If all goes according to plan, Montana Snowbowl will add up to 1,088 acres of ski terrain next winter in a homecoming of sorts. Expanding onto neighboring TV Mountain, Snowbowl will nearly double in size, going from a modest two Riblet doubles and a Doppelmayr T-Bar to a major Montana player with seven lifts and 2,243 acres. Construction is underway and legendary artist James Niehues is currently painting the trail map for North America’s biggest expansion of the year.
The Forest Service finally approved Snowbowl’s TV Mountain expansion in May 2014 after ten years studying a connection to the long-lost Snow Park Ski Area. Owner Brad Morris acquired the Burlingame and High Alpine doubles from Snowmass (for free) in 2015 and the first of four new lifts will open this season. Work started last fall, but early storms forced crews to pause over the winter.
Montana Snowbowl does not have a true beginner or low-intermediate lift, in part because most Missoulians learned to ski at Marshall Mountain until 2003. Facing a need to broaden its appeal beyond advanced skiers, Morris worked with the Forest Service on the expansion plan which he submitted for approval in 2004. Thirteen years later, the beginnings of a new lift dubbed ‘B’ stretch 4,900 feet from the original Snow Park base area to the summit of TV Mountain with 23 towers under construction. In contrast with the Grizzly chair that rises steeply from the current base area, the new lift will ascend a modest 1,440′ vertical west of TV Mountain’s namesake towers. Ride time will be 11 minutes with a capacity of 1,200 skiers per hour. Burlingame’s tension-return station is already standing while the drive station up top will likely be High Alpine’s.
A new lift changes a mountain. In this story, the mountain is a volcano and the actors are Mt. Bachelor, Doppelmayr, Highlander Lift Services & Construction, Timberline Helicopters and the Forest Service. Cloudchaser: The Story Behind Building a New Lift is one of the best videos you’ll see in awhile.
Congratulations to the team on a job well done. Thanks to their efforts, Mt. Bachelor is now the sixth largest ski resort in the United States!
“We don’t fly the helicopter and we don’t tie the knot.” – Paul Johnston, Highlander Ski Lift Services & Construction.
More than sixty inches of snow buried the Tetons since I last visited Grand Targhee, but that didn’t stop team Doppelmayr from making a ton of progress on the new Blackfoot lift. Timberline Helicopters assisted flying towers on October 20th and the haul rope was spliced November 12th. With comm-line installation last week, the new quad chair is almost finished.
New Blackfoot marks a huge change from the center pole chairs and wooden ramps of the classic Riblet. Both the load and unload areas were re-worked over the summer and are way more spacious. The new quad will move 840 more skiers per hour (to 1,800 from 960) with a minute faster ride time. A Tristar-model drive station features an auxiliary engine capable of running the lift at nearly full capacity during a power outage. Although it’s a bummer Targhee had to delay opening last week, the recent nice weather no doubt helped crews finishing the new lift. This week’s forecast looks solid so hopefully we’ll be lapping Blackfoot soon!
This story begins in the mid-1930s, when Paul Petzoldt went skiing with two friends, thinking about the future. “Below Buck Mountain, north of Wilson, there was one mountain that stood out,” he wrote in his autobiography, Teton Tales. “It was difficult, and we knew it would be difficult for beginners unless there were places lower on the mountain that would be level enough to teach skiing. We had no money, and we had no connections. We just knew that some day there was going to be a big ski area there.”
That mountain was Peak 10,450, today known as Rendezvous Mountain. Eight decades later, when you board the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram and again upon exiting, a safety message reads, “our mountain is like nothing you have ever skied before…it is huge…with dangerous cliff areas and dangerously variable weather. You could make a mistake and suffer personal injury or death.”
As David Gonzales remarked in his 2002 book, Jackson Hole: On a Grand Scale, “Missing are the hallmarks of a typical American ski area – the wide, artificial swaths of snow streaming down a forested hillside…Instead, Jackson Hole’s trails blend seamlessly with the avalanche paths and scree fields that abound in the Tetons.” In fact, a group of Salt Lake City investors who surveyed the area in the late 1950s regarded the Cache Creek drainage in the Gros Ventre Mountains as the only suitable site for a ski resort in Northwestern Wyoming. They recruited University of Denver ski coach Willy Schaeffler to come to Jackson and survey. He came and went, unimpressed with the mellow terrain in the Gros Ventres. According to Pete Seibert, Schaeffler said the same about about a yet-to-be-developed Vail Mountain.
