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.
1. Single Chair, Mad River Glen, VT – 1948 American Steel & Wire Single Chair
The single chair at MRG still has its original towers and terminal structures but everything else was replaced by Doppelmayr CTEC in 2007. As part of that project, towers were removed, sandblasted and repainted before being flown back to new foundations with new line gear. Doppelmayr also replaced the bullwheels, chairs, grips, drive and haul rope. This begs the question of ‘when is an old lift a new lift?’
Everett Kircher of Boyne fame bought this chairlift from Sugar Bowl, CA for $3,000 in 1954. Originally it was a single chair built in 1939. Modified sheave assemblies were machined at the Kircher’s car dealership in Michigan when the lift went to Tennessee. At some point it appears to have gotten newer-style Riblet towers. Boyne Resorts still operates this lift 800 miles from their nearest ski resort. (edit: JP notes in the comments below that this version was replaced by a Riblet double in 1991. Thanks JP!)
3. Chair 1, White Pass, WA – 19551962 Riblet double
This lift only operates on busy weekends and holidays but it’s an old one and a good one . A classic Pacific Northwest center-pole double with very few modifications from its original design and no safety bars! (edit: Brian notes in the comments that this lift was actually installed as Chair 2 in 1962. The original chair 1 operated 1955-1994.)
Despite the dominance of European companies in today’s tramway business, the ubiquitous chairlift was actually invented in Nebraska by the most American of corporations. Union Pacific Railroad built the world’s first chairlift at its new Sun Valley Resort in 1936 based on a design by their lead bridge engineer. The two original single chairs were fabricated in the rail yards of Omaha and installed on Dollar and Proctor Mountains in time for the 1936-37 ski season. Dollar’s original lifts are long gone, replaced by ones from Hall and Lift Engineering (and eventually Doppelmayr detachable quads in 2007.)
Just down the road from Dollar you can go back in time to Ruud Mountain, where the world’s third chairlift still stands among 10-bedroom mansions and two holes of the Sun Valley Golf Course. The Sun Valley Company has preserved Ruud Mountain pretty much as it was during World War II with its chairlift and ski jump. The top-drive, bottom-tension lift shows just how little the fixed-grip chairlift has changed since it was invented.
I sometimes find myself telling people the classic line that there are only two companies left making ski lifts even though I know reality is far more complicated. Doppelmayr-Garaventa and the Seeber Group (Leitner and Poma) aren’t even the only companies building detachable lifts these days. There is a smaller player called Bartholet Maschinenbau Flums (BMF) that has completed dozens of projects around the world, including even here in North America.
BMF, based in Switzerland, is over 50 years old and completed its first lift in 1977. The firm’s first detachable, a six pack, opened at Val d’Isere in 2007. BMF has also built aerial trams, surface lifts, a funitel and chondola. Some of BMF’s unique designs include chairs that rotate 45-degrees, solar-powered surface lifts and carriers by the Porsche Design Studio. Gangloff Cabins joined the Bartholet Group in March 2014. Gangloff already has a significant presence at US ski resorts including Canyons, Winter Park and Deer Valley.
I was surprised to learn BMF already built three lifts in North America. The first was the Sky Tram at Monteverde, Costa Rica in 2006. Technically a pulse gondola rising 571 vertical feet, it has five towers and can move 432 passengers per hour. BMF built a second rain forest tram in Costa Rica in 2007. The company built the city of Durango, Mexico a 25-passenger aerial tram in 2010. BMF started construction on a second tram in the Mexican city of Puebla in 2013 before construction was halted over concerns about construction impacts in this world heritage site.
There are closed ski resorts with old, abandoned lifts rotting away all over the world. But a remote mountain in Spain takes the lost ski area to a new level with tens of millions of dollars of half-completed lifts (including a 3S gondola) that never opened. Doppelmayr partially built three lifts at the Vall Fosca Mountain Resort and abandoned them after the developer went bankrupt at the height of the 2008 financial crisis. It’s a fascinating story of boom and bust all too common in the ski industry.
Construction began back in 2006 and the resort was scheduled to open for the 2008-09 ski season. The plan included a €230 million pedestrian village with 965 homes at 4,000 feet. A 3S gondola was to connect the village to a new ski resort with four chairlifts. At the time, only Val d’Isere and Kitzbuhel had Doppelmayr’s tri-cable gondola technology and Vall Fosca was destined to have the first 3S outside of the Alps. That title ended up going to Whistler-Blackcomb.