Crystal Mountain made headlines in 2007 when it decided to serve its largest-ever expansion with a brand new, $3 million fixed-grip double chair. For perspective, 1985 was the last time a new double as long as Northway was built.
The Northway expansion added lift service to 1,000 acres of advanced tree skiing and bowls, an area bigger than most US ski areas. “Northback,” as it was known had been open for years but required an epic traverse or bus ride back to the base area. John Kircher of Boyne Resorts decided to build a lift but keep its capacity and speed low. Only a handful of trails were cut in the Northway pod with no grading or grooming. The result is awesome powder skiing with virtually no crowds. There isn’t even a maze at the bottom of the lift.
The Doppelmayr CTEC double moves only 1,200 skiers per hour (Crystal’s workhorse six-packs move 3,600.) Because it services exclusively advanced terrain, Crystal can get away spinning Northway at a quick 550 feet a minute. That means 1,843 vertical feet in less than 10 minutes. The bottom of the chair is located in the middle of nowhere with no road access or electricity. With the exception of the top terminal, the entire lift was built with a spider excavator and helicopter. As you crest the first ridge after boarding Northway, you realize how long it is. At 5,422 feet, there are plenty of longer lifts out there but few that access such varied terrain. Only once you reach the top do you feel like you are back at a ski area.
Growing up in the rainy Pacific Northwest, I happen to love chairs with bubbles. I can get the comfort of a gondola without taking my skis off or enjoy fresh air like on any other chairlift. Lifts with bubbles are technically very cool too. Electronic eyes in the lift terminals know when chairs are empty and the bubbles lower automatically. Chairs stay dry and lifties don’t have to sweep them or flip chairs at night.
Despite their added comfort, bubbles haven’t really caught on in North America. Europe is a different story where 30+ lifts are built with them every year. In the US and Canada, Doppelmayr has built 16 lifts with bubbles since 1985. You can find them at Whistler-Blackcomb, Sun Peaks, Mont-Saint-Anne, Big Sky, Canyons and Stoneham. The Yellowstone Club also has bubbles on all six of their quad chairs.
A “3S” is a detachable gondola with two track ropes and one haul rope. It combines the speed and stability of a tram with the capacity of a gondola. Cabins generally hold about 30 passengers. 3S systems can move up to 4,500 passengers per hour at up to 8.5 meters per second. They can withstand high winds and traverse long spans between towers. These highly capable lifts are also expensive. Only 12 3S gondolas have been built. Perhaps the most famous of them, Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak, cost $51 million!
The 3S was developed by VonRoll of Switzerland. The first one to open was the Alpin Express at Saas-Fee in 1991. A second section opened in 1994. When Doppelmayr merged with VonRoll in 1996, they inherited the 3S technology. Doppelmayr built its first 3S in 2002 at Val d’Isere, France. Called L’Olympique, it accesses the famous ski area of Escape Killy.
Kitzbuhel, Austria opened the 3S Bahn in 2004. It connects two ski areas across a valley with an 8,200 foot-long unsupported span. Four years later, Doppelmayr connected Whistler and Blackcomb with the Peak 2 Peak, featuring an even longer unsupported span of 1.88 miles. Peak 2 Peak’s highest point above ground is an incredible 1,427 feet. It remains the only 3S gondola outside of Europe.
Leitner got into the 3S business in 2009 with a system in northern Italy. The towns of Renon and Ritten were connected by a 2.8 mile-long 3S. This was the first 3S built outside of a ski resort. Another urban 3S was built across the Rhine River in Koblenz, Germany in 2010. This Doppelmayr system moves 3,800 passengers per hour in each direction. Also in 2010, Doppelmayr built the Gaislachkogl 2 at Solden, Austria.
What if you could build two lifts for the price of one longer lift? A handful of ski areas have done it with “up and over” lifts. With this setup, riders load at each end and unload at a ridgetop mid-station. There are obvious cost advantages but also limited locations where such a lift makes sense. Due to multiple load/unload areas more stops and slows can occur. Another disadvantage is that the entire system has to run even if only one side is open. Most up and over lifts are located in the Pacific Northwest.
Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort built a CTEC up and over quad in 1995 to replace two lifts. Skiers who load Ray’s Lift in the main village can unload at the Mont Mountain summit or continue down the other side to the base of the Arrowhead lift. Guests can also load at this end to ride back up to the mid-station. Ray’s lift is a beast – depending on the season it has eight different load/unload points, five lift shacks with controls and 33 towers.
Stevens Pass considers its Double Diamond/Southern Cross system as two separate lifts. Skiers load at both ends and unload on two ramps at the summit which are monitored by one operator. The front side portion, called Double Diamond, is short and steep while the rest of the lift is on the Mill Valley side and dubbed Southern Cross. This system was also built by CTEC in 1987. The combined lift is 5,700 feet long and moves 1,200 people per hour up each side.
Perhaps the most famous of the up and over lifts is the Dinosaur at Snoqualmie’s Hyak. It was built by Murray-Latta in 1965. Over 5,000 feet long, it started at the base of Hyak, crossed the summit and continued down into Hidden Valley. This one lift accessed 100% of the resort’s terrain on both sides of Mt. Hyak. The lift had a rollback in 1971 that injured dozens of skiers. The Dinosaur continued to run until 1988. When it closed, large portions of Hyak became abandoned. The Dinosaur sat idle until was removed in 2009 and replaced with two used Riblet lifts, a triple on the front side and a double in Hidden Valley.
Moab, a town of 5,000 in the Utah desert is the surprising home of two failed lift projects – a gondola that never opened and a modern chairlift that lasted only a few years.