Retiree Paul McCollister, general contractor Alex Morley, John Gramlich and Ernie Hirsch of the U.S. Forest Service carved their first turns on Rendezvous Mountain on Christmas Day 1962. Three years later, they presided over the opening of three double chairs (two Hall, one Murray-Latta) followed by an aerial tramway in July 1966. “The very ruggedness that attracted Morley and McCollister to the Tetons proved a hurdle,” notes Gonzales. “The mountain was steep, remote and cold. Convincing skiers that these were actually positive attributes would require reserves of determination that the construction of the ski resort had only begun to tap.” Investors came and went over a tumultuous first thirty years of the Jackson Hole Ski Corporation. Mr. Golzales wrote, “Morley suspected the resort would not last more than a couple years. But McCollister endured, recruiting Pepi Stiegler to accompany him to ski shows in order to drum up interest. It was a hard sell. Though many skiers had heard about Jackson Hole, they’s also heard that the Wyoming resort was too remote, too steep and too cold. ‘Everybody told you this,’ Stiegler recalls. ‘It was discouraging.'”
Harry Baxter, marketing director from 1974 to 1995, at one point tried to re-brand The Big One as the Gentle Giant, with trail maps noting, “there is more intermediate skiing on the small mountain, Apres Vous, than 90 percent of America’s best.” When the new Casper high-speed-quad launched, it was marketed as “All new, all blue.” Even today, the summer tram announcement reads, “the aerial tram, together with the Bridger Gondola and a variety of other lifts, offers more expert, intermediate and beginner terrain than most resorts in the United States. Yet many still regard the home of Corbet’s Couloir, Teton Gravity Research, Doug Coombs and the Tram as the wild west of skiing.
From opening in 1965 until the mid-1990s, Jackson Hole added just four new chairlifts. In the same period, Vail built 31 new ones, as the Ski Corp. struggled to even stay afloat. That all changed in 1992, when Jay Kemmerer and his family bought out not only Paul McCollister, but other investors he had taken on in tough times. The Kemmerer Family wanted to reinvest in Wyoming, and they’ve done so to the tune of $130 million. The Thunder Quad in 1994. Wyoming’s first detachable lift, Teewinot, in 1996. Bridger Gondola in 1997. A new Apres Vous in 1999. Moose Creek and Union Pass in 2000. Sweetwater in 2005 and a $32 million aerial tram opening at the height of the Great Recession in 2008. Followed by three new lifts in five years – Marmot, Casper and Teton.
Lone Peak is a happening place this November as crews from Doppelmayr USA and Big Sky Resort work to finish not one, but two of America’s largest new lifts this year. I’ve been following these projects since April, when the aging Lone Peak triple and Challenger double chairlifts were torn down to make way for new versions that will greet lucky guests when the snow flies. Mike Unruh, Director of Mountain Operations at Big Sky, kindly gave me a sneak peak of the shiny new lifts today.
A six-pack dubbed Powder Seeker is the new the crown jewel of Big Sky’s 26-lift fleet, with blue bubbles, heated seats and headrests. Servicing the above treeline terrain in the Bowl, Powder Seeker is just over 2,600′ long with 14 towers and an 823′ vertical rise. With a 6.1 meter line gauge and 45 mm haul rope, it should be able to spin through all but the harshest Montana winds. In addition to a chair parking rail that will eventually be enclosed, the Uni-G-M stations feature tire banks that can raise hydraulically to park chairs. Thirty-one carriers will go on the line initially; Big Sky also bought two spares and can add more as as needed.
The lower station features Chairkit gates, 90-degree loading, an AC prime mover, Doppelmayr-Lohmann gearbox and two Cummins diesel backups. The seat heating system can be seen in the pictures above with yellow charging rails and black contacts attached to the DT grips. Another cool feature is a headset in the motor room connected to the lift’s phone system so that mechanics will be able to hear communications, like a helicopter pilot can.
Just over a year ago, Arizona Snowbowl near Flagstaff hadn’t seen a new lift in 30 years. Now under the ownership of James Coleman, the resort is undergoing a renaissance with two new lifts in the last two years, new snowmaking coverage and expanded terrain. Last fall, Skytrac installed a new quad chair on the lower mountain named Humphrey’s Peak, a nod to Arizona’s highest mountain. This winter, Snowbowl will add the largest new chairlift in the country called the Grand Canyon Express. Built by Leitner-Poma, the six-pack is nearly complete and staff couldn’t be more excited about their mountain’s first detachable lift serving popular intermediate terrain with a six minute ride.
The first six-place lift in the state is large by any measure, not just gauge but also length (5,801 feet) with an impressive vertical of 1,546 feet. The line will have 61 chairs initially, moving up to 1,800 skiers per hour at 1,000 feet per minute. Arizona Snowbowl will be able to add 54 more chairs to reach 3,400 pph in the future. The new lift serves all of the terrain formerly accessible from the Sunset triple chair, which may eventually be removed. The Grand Canyon Express also accesses 90 percent of the acreage off Agassiz, Snowbowl’s workhorse lift that takes 13 minutes to ride.
Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort faced a challenge last fall. How could it find enough time to replace an aging lift that brings skiers to the mountain’s summit but also provides access to a hugely popular zip tour? With ski resorts increasingly becoming hubs for summer recreation, this is becoming a more frequent problem. Building a lift typically takes at least four months although there are exceptions. In 2015, Snow King Mountain replaced the heavily-used in both summer and winter Rafferty lift with a Doppelmayr quad in record time – under three months – between closing day of ski season and Independence Day weekend. This fall, Doppelmayr is making a similar push at Sundance to complete the new Arrowhead Quad.
Sundance’s other triple chair, Flathead, is actually ten years older than Arrowhead, which begs the question of why the latter will be modernized first. Built by Lift Engineering in 1985, the old Arrowhead could only download 240 guests per hour which no longer worked for summer operations. Furthermore, Yan used aluminum sheaves (with hubcaps!) on many of its later-model lifts which became prone to cracking. You’ll notice many Yan lifts of Arrowhead’s vintage sport upgraded line gear from Doppelmayr or Poma. Rather than upgrading piecemeal, Sundance announced last December it would replace the entire lift with a brand new quad chair. “With the amount of use Arrowhead Lift sees year-round, this upgrade is exciting to the skiing, snowboarding, ZipTour and summer programs that our guests love so much at Sundance,” director of mountain operations Czar Johnson said in a release announcing the project.
Three years into its ownership of Utah’s second largest ski resort, Summit Powder Mountain is making a statement by adding two Skytrac quad chairs to serve new intermediate terrain in Lefty’s drainage and Mary’s Bowl. The new lifts are called Village and Mary’s and will access runs to the south of the existing boundary beginning this winter. Powder Mountain already sprawls an impressive 7,000 acres but has just five lifts, four of them fixed-grips. Expanded uphill options will be welcome news to skiers although these latest additions are mostly about access to Powder Mountain Village and 150 new home sites. I reached out to Powder Mountain for more details about these lift projects and so far they have not gotten back to me. Luckily public records from Weber County provide some info and pictures tell a thousand words.
Skiing off to the south from the Hidden Lake Express this winter you’ll find the bottom of the new Village lift part way down Lefty’s drainage. The Village quad and its new sister lift will be the first just the third and fourth top drive lifts for Skytrac. Rising 582 vertical feet, Village will sport 16 towers and a capacity of 1,500 pph to start. The chairlift unloads on the ridge between Lefty’s and Mary’s at the heart of the forthoming village. Construction began on the late side for a lift to 9,000 feet in the Wasatch but all concrete work is finished and steel is arriving.
A winter weather advisory is in effect all week for Teton Village and the top of the Jackson Hole Tram is already buried under feet of snow. Luckily the Sweetwater Gondola project lies mostly below the snow line, where the Doppelmayr crew is working on final assembly of America’s only new gondola for 2016. All three terminals now have roofs and local resident Norm Duke presided over a splice of the 45mm haul rope Sept. 20th. This week, the team is finishing the final, giant enclosure at Solitude Station. The mid-station also got its maintenance/parking rail last week, which will eventually link to a storage barn on the south (downhill) side. JHMR has always parked Bridger’s cabins inside on winter nights but Sweetwater’s will remain on the line this winter.
An eagle-eyed reader, Charles Von Stade, advised me the other day that Sweetwater’s rounded UNI-G enclosure at the return station is not the first in the world after all. Doppelmayr designed a similar enclosure for the top station of a 2009 six-pack in Austria called Kettingbahn that looks just as sweet as Sweetwater’s.
Work on Grand Targhee’s fourth quad chair is in full swing this weekend with new stations and towers arriving for the all-new Blackfoot quad amid fall foliage and fresh snow. The first shipment of steel from Doppelmayr included 13 towers and the support structure for the bottom station, which is in a new location uphill of the old Riblet. Still to come are the CTEC-style operator houses, bullwheels, motor room, haul rope and chairs. Concrete is in the ground and towers are nearly assembled for when the weather cooperates to fly them. Although Grand Targhee is scheduled to open Nov. 18, Blackfoot usually doesn’t usually open until December.
The new Blackfoot will utilize a Tristar-model drive/tension station at the bottom with a fixed bullwheel on a concrete mast up top, the same setup as Challenger up the road at Big Sky. We’ve now seen at least three different return station styles and four drive station models on this year’s new Doppelmayr fixed-grips, including the Alpinstar (Wilmot); Tristar (Big Sky, Caberfae, Targhee); Unistar (Red River) and Eco (Mont Bellevue). I find it interesting how many different station models Doppelmayr continues to offer when their competitors each have basically just two.
Stay tuned for more updates in the coming weeks from Arizona Snowbowl, Big Sky, Jackson, Powder Mountain and Sundance as the snow flies and this year’s crop of new lifts is completed.