With four recent additions, Vail Resorts Inc. now operates just over 10 percent of American and Canadian lifts, more than any other company. Vail prides itself on investing heavily in its mountains and the average lift at an Epic resort is three years newer than the rest of the industry. The company’s lifts now number 305 in the United States, Canada and Australia with an average age of 24.6 years. If we assume the average lift lasts 35 years, Vail would now need to replace an average of about nine lifts per year just to turn over its fleet.
A little less than a year ago, a smaller VR unveiled plans for seven new lifts as part of a $150 million annual capital plan, the largest in the company’s history. Back in 2016, Vail committed to building three six-packs as part of $103 million in capital spending for 2017 (VR later added a fourth detachable to that year’s class, the Red Buffalo Express at Beaver Creek.) In December 2015, the Broomfield-based company announced a high-speed quad for Vail Mountain and in 2014, it was $50 million in improvements including three new lifts at Park City plus another six pack at Vail. Over the last five years, more resorts have consistently led to more revenue and more capital investments. The company said it will invest $35 million at the four new mountains in the next two years, making it possible this December’s announcement will be the most valuable ever.
Going resort by resort, the most obvious projects are ones already in the pipeline, namely the Game Creek Express #7 replacement and Golden Peak race lift at Vail. But VR could go bigger like it did this summer at Whistler Blackcomb, spending $52 million to package four lift replacements together. On Vail Mountain, additional aging lifts likely to be up-gauged to six-packs eventually are Orient Express #21, Born Free Express #8 and Wildwood Express #3. The mothership mountain has the third largest and third newest lift fleet in the company and I expect investment to continue at Vail following this year’s pause.
On average, the newest lifts within Vail Resorts are at Beaver Creek, which opened decades later than its peers. A major expansion was approved in September – McCoy Park – which may be implemented in 2020. In advance of those two new lifts, the Strawberry Park Express could be updated in 2019 to a higher capacity gondola. The oldest lift at Beaver Creek is the 1988 Arrow Bahn Express, which eventually will be replaced by a newer detachable. Probably not this year though.
Sticking in Colorado, Breckenridge is usually the first or second most visited resort in America and did not see a new lift in 2018. I say a Riblet gets replaced here in 2019 and my vote would be 6-Chair with a high speed quad. My second guess would be C-Chair followed by 5, A, E and Rip’s Ride. If Vail decides to continue replacing older high speed quads instead, Beaver Run SuperChair is the logical candidate.
Keystone has both expansion possibilities and lifts that could be upgraded. The project everyone’s been clamoring for is a detachable lift from The Outback to replace Wayback. Peru Express is the oldest high speed lift at Keystone and a core workhorse, making it likely to be replaced with a six pack soon. Outback Express is one year newer and in a similar situation. Another possible replacement is Argentine, a 1977 Lift Engineering double that the 2009 Keystone Master Development Plan proposed replacing with a two stage detachable. The new lift would load near Peru, have an angle station above Lower Schoolmarm and continue all the way to the ridge of Dercum Mountain. The Keystone MDP also outlines major expansions that I expect we will hear more about over the next decade. They include a Ski Tip gondola, Bergman Bowl lift, Independence Bowl lift, Windows lift and Outback surface lift. Whatever Vail chooses, I am hopeful for a new lift or two at Keystone in 2019.
Crested Butte is the new kid on the block and Vail may wait a year or more to do anything lift wise. The mountain’s Teocalli II expansion is still moving through the Forest Service NEPA process. The Mueller family invested heavily in the Triple Peaks resorts over the years and I don’t see a whole lot needed near-term at CBMR. Replacing original Teocalli with a high speed quad would be a nice way to burn some of the promised $35 million.
The second largest resort in the Vail portfolio now includes 37 lifts. Park City is likely to replace the Sunrise double in the next two years as hundreds of thousands of square feet of new development opens in Canyons Village. I reached out to the developer of the Lift Park City project this summer and was told, “unfortunately, since the chairlift is part of Vail and we are not in charge of the new chairlift, we don’t know what their timeline is. We hope that the chairlift will be done around the same time or shortly there after, but we have no guarantees as it is out of our control.” The development includes 61 $2-4 million residences directly adjacent to Sunrise. I expect a new Sunrise detachable to unload somewhere in the vicinity of Tombstone and create a third portal from Canyons Village.
Lots of Epic passholders would like to see Dreamcatcher go detachable due to its length and location near the popular Quicksilver Gondola. There is also some high elevation private land above Flat Iron which is earmarked for expansion. On the historic Park City side, Town and Pioneer are two more slow lifts which could go fast.
Kirkwood has seen zero new lift love from Vail Resorts but that could soon change. A testament to solid engineering, Yans are still the most common lifts at Kirkwood. The next lift here could be a Sunrise Express because of the current lift‘s popularity and 13 minute ride time. If Sunrise is replaced, the 1998 CTEC could be used to replace an older fixed grip elsewhere.
Northstar is perhaps least likely to see a new lift, having the youngest fleet aside from Beaver Creek. If Vail had to replace a lift here, my guess would be a six pack upgrade to the 1989 vintage Comstock Express.