Moab Scenic Tram
Just south of Arches National Park stands the Moab Scenic Tram. It’s actually a pulse gondola built by Doppelmayr. A small group of investors spent $3.3 million to build the gondola along with a parking lot and two terminal buildings in 1999. From the outset it was criticized as the “tram to nowhere.” Scheduled to open in April 2001, the tram’s owners got in a fight with the county over a removal bond to be paid in case the business failed. Ironically the business never opened and the vandalized tram remains 16 years later. Its windows and control panels have been smashed and graffiti is everywhere. The lift is very short with only five towers and a handful of cabins, some of which never made it onto the haul rope. It is probably the world’s newest gondola to be tensioned with a counterweight and without level boarding. If you’d like to check it out in person, it’s hard to miss at the intersection of US 191 and Route 128.
Moab Scenic Skyway
On the other side of town was the Moab Scenic Skyway, a Garaventa CTEC quad chairlift which took hikers and bikers 1,000 feet up to the Moab Rim. Longtime resident Emmett Mays had dreamed of building a lift on his property since the 1970’s. He spent $2.2 million to build the lift, trails and parking lot and it opened in May 1999. The entire lift was painted brown and orange camouflage colors to blend in with the rocks below. Designed purely for sightseeing, it ran 250 feet a minute and took 16 minutes to ride round-trip. The attraction lasted five years, closing in 2004. The Nature Conservancy bought the land and the lift was sold to Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana. It operates today as the Easy Rider Quad. The galvanized chairs still have patches of brown paint on them!
I got a chance to check out the Sea to Sky Gondola during its first few months of operation last summer. It’s located along the Sea to Sky Highway between Vancouver and Whistler. The system is just over 7,000 feet long and goes from a parking lot at sea level to a lodge 3,000 feet above. There are 20 CWA 8-passenger cabins that take riders to the top in 7.1 minutes. The summit lodge has expansive views of Howe Sound in addition to hiking trails and snow tubing in the winter. The project cost $22 million to build and is owned by a small group of private partners.
Doppelmayr began building the gondola in April 2013 and it passed its acceptance test in January 2014. The bottom drive terminal has a unique wooden structure over it instead of the normal Uni-G terminal. The lower section climbs an 800 foot cliff and none of the lift line is accessible by road. Many of the 14 towers were anchored directly to bedrock. Most trees under the line were left standing which would make for a challenging evacuation.
The gondola had a major accident on February 4th, 2014. At the time it was only open for construction workers and the media. The system stopped automatically around 8:30 am due to two rope position faults at tower 7. The only personnel on-site were two operators, the Mountain Manager and an employee from Doppelmayr. It took the Doppelmayr employee almost two hours to reach tower 7 on foot where he found a cabin on the ground.
This week, we learned Willamette Pass in Oregon has put their base-to-summit six-pack up for sale for $2.65 million. The Eagle Peak Accelerator was built in 2002 by GaraventaCTEC for $3.5 million. After three terrible seasons in a row, the ski area says it can no longer afford to operate such an expensive lift. This winter, Willamette Pass got 7 percent of its normal snowfall and essentially didn’t operate. The plan is to buy or trade the detachable for a fixed grip lift and reuse the existing tower tubes. If this happens Willamette Pass will become the first resort in North America to remove a six-pack. (Mount Washington on Vancouver Island might not be far behind – they have a similar lift and barely opened the last two winters.)
The list of “lost” detachable lifts is short. Ascutney Mountain in Vermont spent $2 million to build the North Peak Express in 2002 but went into foreclosure in 2010 and never reopened. Creditors sold their flagship lift to Crotched Mountain, NH and SkyTrac moved it there in 2012.
This week Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows announced plans for a base-to-base interconnect gondola. Such a project has been likely ever since Squaw and Alpine merged in 2011. The gondola’s alignment will include two angle stations with skier unloading – one below the summit of KT-22 at Squaw and the other on the ridge above the Alpine Meadows base area. The two end sections will be within their respective ski areas and able to run independently of the middle stage.
It took Squaw four years to come up with this plan in part because the gondola will cross land owned by three different entities. The Squaw section will be mostly on private land owned by Squaw Valley Ski Holdings. Just before the first angle station, the alignment will cross into land known as White Wolf owned by Troy Caldwell. You may remember Troy began building a private lift on his property a few years ago. So far only the towers have been completed. One thing that many people don’t realize is that the top terminals of the KT-22 and Olympic Lady lifts are already on his property. We will never know how much Squaw Valley Ski Holdings pays Troy Caldwell to lease this land but I am sure it is a lot. The second midstation and all of the Alpine Meadows section will be in the Tahoe National Forest.
This would be the first gondola in North America with the ability to run three sections independently. Breckenridge’s BreckConnect has two angle stations but only one drive and haul rope. Examples of gondolas with two independent sections are the Whistler Village Gondola and Revelstoke’s Revelation Gondola although these resorts rarely run sections independently. Killington sometimes runs just the upper stage of its Skyeship Gondola.
As proposed, the base-to-base gondola will be about two miles long and take 13.5 minutes to ride. Capacity will be a relatively low 1,400 skiers per hour in each direction with 8-passenger cabins. Squaw’s CEO, Andy Wirth, noted they are in talks with both Doppelmayr and Leitner-Poma. Squaw has never had much brand loyalty – They built a Doppelmayr six pack in 2007 and an L-P one in 2012. Before any contract is signed Squaw needs approval from the Forest Service and county which could take a few years. In the meantime they could really use a good snow year or two!