Few lifts in the world are as iconic as the Snowbird Tram with its 125 passenger red and blue cabins rising from Little Cottonwood Canyon to Hidden Peak. When it opened in 1971, the tram was one of the longest, largest and most powerful aerial tramways in the world and remains so today. In his 168-page book dedicated to this machine, Walt McConnell said of the tram, “It was loaded with innovative features and immediately became the symbol of Snowbird.” A timeless style combined with recent upgrades mean the tram is sure to remain an icon of the Wasatch for years to come.
Decades after the founding of nearby Alta, Ted Johnson envisioned a carefully-designed, 40-acre resort village with modern American design anchored by a tramway. After a trip over from Vail, Dick Bass agreed to join team Snowbird and provide financial backing. Ted quietly began buying mining claims in Little Cottonwood Canyon while still working at Alta. In Ted’s mind, a tram was the only lift to build and the route to Hidden Peak was clear. “The awesome massiveness of the tramway and its terminal buildings-to-be set the stage for the bold architectural statements of all of Snowbird,” he declared. He went public with the Snowbird development in 1966, forming Snowbird Design Group.
A National Park away from Colorado’s flashy chondolas, six-packs and cabriolets lies one of the world’s oldest operating tramways that is also one of the coolest. A ride on the Estes Park Aerial Tramway takes you back to August 1955 when Robert Heron opened America’s first scenic tramway on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. The Heron Family still owns the operation which stands much the same as it did 61 years ago. The tram whisks eight tourists at a time up Prospect Mountain from Memorial Day through Labor Day for $12 apiece and shows no signs of modernizing any time soon. General Manager Steve Barker leads a team of dedicated mechanics, operators, attendants and support staff who return to the tram year after year.
The Estes Park Tramway ascends Prospect Mountain’s 1,060 feet in one free span, reaching 200 feet in the air at times. Two cherry red cars manufactured at a shipyard in 1955 were designed for 12 passengers but now hold up to eight modern Americans. A brisk trip at 1,400 feet per minute lasts two minutes and twenty seconds yielding a capacity of 280 passengers per hour in each direction. At the top, guests are treated to panoramic views of Estes Park Village, Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding mountain peaks.
Robert Heron got his start in 1937 with Kennicott Copper designing material tramways after graduating from the Colorado School of Mines. Stearns Roger Manufacturing later hired him to design portable tramways for use by the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. After testing at Fort Hale, Mr. Heron’s design debuted in Italy at the Battle of Riva Ridge carrying food, ammunition and water up and American casualties down a 1,500 foot mountainside. In 1945, Robert and his brother Webb founded Heron Engineering which built its first lift – a single chair – at Aspen Mountain. The Heron brothers went on to build the world’s first double, triple and quad chairs at Berthoud Pass and Boyne Mountain. Heron merged with Poma in 1970 and the rest is history. Robert Heron was inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in 1985 and passed away in 1999 but his legacy lives on at Estes Park and the 33 other sites that still operate his lifts.
The highest, longest and most expensive aerial tramway system in the world will open this month at the Sierra Nevada National Park in Northwestern Venezuela. Teleférico de Mérida, as it’s known in Spanish, is really four separate jig-backs built in series totaling a crazy 40,735 linear feet with a vertical rise of 10,464 feet. Garaventa won a contract in 2011 to replace ropeways built along a similar route in the 1950s that closed down due to safety concerns in 2008. The world-leader in tramways spent the last four years building four lifts that would each be notable but combine to form an unparalleled 7.8-mile journey from the town of Mérida to 15,633-foot Pico Espejo. Of note, the world record for the longest tramway in a single section still belongs to the 3.5-mile Wings of Tatev, also built by Garaventa and completed in 2010.
The four original ropeways at Mérida were built by Haeckel of Germany and Habbeger of Switzerland and opened in March 1960. Interestingly, both of those companies came under ownership VonRoll and later the Doppelmayr Garaventa Group. Seven 36-passenger cars carried riders to Pico Espejo until 2008, when Doppelmayr advised the Venezuelan government the tramways had reached the end of their useful life and needed to be replaced. The Venezuela Ministry of Tourism, which owns Teleférico de Mérida, opted to invest $468 million towards modern tramways and all-new facilities.
With the Olympics opening tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro, the world looks to a seaside metropolis with more than six million residents and the first South American city to host an Olympic Games. While Brazil has no ski resorts, Rio features aerial lifts ranging from hundred year-old tramways to modern gondolas connecting the city’s favelas to the regional transit network.
The famous Sugarloaf Mountain twin tramways were among the world’s first cableways of any kind when they debuted in 1912. A century later, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff championed development of a five-section Poma gondola connecting some of Rio’s largest slums, modeled after the pioneering gondola network in Medellín. In 2013, Doppelmayr built a three-station gondola in Morro da Providência, serving more than 5,000 residents in one of Rio’s oldest favelas. Further urban cable projects proposed for Rio have faltered as the city works to combat challenges we’ve become all too familiar with leading up to the Games.
