 minutes with a detachable quad. The existing chair rises 707 vertical feet at 425 feet/minute. No word yet on which manufacturer will build the Elkhead Express but Leitner-Poma built the Christie Peak Express for Steamboat in 2007 and the Wildhorse Gondola in 2009. This is the second major lift announcement from Colorado in recent weeks; Vail announced in December it’s replacing Chair 17 with a detachable quad this summer. With stellar snow across the west, it might be a busy one for lift manufacturers.
There’s a lively discussion going on over at Alpinforum about the future of detachable lifts, which haven’t gotten much faster despite huge advances in technology over the last thirty years. The first modern detachable chairlift, Quicksilver at Breckenridge, went 787 feet a minute when it debuted in 1981. Since then, manufacturers have installed hundreds of gondolas and chairlifts capable of going more than 1,000 fpm.
The first lift to go 1,100 fpm was the Whistler Village Gondola in 1988 and the first capable of 1,200 fpm was Stowe’s gondola in 1991. Both were built by Poma, the early adopter of faster line speeds. The only detachable installed in North America since 1991 capable of traveling any more than 1,200 fpm is the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, debuting in 2012. As a tri-cable gondola, P2P has an impressive capability of 1,476 fpm (7.5 m/s.) Doppelmayr claims similar systems can go up to 1,670 fpm (8.5 m/s.) So far, the fastest 3S ever built goes 8 m/s and one that can go 8.5 will debut in Vietnam next year. Meanwhile, 1,200 fpm (6 m/s) remains the highest speed for a single cable detachable, a stat that hasn’t changed since 1991.
The truth is the vast majority of detachable lifts built these days have the standard design speed of 1,000 fpm (5.08 m/s) and operate even slower much of the time. In my experience, many ski areas run so-called high speed lifts at 800 or 900 feet a minute on all but the busiest of days. As users on Alpinforum note, ski resort operators care more about reducing stops, wear and tear than shaving thirty seconds off a ride time that the average guest won’t even notice.
Vietnam doesn’t have skiing. That fact makes it an unlikely candidate for the title of world ropeway capital. With multiple record-breaking gondolas operating and more under construction, that may soon change. In 2007, Poma built a spectacular installation over two miles of ocean called the Vinpearl Cable Car. The Hanoi-based Sun Group is behind many of Vietnam’s lift projects and is perhaps the Doppelmayr/Garaventa Group’s best customer. Sun Group operates the second longest mono-cable gondola, just commissioned the world’s longest 3S gondola and is currently building another 3S that’s a mile longer than the first one. Now they are building a huge aerial tramway and at least two more gondola lifts.
Vietnam’s first reversible aerial tramway under construction in Ha Long Bay will break two world records. The Mystic Mountain Skyway will link a new amusement park called Ha Long Ocean Park with one of the world’s largest observation wheels on a neighboring mountain across the bay. The $282 million project is a perfect site for an aerial tramway with two points needing to be connected but with natural obstacles in between. At the same time, the alignment is relatively short with moderate capacity needs.