At just 15 months old, Alterra Mountain Company finds itself with over 200 chairlifts, gondolas and tramways in two countries. The 13 Alterra mountains mirror the broader ski industry with places like Deer Valley and Crystal Mountain sporting many newer lifts while the average chairlift at June Mountain is 45 years old.
On a Monday last March, the fledgling company based in Denver simultaneously unveiled its very first lift investments at Stratton, Tremblant and Winter Park along with other improvements like snowmaking at Snowshoe and a new restaurant at the base of Steamboat. Importantly, Alterra committed to spending $555 million in total capital over five years. That was before it bought Solitude and Crystal Mountain, which could mean even more money flowing over the next few construction seasons. While last year’s budget only included three new lifts, could we see more in 2019?
With the September approval of major projects by the Forest Service, Steamboat is poised for a comprehensive on-mountain transformation. Although the timing is fluid, a new Rough Rider learning center at mid-mountain will eventually be serviced by a new gondola from the village. Here, skiers and snowboarders will be able to choose from three new carpet lifts, a new and improved Bashor lift and a second fixed-grip chair replacing the Rough Rider surface tow.
A second initiative Steamboat could undertake in 2019 is the Pioneer Ridge expansion, which includes a 7,000 foot detachable quad and a dozen new trails. Other possible upgrades include adding chairs to Pony Express (currently at only 1,200 skiers per hour but designed for 2,400) or new cabins for the Silver Bullet. Wouldn’t it be cool for the new gondola and original one to have similar cabins?
The average lift at Alterra-operated Winter Park Resort is 27 years old. Six are early model detachable quads coming up for replacement. In the case of 32 year old Pioneer Express, an upgrade is overdue and I expect coming in 2019. A new version could add a snowboarder friendly mid loading station above the last section of Big Valley.
A second project I hope to see is a second stage of the new gondola from Sunspot to Lunch Rock, truly uniting Winter Park and Mary Jane. Sunnyside should be a high speed quad or six pack. A high speed replacement of Challenger would be a nice upgrade at Mary Jane. Looking Glass is tied for the oldest operating chairlift in Colorado. After Pioneer, High Lonesome is the next Poma detachable up for replacement if we go solely by age.
The above Intrawest era master plan earmarked Gemini Express to be converted into an eight passenger gondola with a new learning center surrounding its top station. Endeavor could go detachable as part of this project and/or Discovery made into a fixed grip quad. Finally, a lift is envisioned to expand Vasquez Ridge Territory with four new intermediate trails. With all of these ideas on the table, I expect Winter Park to get at least one lift in 2019 and hopefully two.
Deer Valley enjoys the fourth newest lifts in the company with an incredible level of investment throughout its 37 year history. There are only a few remaining fixed grip lifts that could go detachable. They are Burns/Snowflake, Crown Point, Mayflower, Red Cloud, Judge and Viking. Of these, I think Mayflower and Burns/Snowflake are most likely to change. Then there’s the gondola question. For years, Deer Valley has floated the idea of an enclosed lift from Park City’s historic Main Street and/or one between the Silver Lake and Snow Park Lodges. I say build both!
Prior to its sale, Solitude planned to replace the Sunrise triple with a high speed quad next year. I have no reason to believe that has changed as the lift is a workhorse in both summer and winter. This project is not yet on the Forest Service project website, however.
As cool as Solitude’s CTEC/VonRoll hybrid is, Eagle Express is showing its age and could probably be up-gauged anyway. Another project the Big Cottonwood Canyon resort has talked about is moving the lower terminal of Honeycomb Return to improve skier flow.
Alterra operates more lifts at more mountains in California than anywhere else. Many of the 26 lifts at Mammoth Mountain date back to the 1980s and five are even older. A year and a half ago, Mammoth CEO and now head of Alterra Rusty Gregory talked about the yet-to-be-named company spending $100 million here. The resort applied in May for permission to replace the Canyon Express with a six place lift in a modified alignment.
