If you follow the ski industry, mark your calendar for four months from now, the week of December 4th. Very early one morning that week, the largest mountain resort operator in the world will release its fiscal 2018 first quarter results and, more importantly to this audience, outline capital expenditures for 2018. Last year, this is the moment Vail Resorts committed to building three six-packs as part of $103 million in capital spending for 2017 (the company later added a fourth detachable to this year’s class, the Red Buffalo Express at Beaver Creek.) In December 2015, MTN announced a high-speed quad for Vail Mountain and in 2014, $50 million in improvements including three new lifts at Park City plus another six-pack at Vail. So, what might be on the likely $120+ million agenda for 2018?
- Game Creek Express #7 six-pack. The current 1985 version of Game Creek is the oldest operating lift on Vail Mountain and one of three remaining CLD-260 style Doppelmayr detachables there. It is likely to be replaced with a six-pack, increasing capacity by at least 25 percent in popular Game Creek Bowl. Of the recent six-pack upgrades at Vail, two were built by Doppelmayr (Avanti #2 and Mountaintop #4) and one by Leitner-Poma (Northwoods #11.)
- Orient Express #21 six-pack. Three years newer than Game Creek but still with DS grips, Orient Express serves some of the most popular terrain in Vail’s famous Back Bowls below the equally popular Two Elk Lodge. A six-pack upgrade would be the first such lift in the Back Bowls or Blue Sky Basin.
- Wildwood Express #3 six-pack. A 1995 CTEC, Wildwood is not as old as other detachables recently replaced at Vail, but it serves a high-traffic pod between Mid-Vail and its namesake Wildwood. Parts from this lift could be used as spares for Riva Bahn/Pride Express and Cinch, Bachelor, Grouse Mountain and Strawberry Park high-speed quads at Beaver Creek.
- Born Free Express #8 replacement. Born Free is the 1988 sister ship to Orient and runs parallel to the Eagle Bahn Gondola, built 1996. Vail could opt to address both lifts in the coming years with a gondola like Keystone’s or replace only Born Free with a new high-speed quad or six-pack.
- Golden Peak Race lift. In April, Vail submitted a master plan amendment to add a third lift on Golden Peak above the Riva Bahn mid-station. This short fixed-grip chairlift or surface lift would primarily serve an extended race course.
- Arrow Bahn Express replacement. Beaver Creek doesn’t see nearly the traffic that Vail does and has seen ten new lifts since 2000. However, Arrow Bahn Express is by far the oldest lift at Beaver Creek, built in 1988 to serve a separate Arrowhead ski area. A CLD-260 like Game Creek, Orient and Born Free but with lower hours for its age, Arrow Bahn might make it a bit longer.
- 6-chair replacement. Breckenridge is the most-skied resort in the country and while it has built four new lifts in four years, it still operates some surprisingly old fixed-grips. The most-likely to be upgraded first is 6-Chair, a 1979 Riblet double serving popular advanced terrain easily accessed from the Colorado SuperChair. A low-ish capacity high-speed quad would make sense here.
- Beaver Run SuperChair replacement. With the recent Colorado and Falcon upgrades, Beaver Run on Peak 9 is now the oldest remaining detachable at 27 years. Sandwiched between two other lifts, Vail Resorts will be thinking about what capacity makes sense, but a six-pack seems likely.
- C-Chair replacement. Staying on Peak 9, C-Chair is a long 1972 Riblet that could be replaced with a high-speed quad. If Beaver Run becomes a six-pack, C could be removed but that would leave a long, flat run out from certain trails like Sawmill and Crosscut.
- A-Chair replacement. Built in 1975, A is a beginner lift that is not very beginner-friendly. A high-speed quad would be a nice upgrade of this nearly 5,000-foot Riblet.
- Wayback replacement. This long-awaited project would replace a 1991 fixed-grip quad with a 2,400 pph detachable in the same alignment.
- Ski Tip Gondola. Under the Keystone Master Plan, a new Ski Tip portal is planned with a 3,400′ x 1,154′ two-way gondola that could transition approximately 18 percent of skiers away from the River Run and Marmot portals. Skiers would ride the gondola to a point above the River Run Gondola mid-station and return there at the end of the day to ride back down.
- Two-stage Argentine high-speed quad. A new high speed quad will replace Argentine and continue to the Dercum summit with a mid-load angle station near the top of the current double.
- Summit Learning Center Lift. A new fixed-grip chairlift is proposed to connect the top of the new Argentine to the top of the mountain between Ranger and Montezuma.
- Outback surface lift. This 3,425′ T-Bar or platter would provide lift access for the first time above the popular Outback Express.
- Windows triple. This one would serve two-fold, providing access to Bergman and Independence Bowls while also making it easier to access the Windows under the Outpost Gondola.
- Bergman Bowl Express. This high-speed quad would top out at 12,200′ above the current lifts on Dercum Mountain with a vertical rise of 1,000′.
