These days building a detachable lift means a capital investment of at least $3 million plus around $100,000 in annual maintenance. A so-called ‘pulse’ lift offers the speed of a detachable system with similar infrastructure to a traditional fixed-grip lift. Chairs or cabins are grouped together into ‘pulses’ and the entire lift slows down for loading and unloading. When comparing types of aerial lifts there are always trade-offs; here they include low capacity and long headways. Most pulse lifts can only move 300-600 passengers per hour and headway – the time a passenger has to wait for a carrier to show up – can be minutes instead of as low as six seconds. Perfect for certain applications but unsuitable in most.
There are currently 17 pulse lifts operating in the US, Canada and Mexico; all but three are gondolas. Nearly all were built in the last 15 years. Panorama Mountain Village, Northstar California, Steamboat, Snowmass, Canyons Resort, and Le Massif all use pulse gondolas to connect village areas. These lifts are usually less than 3,000 feet long and convenient for skiers and non-skiers alike. Other pulse gondolas are attractions in their own right such the Iron Mountain Tramway at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, SkyTrail at Trees of Mystery, the Gondola at Royal Gorge Bridge Bridge & Park and the Riverfront Park SkyRide in Spokane. There is also a new Leitner-Poma pulse gondola in Orizaba, Mexico with tripod towers that are hundreds of feet tall.
Snow Valley in Edmonton, Alberta has a very unique pulse chairlift built by Doppelmayr in 2008. Instead of having groups of 3-5 chairs, it has just two groups of 20 closely-spaced quad chairs. Because it is only 850 feet long, the lift can move 1,378 skiers per hour at up to 5 m/s, the same speed as most detachable lifts. In fact the ride is only about a minute. The lift slows to a beginner-friendly 0.8 m/s for loading and unloading. Because of the low speed, skiers ride around the bullwheel at the top and unload facing down the hill. It’s the only lift I know of with 180-degree unloading.
There are only three other pulse lifts used for skiing in this part of the world and all are private. The Meadow and Pine Ridge chairs at the Yellowstone Club each have four groups of five bubble quad chairs. On Meadow, there is a mid-station exactly halfway such that all four groups of chairs are in the stations simultaneously. Because it is over 6,000 feet long, Meadow can only move 300 skiers an hour. In Whistler, BC, a private gondola with only four cabins serves the Kadenwood development near Creekside Village.
I know of only two pulse lifts that no longer operate. The aptly-named Pulse at Squaw Valley connected the top of the Gold Coast Funitel with High Camp. Built by Doppelmayr in 1997, it operated like a jig-back tram to enable a significant turn mid-line. It was removed in 2011-12 along with five other non-essential lifts to save money. Doppelmayr also built a pulse gondola in Moab, Utah that never opened to the public. You can read more about this failed project in my previous post.
Most pulse lifts use standard fixed-grip terminals and equipment. I suspect the constant slowing down and ramping up of these lifts leads to higher maintenance costs. Interestingly, Poma sometimes uses detachable TB grips on their pulse lifts even though they never detach during normal operation. One thing that you will notice on every pulse lift is the sheer number of sheaves. Tower loads are much higher because carriers are so close together.
We will probably continue to see a 1-2 pulse lifts built each year where they make sense. I believe Poma (not Leitner-Poma) is building one this summer in Zacatecas, Mexico to replace an older aerial tram.