A second key future project is a replacement of the oldest detachable on the mountain, Broadway Express. It is the only lift that ran for Mammoth’s season opener today and often spins deep into spring. A year ago, I thought this alignment might see the first North American eight seat chairlift. While it still could go octuple, Mammoth won’t be first. Another near term project could be a Chair 25 high speed quad, which would probably be realigned to load near Cloud Nine Express. Other possible moves include an Eagle Gondola going as high as the summit, a Stump Alley Express six pack upgrade, a Chair 12 detachable or Chair 14 upgrade. I would be very surprised if Mammoth doesn’t get at least one new lift in 2019 after none in Alterra’s opening salvo.
Nearby June Mountain is at a crossroads. The ski area closed entirely in 2012 and reopened the following year without any needed lift upgrades. A Riblet/Lift Engineering center pole double is the only way for the public to access the ski area year round. It really should be a high speed chairlift or gondola because of foot traffic and frequent downloading (there once was a parallel funitel). The rest of June’s lifts are also old but probably not going anywhere. Maybe Alterra could at least remove the grown in rust bucket known as J5.
Major projects could move at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows in 2019. California Express looms and the Forest Service expects to weigh in around March. If approved, 2019 would be a very tight timeline for what would be one of the most impactful lift projects in American history. Leitner-Poma would build the gondola in three sections but with only two drive stations; the middle section would run off of kinetic energy from the Alpine Meadows side to reduce environmental impacts.
Alterra could fund the Hot Wheels and/or Red Dog replacement projects this summer. New Red Dog would be a 2,400 pph six pack loading 600 feet east of the current quad. New Hot Wheels would be a 2,400 pph detachable quad with an intermediate station. Riders could unload at the current drive location or continue another thousand feet to a terminal on Sherwood Ridge. A third Squaw Alpine lift previously earmarked for replacement is Granite Chief, built in 1982 and popular with expert skiers.
A wild card is Big Bear, which hasn’t seen a new lift in 21 years. My guess is the next new machine will be at Snow Summit, replacing either Chair 9 or some combination of 5, 6, 7 and/or 10. The many well maintained Hall and CTEC fixed grips here could also continue on for decades more.
Before he sold his company to Alterra this fall, Crystal Mountain owner and visionary John Kircher dreamed of building a second gondola to Campbell Basin where a 7,500 foot SLI double once ran. He also talked about replacing Discovery and Gold Hills so that virtually the entire Crystal fleet would be new under his watch. Crystal also had a vision to build the Kelly’s Gap Express, return lift service to Bullion Basin and construct a connector quad from parking lot B to the bottom of the gondola.
I would love to see Crystal build a detachable beginner lift like its new sister resort in Utah did this summer. Secondly, the 1988 Poma-built Rainier Express would be a solid location for a third six pack. Even if capacity does not increase, heaver chairs would help on the many windy days at the summit. I would also like to see Crystal pursue an East Peak lift again in the future. More terrain is desperately needed in the central Cascades and there’s no better place for it than Crystal.
The new Snow Bowl Express is Stratton’s sixth detachable, bringing the average lift age to 21.5 years here. The South American/Solstice Poma fixed grip quads or Tamarack Borvig could be upgraded to faster technology of some variety.
In West Virginia, Snowshoe saw huge growth in the 1980s and ’90s, which means a few lifts are getting up there. A high speed quad in place of Powder Monkey or Powderidge would be logical. Silver Creek could use a new lift, possibly a detach.
The obvious move at Tremblant is to upgrade the 1988 Soleil Express. The Duncan Express is three years newer and could be swapped soon too. The Edge is the last remaining fixed grip of significant length here. Like at Tremblant and Snowshoe, Intrawest invested boatloads of cash in Blue Mountain through the 1990s and early 2000s, resulting in five detachable six place lifts. Not bad for a hill with 700 feet of vertical! Many older lifts at Blue were removed so the average lift age here is only 15.7 years.
The 1969 terrain park double called Badlands is really the only possible replacement project for Alterra in Ontario. Edit: it’s already gone.
Two Alterra mountains signed with Doppelmayr last spring while the biggest contract went to Winter Park’s longtime partner, Leitner-Poma. With its decentralized model, I expect Alterra lift purchasing decisions to continue to vary from mountain to mountain. I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed to see Alterra choose only three lift projects last year after Vail’s announcement of seven at four resorts. With a full year under its belt, two more mountains and hundreds of thousands of Ikon Passes sold, I think the new kid on the block will go bigger in 2019.