Teleférico do Alemão is one of the largest and most complex gondola systems in the world with six stations and 152 10-passenger Sigma Diamond cabins. Built by Poma and operated by private train company SuperVia, Teleférico do Alemão opened July 7, 2011. The system is capable of transporting 3,000 passengers per hour over 2.2 miles of dense neighborhoods in 16 minutes. The lift changes angle four times, including a 100-degree turn at Alemão Station.
70,000 residents are eligible for two free rides daily on the gondola, which links favelas in the Complexo do Alemão to the Bonsucesso train station. Six expansive rooftop stations that feature banks, stores and social services rise above the favelas. The gondola system cost approximately $74 million to build and serves 9,000 daily riders. Initial ridership estimates of 30,000 per day have not been realized as Rio has struggled to attract non-residents to ride the teleférico through crime-ridden neighborhoods. Unlike in Medellín and La Paz, residents have criticized the construction of an expensive gondola through communities that lack electricity, clean water and basic sanitation.
South American cities are world leaders in urban cable transport, with 24 urban gondolas either opened or planned in Bogotá, Caracas, Guayaquil, La Paz, Lima, Medellín and Rio de Janeiro. I’ve written extensivelyaboutLa Paz, Bolivia’s capital that went all in on cable transport with eleven gondolas either operating, under construction or planned. But a full decade before the creation of Mi Teleférico in La Paz, Metro de Medellín opened the first of three Metrocable gondola lines in Colombia’s third largest city. Metrocable Line K was the first urban gondola to seamlessly link with a subway anywhere in the world, providing under-served and poor neighborhoods access to the city’s transport network. Metrocable’s J, K and L lines, with ten stations over 5.8 miles, now compose a quarter of the Metro de Medellín network. All three Metrocable lines are 8-passenger monocable gondolas built by Poma.
Line K debuted in 2004 with a shockingly low construction cost of $26 million. Its four stations branch off from the Acevedo Metro station over a length of 6,798 feet, giving three neighborhoods access to the core subway Line A that opened in 1996. This gondola rises 1,309 feet with a rope speed of 5 m/s. Metrocable Line J opened in 2008 at a cost of $47.5 million, serving four more stations from the terminus of the shorter subway Line B. Line J is longer than the original K at just under 9,000 feet. A ride with seamless transfers between buses, two Metro subway lines and two Metrocable lines costs less than a dollar.
Rising from the cruise docks on the edge of Alaska’s capital, the Mt. Roberts Tramway is the undisputed steepest lift in North America with an average slope angle of 39 degrees. The now-famous tram carried its first passengers 1,800 feet above Juneau almost twenty years ago. It’s among the newest large aerial tramways in North America and one of two in the U.S. built by Poma. The summit terminal soars 165 feet above the forested slopes of Mt. Roberts, downtown Juneau and the massive cruise ships below. On August 10th, the tram will celebrate twenty years of service and more than 3.5 million riders.
John Heiser proposed the lift in 1994, becoming President of the Mount Roberts Development Corporation before leaving to join Intrawest. He financed the $16 million project with investments from Anchorage businessmen and Goldbelt (an Alaska Native Corporation) and leased right of way from the City of Juneau. Goldbelt took 100-percent ownership of the tram in 1998.
Red Lodge Mountain, located near the famous town of the same name and the northeast corner of Yellowstone, is Montana’s fourth largest ski area. You wouldn’t know it pulling up to the classic lodge and old school lifts out front. Opened in 1960 as Grizzly Peak, it now skis like two distinct resorts – the original mountain with 1970s-era double chairs and a huge expansion served by dual high speed quads that opened in 1996. Approaching its 60th anniversary, the mountain faces dueling challenges of prolonged drought and competition from the booming Big Sky region.
Grizzly Peak opened with one lift, now called Willow Creek, in 1960. This classic Riblet double has since been shortened to start above the base area and only operates on peak days. In 1970, the resort added two more Riblet doubles that also still operate – a beginner lift dubbed Miami Beach and another to the summit called Grizzly Peak.
In 1977, Red Lodge added a rare Borvig double at a western ski area called Midway Express. It served no new terrain but allowed skiers to return to mid-mountain without having to ski all the way to the base area. With just five towers and a vertical rise of only 400 feet, this lift proved too expensive to operate and was abandoned in 2010. Most of the chairs were auctioned to raise cash and the sheaves, comm-line and haul rope were dropped to the ground and left. The terminals and towers still stand today.
In a stunning alpine setting along the Beartooth Highway in Northwestern Wyoming sits the summit of one of America’s most unique ski destinations. “You could call it backcountry skiing with a lift,” proclaims the website for Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area. Located at 10,900 feet between Red Lodge, Montana and the Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone National Park, Beartooth Basin is the only ski resort in North America that opens for summer but not winter. To give a sense of the environment we’re talking about, the parking lot sits 450 feet higher than the top of the Jackson Hole Tram, 115 miles and two national parks to the southwest. I made some turns this spring in Beartooth Basin to check out the lifts shortly after the pass reopened Memorial Day weekend.