Although it got one this year, Heavenly definitely could use another new lift or three. Boulder and North Bowl are old, slow and could be replaced with a single high speed quad. One problem is it might need an expensive mid-station. Higher on the Nevada side, Comet Express is one of the oldest detachable quads left at Vail Resorts and could use the capacity of a six place lift. In California, I would love to see a lift new added between Powderbowl and the top of the Gondola for when Sky Express goes down. At the California Lodge, it will be interesting to see if the company does anything with World Cup (a 1969 SLI) and the aging VonRoll aerial tram.
With CAD$66 million worth of shiny new lifts, some will argue Whistler Blackcomb won’t see any new machines next year. But Whistler Blackcomb is Whistler Blackcomb and in my mind has the most growth potential in all of Vail Resorts. On the replacement front, Blackcomb will continue to be a focus with the 7th Heaven, Glacier and Jersey Creme Express lifts all dating from 1987 to 1992. I think at least one of these will become a six pack next year. Vail seems to have abandoned the Magic chondola idea at the Blackcomb base but you never know.
Whistler Mountain is more complex with tons of choices for Pete Sonntag’s team to consider. With this year’s upgrade of the Emerald zone, the Big Red side seems like a logical next focus. Big Red Express could easily be made into a six pack like Emerald. I would rather see a second high speed quad replace Franz’s and the T-Bars to form a nice pod near the Peak Express. My second choice for a new lift on Whistler would be in Symphony Amphitheatre, where the pre-Vail master plan envisioned a total of four lifts. A myriad of possible moves on the western edge of Whistler Mountain include an Orange Gondola, Bagel Bowl high speed quad, Peak to Creek lift, Big Timber gondola and more.
With the Vail Resorts corporate website launching last month and EpicMix about to go live, Stowe is now fully integrated into its parent company. The previous owner, insurance giant AIG, bought a lot of lifts so there is not a whole lot that Vail needs to do right away. The exception is the Mansfield Lodge portal, where skiers sometimes must choose between waiting in a long line for FourRunner or riding Lookout, a 40 year old machine with a 12 minute ride. The newer Mountain triple is getting a new haul rope as we speak so I think it will stick around awhile. That leaves Vail with two options: replace a seven year old high speed quad with the six pack it should have been or simply add a second detachable to replace Lookout.
Okemo is among the recent Epic additions and is in awesome shape lift wise. Vail may do something about the dueling fixed-grip quads in the Clocktower base area. I don’t mind them and neither did the Muellers but Vail might prefer a detachable. The Black Ridge and Green Ridge triples will probably also be on Vail’s hit list eventually. The South Face Village at Okemo developer could add the proposed second quad chair near the Sunshine lift in 2019.
Vail acquired Mt. Sunapee’s lease in the middle of a three phase lift upgrade. Phase one was the replacement of the Sunbowl quad with a detachable one in 2014. Triple Peaks planned to use that lift to replace the North Peak triple, which was supposed to become a new lift out of Sunbowl. Whistler Blackcomb taught us Vail is not afraid to throw a plan out the window so we will have to wait and see what’s in store for Sunapee.
Vail Resorts operates 30 chairlifts at its three urban ski areas in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The High Meadow quad removed from Park City could find its way to one of them. Mt. Brighton and Wilmot Mountain saw major lift investments upon acquisition in 2013 and 2016, respectively. Wilmot still has four fixed grips that date back to the 1960s and 1970s. Mt. Brighton’s two oldest lifts are newer and probably won’t be replaced for awhile. The elephant in the Midwest room is Afton Alps, where the average lift is 45 years old. Like the Yans at Kirkwood, Afton’s 18 Hall chairlifts indicate solid 1960s and ’70s engineering that Vail so far has felt no need to retire. If the company does decide to build something new here, it has 18 chairlifts to choose from.
New addition Stevens Pass operates a bunch of outdated lifts. While Vail may wait to make upgrades, an easy investment would be to replace either Hogsback Express or Skyline Express with a much-needed six place lift. Stevens Pass has more Riblets than anything and Vail won’t like their lack of restraint bars. Brooks would be a good choice go detachable as an alternative to upgrading Skyline. Stevens also has proposed expanding east and west into the Grace Lake and Northern Exposure areas.
Perisher is replacing the Leichhardt T-Bar with a Doppelmayr quad chair as we speak. This sprawling resort in Australia’s Snowy Mountains has the most lifts in the company – 38 – and really could use a new machine just about every year. It also is home to Vail Resorts’ only eight passenger chairlift and I have to wonder how long that will stay true.
Where do all these possibilities leave us? With four new resorts, a solid economy and favorable tax changes domestically, I am hopeful Vail Resorts will announce even more lifts than last year come early December. The tax law alone is estimated to benefit Vail to the tune of $32 to 40 million in fiscal 2019. Seven to ten lifts seems likely but 11, 12 or even more is possible. Last year, contracts for all seven went to Doppelmayr but I don’t think that will happen again. Vail didn’t build any lifts on Leitner-Poma’s home turf of Colorado last year and the firm now owns more historically Poma mountains. As consolidation of the ski business continues, I think we’ll see Vail contract with both major lift makers most years. We’ll know a lot more about 2019 in a few short weeks.