- Independence Bowl Lift. Proposed as an above-treeline fixed-grip triple with a capacity of 1,200 pph.
You can read more about the Keystone master plan here.
- Sunrise detachable. This is the most likely project at Park City for 2018 with the Canyons Village redevelopment already underway. The plan describes a ‘strategic lift,’ which could be a chairlift or gondola, rising towards Tombstone and Quicksilver. I’ve never seen an exact proposed alignment.
- Dreamcatcher high-speed quad. What once was a long lift at the far reaches of The Canyons is still a long lift but now in the heart of One Park City. With a 10+ minute ride time, I’m surprised Dreamcatcher has made it this long as a fixed-grip quad.
- Pioneer high-speed quad. While not super long, Pioneer serves popular intermediate terrain near the summit of Park City and could be upgraded to a high-speed quad.
- Town high-speed quad. While not a lift that many skiers lap, the Town lift is more than 6,600 feet long and takes some 14 minutes to ride each way. Operated in both winter and summer, a detachable would make sense here.
- Pinecone Ridge expansion lift(s.) As I wrote in my One Wasatch post, a large hole exists in the middle of the combined Park City with no lifts above 9,000 feet from Jupiter to Ninety Nine-90. There’s a thousand acres of likely develop-able private land in the upper reaches of White Pine Canyon owned by Iron Mountain Associates/The Colony. With 1-2 new lifts in No Name Bowl, Park City could finally gain some real skiing in the vicinity of Dreamscape. Possible alignments are shown in white.
- Comet Express six-pack. No doubt a top priority at Heavenly is replacement of its oldest detachable, a Doppelmayr built with chain-driven terminals in 1988. Because it is sandwiched between another high-speed quad and six-pack, Vail could opt to build a modest-capacity sixer or a new high-speed quad.
- Galaxy replacement. Poor Galaxy never ran this winter despite ample snowfall. I fear this SLI double could be removed and not replaced, which would be the second such shrinkage of Heavenly. A more popular option would be to replace Galaxy with a new fixed-grip or (preferably) detachable quad.
- Boulder/North Bowl replacement. Boulder and North Bowl started out as one exceptionally long lift (almost 8,000′) before wisely being split in two. In the detachable era, a single lift in a new alignment might make sense.
- Mott Canyon extension. While Mott Canyon is awesome, the current lift is relatively short and the last time I skied Heavenly I was the only soul around. An extension to top of Dipper or Milky Way would better serve Heavenly’s best advanced terrain but also could subject it to more wind closures.
As of February, Northstar has approval in hand for seven new lifts, which I’ve ordered by possible chronology below.
- Lift J (Lookout Mountain Access): A long new detachable quad or six-place chairlift starting near the bottom station of the Highlands pulse gondola and ending near the Lookout Vista surface lift providing increased out-of-base capacity. A mid-load station would serve new trails to the north of the Tahoe Zephyr Express pod.
- Lift C: A fixed-grip or detachable chairlift east of the existing Vista Express serving three new intermediate trails above Sawmill Lake.
- Castle Peak Gondola: A six-passenger gondola to Northstar Village that wouldn’t serve any ski trails but would reduce traffic on Northstar Drive by diverting more vehicles to the offsite Castle Peak parking lots. The gondola alignment would require two stages and an angle station to the east of Northstar Village. It would serve a similar function to the Vail-owned BreckConnect Gondola. Upon completion of Castle Peak, Northstar will operate a whopping four gondolas.
- Lift V: A bottom drive fixed-grip lift starting near the Backside Express/Promised Land Express rising into the new Sawtooth Ridge expansion area.
- Lift W: A second fixed-grip chairlift serving Sawtooth Ridge. No trails would be cut in this pod; it would be dedicated to serving natural tree skiing.
- Lift Z: Surface tow similar to Lookout Vista providing access to “backcountry-style” terrain beyond lifts V and W.
- Lift Q: A second lift on Lookout Mountain to the west of the Martis Camp Express. This one would be fixed-grip and top drive.
Kirkwood is unique in that Vail has not built any new lifts here since it went Epic in 2012. The biggest upgrade possibility I see is a detachable to replace parallel lifts 10 and 11. Built in 1984 and 1986, respectively, these Yan triples could have many more years of life but Wagon Wheel is 2,000 feet longer than Kirkwood’s longest detachable, with an 11-minute ride time. A half mid-station with unloading only could allow The Reut to be removed too.
Four out of the last five times Vail bought a mountain, it added at least one new lift the following construction season. This year’s addition the the Vail family is Stowe, a mountain already graced with six new lifts since 2004. Still, the resort still operates at least three lifts that could potentially be replaced.
- Lookout replacement. Mechanically, Lookout is the most obsolete lift at Stowe. It is more than a mile long and 38 years old manufactured by a company no longer in business. Lookout lies between a new Doppelmayr high-speed quad and the Mountain triple, which could be replaced instead of or in addition to Lookout.