In good times, Beartooth Basin offers 900 vertical feet of skiing on six hundred acres serviced by two platter lifts that generally spin late-May through mid-July. But everything here is subject to exception rather than rule and it hasn’t snowed enough for Beartooth Basin to open the past two years. Even in good seasons, storms close the road and ski area, subjecting it to the whims of National Park Service plowing. In 2005, the highway never even opened. Despite years with too much snow, others without enough snow and still more with landslides, the dream lives on for the love of skiing.
Pepi Gramshammer of Vail fame created Red Lodge International Race Camp with help from fellow Austrians Eric Sailer and Anderl Molterer in 1967 with the purchase of a portable Poma from Jean Pomagalski. Named for the closest town in Montana, the ski area actually lies just across the border in Wyoming. A permanent Doppelmayr platter was added in 1983 with another one following in 1984. Five Red Lodge locals purchased the mountain from the original ownership group in 2003 and renamed it Beartooth Basin.
The above dedication sits on the first page of a new book celebrating eighty years of commercial success called Poma: 80 Years of Ropeways from Mountains to Cities. The 190-page work, written by Béatrice Méténier and Christian Bouvier, looks back at the firm’s more than 8,000 ropeway installations from the mountains of France to Colorado, South America and beyond.
A skier at heart, Jean Pomagalski installed his first surface lift in 1934 at Alpe d’Huez. He constructed it mostly out of wood and with a used Ford motor. After building three additional tows, Mr. Pomagalski had himself a company and filed a patent in 1936 for a “carrying device hauled by a rope moving at a constant speed.” After a break for Wold War II, Pomagalski S.A. grew to 15 employees by 1953. Even so, Mr. Pomagalski still found himself simultaneously a salesman, surveyor, designer and builder of lifts that were sent off as kits for installation by customers. The company’s first chairlift, a single-seater, debuted in 1955 near Chamonix.
By 1958, Pomagalski was selling 120 lifts a year, many of them to customers in the United States and Canada. Mr. Pomagalski decided to drop the latter part of his name from the company’s in 1965 to better appeal to English-speaking clients. Poma delivered its first gondola systems simultaneously in 1966 at Queenstown, New Zealand and Val d’Isère, France. A small new company called Sigma Plastiques provided the egg-shaped cabins. Poma trusted Sigma again the next year for the world’s first gondola with automatic doors and the rest is history.
Twenty years ago this spring, 15 resorts faced near-disaster when the high-speed lifts they spent more than $50 million to build proved to be of faulty design and had to be retrofitted or replaced just a few years later. Lift Engineering, the company founded in 1965 by Yanek Kunczynski and more commonly called Yan, entered the detachable lift market in 1986 at June Mountain, CA reportedly after just one year of development. Yan built a total of 31 detachable quads in the US and Canada between 1986 and 1994. The majority of Yan’s customers were repeat clients such as Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation, which bought three high speed quads and the Sun Valley Company, which purchased seven. Whistler’s general manager would later write to Lift Engineering describing his team as the “unwitting recipients of a research and development project.”
Three incidents in two years sealed the fate of Yan detachables and eventually forced Lift Engineering to liquidate. On April 4, 1993, a 9-year old boy was killed and another child injured when loose bolts and a subsequent derailment caused two chairs to stack up on Sierra Ski Ranch’s Slingshot lift. The same lift had sent an empty chair to the ground two months prior when a grip failed. Lift Engineering settled a wrongful-death suit after the accident for $1.9 million. Sierra Ski Ranch’s marketing director would later state, “we found they just didn’t withstand the test of time” when the company committed $6 million to replace its three Yan detachables in 1996.
On December 23rd, 1995, a routine emergency stop on the Quicksilver high speed quad at Whistler Mountain initiated a chain reaction crash of four down-bound chairs, plunging skiers 75 feet onto the Dave Murray Downhill course below. 25-year old Trevor MacDonald died at the scene, nine people were seriously injured, 200 had to be evacuated and a second guest died 12 days later. The coroner’s investigation revealed Yan’s design failed to maintain the required 15-degree lateral swing clearance over towers, causing damage to grips over time. The type-11 grips could not maintain adequate clamping force for the maximum 38-degree rope angle on Quicksilver between towers 20-21 (Quicksilver was the only lift built with Yan’s type-11 grip owing to its heavier chairs with bubbles, the rest had the type-7 grip.) On two prior occasions, empty chairs had fallen from Quicksilver’s line, including one time three weeks prior to the deadly accident and in the same location. Leading up to December 23rd, mechanics were getting grip force faults 20+ times a day and had reportedly stuffed paper into the corresponding alarm. At the time, detachable lifts were relatively new and not required to stop automatically as a result of a grip force fault.