- Toll House replacement. There’s some speculation Vail could look to Toll House to help alleviate Stowe’s parking woes. To make it a more attractive portal and beginner facility, this 6,400′ fixed-grip would need to be replaced with a detachable quad.
- Mountain replacement. While not as old as Lookout, the Mountain triple is further from FourRunner and could plausibly go high-speed first. It is middle-aged by lift standards at 32.
- Vail Resorts has so far given little lift love to Afton Alps, which operates a stunning 19 Halls and Herons, the newest of which debuted in 1979. For a company which prides itself on investing in the ski experience, I don’t think Vail can go much longer without addressing Afton Alps. I could see multiple fixed-grip quads replacing a slew of double chairs using parts from Colorado à la Wilmot.
- I don’t expect to see any more new lifts at Mt. Brighton and Wilmot for awhile given they’ve already seen five new quad chairs.
I saved the best for last. The beast that is Whistler Blackcomb has approval for literally dozens of new lifts which I’ve outlined before. If you look at a lift fleet like an airline or public transit agency would look at a fleet, a mountain with 30 lifts that last an average of 35 years should replace one every 1.2 years, on average. That doesn’t factor expansion, which Whistler Blackcomb has lots of opportunities for. With a massive infrastructure in need of renewal and room for expansion, I would be shocked if W-B did not see at least one new lift in 2018.
- Magic Chondola. First, Blackcomb. A project announced before Vail arrived on scene, the Magic Chondola would create a true gondola transit connection between Blackcomb, Base II and Whistler Village. The Excalibur mid-station could become a transfer hub for both skiers and non-skiers near a new water park. The existing Magic triple would be removed.
- Wizard/Solar Coaster Gondola. When Peak 2 Peak debuted, Wizard and Solar Coaster became a missing gondola link in both winter and summer. With W-Bs move away from bubble chairs, it only makes sense for this to become a big gondola. With a mid-station and high capacity, this could become the biggest new gondola in North America since P2P. By the way, Wizard and Solar Coaster both turn thirty this year.
- Jersey Creme six-pack. J.C. is the Emerald of Blackcomb, serving the very middle of the mountain. We know the guys in Broomfield love six-packs and Jersey Creme is only slightly newer than Wizard and Solar Coaster.
- Glacier Express six-pack. Glacier Express is another key lift at the heart of Blackcomb that experiences epic lift lines. Like Jersey Creme, the current version is a 1992 Doppelmayr with DS grips.
- 7th Heaven six-pack. As with Harmony and Symphony across the way, 7th Heaven could be an entire ski resort on its own. Another of Blackcomb’s CLD-260 detachables, this lift has operated in both winter and summer since 1987 and won’t last forever.
- Glacier T-Bar replacement. It’s no secret the Blackcomb Glacier is retreating and the Horstman T-Bar may go with it. The surface lift’s track can no longer be reliably maintained and an aerial option may be needed.
- Catskinner replacement. As outlined in the above master plan, Catskinner is slated to be swapped with an extended high-speed quad for beginner lessons and terrain park access. With Magic gone, the Yan days would end at Blackcomb.
- Emerald replacement or Olive high-speed quad. Crossing over to Whistler, I can’t believe Emerald has lasted as long as it has without a higher-capacity replacement or supplemental lift. Like Vail did on the backside at Northstar, one option is to simply add a second detachable quad roughly parallel and to the south.
- Franz’s/T-Bar detachable. A single high-speed quad could replace three lifts in between Big Red and the Peak Express to serve intermediate terrain near the tree line.
- Big Red six-pack. I go back and forth on this one because the area Big Red serves is awfully constrained already. But when in doubt, Vail seems to go with higher-capacity lifts.
- New lift(s) in Symphony Amphitheatre. This crowd favorite zone could eventually hold up to four lifts, up from the current one.
- Orange Gondola. A second gondola from Creekside would provide badly-needed staging capacity, topping out at the Garbanzo unload. Creekside could eventually become home to a whopping four gondolas! Another alternative would be to simply replace the Creekside Gondola with a bigger version.
- Westward Ho. Unlike on Blackcomb, Whistler Mountain can be expanded significantly to the west with a new base area, new gondolas, and high-alpine lifts in Bagel and Khyber Bowls. None of these are likely to be built in 2018, however.
With two more flagship mountains and a rival empire rising, I see Vail Resorts as poised to make a splash in 2018 like it did at Park City in 2015. Unlike peers Boyne, Intrawest (rest in peace) and Powdr, MTN has shown a tendency to centralize and it will be interesting to see whether a bunch of lift projects get lumped into one or two major contracts. While I dare say Breckenridge is a safe customer for Leitner-Poma and Beaver Creek in the bag for Doppelmayr, many of the others are wild cards. You can bet potential big projects at Vail, Keystone, Stowe and Whistler will be fought hard for this fall.