Landowner Proposes Alternate Little Cottonwood Gondola

When the Utah Department of Transportation unveiled three Little Cottonwood Canyon mobility alternatives, many Utahns were pleased to see a gondola included. However, two criticisms emerged: a lack of on-site parking at the bottom terminal and a low hourly capacity of 1,050 passengers per direction. A new proposal by a private landowner and developer seeks to address both of those issues by requesting UDOT amend the location of the bottom terminal to a 37.5 acre site adjacent to Highway 210. The alternative base station would be located near the LaCaille estate, seven tenths of a mile from the mouth of the canyon. The requested amendment to the current gondola plan would provide enough room for a public parking garage as well as transit center for bus riders to transfer directly to the ropeway.

Chris McCandless is the former Sandy City Councilman behind the proposal along with Wayne Niederhauser, a former Utah State Senator. Their company, CW Management, owns the site and plans to develop it but is willing to preserve the land needed for use as a gondola station if UDOT approves of this new option. If the gondola loads there, a non-loading angle station would be required in lower Little Cottonwood Canyon to avoid the alignment passing over designated wilderness. A second angle station at Tanners Flat, like in UDOT’s alternative, would also be included. Cabins would slow down just enough to make turns at these stations and gondola doors would stay closed.

CW Management consulted with Salt Lake-based Doppelmayr USA, which confirmed such a gondola is feasible. McCandless envisions an up to 4,000 passenger per hour 3S travelling at a speed of 8.5 meters a second. The Department of Transportation planned cabins arriving only once every two minutes, diverting only 30 percent of skiers out of private cars. Under the LaCaille vision, cabins would arrive every 30 seconds and divert up to 10,000 people off the highway during a peak three hour period. Ride time would be 27 minutes to the Snowbird Center with no need to ride a shuttle bus. The four 3S segments would range in length from 6,700 feet to 17,550 feet with cabins transferring seamlessly between multiple haul rope loops. As an alternative to the larger 3S gondola travelling to Alta, a second gondola, probably a monocable or 2S design, could connect Snowbird to Alta.

Some big players have already expressed support for a Little Cottonwood gondola and further study of the alternate CW Management proposal, including Alta Ski Area, Snowbird Resort and Doppelmayr. Snowbird notes that if a gondola is successfully designed and implemented, the company would consider placing additional private land it owns in the canyon under permanent conservation.

If you have opinions regarding one or both of the gondola/bus options, UDOT would like to hear from you. The agency continues to accept public comments through July 10th.

Under Alterra, Steamboat Considers More Big Projects

The new Steamboat Gondola transports 3,600 guests per hour and was one of the first major investments by new owner Alterra.

A 17,000 foot gondola. Two boundary expansions. Three six place chairlifts. Those are among the items on Alterra Mountain Company’s new wish list for its flagship Colorado resort. The two year-old operator acquired Steamboat in 2018 from Canadian developer Intrawest, which struggled to complete the volume of sustained improvements needed at this premier destination resort. The same was true for prior owner American Skiing Company.

Nonetheless, Ski Town USA grew to become Colorado’s fifth largest resort, hosting nearly 1.1 million skier visits in 2018/19. A new master plan amendment seeks to build on Steamboat’s success by boosting out-of-base capacity, enhancing experiences for varying ability levels and more efficiently moving guests around the mountain.

Perhaps most exciting is the prospect of a base-to-summit lift called Wild Blue. This would be the longest gondola on the continent, rising an impressive 3,465 vertical feet. Intrawest and Alterra spent millions to transform the existing Steamboat Gondola into a modern 3,600 per hour machine, but it’s still not enough to handle the more than 16,000 skiers who show up on peak days. Wild Blue would carry 3,200 riders per hour to a learning center in Bashor Bowl before ascending Sunshine Peak. The two stage gondola would pass over a total of four other lifts.

Searchmont to Install Two New Lifts

Ontario’s Searchmont Resort will add two Skytrac triple chairs this summer as part of a major modernization. US-based Wisconsin Resorts purchased Searchmont in 2018 from a public economic development agency and promised to make significant capital investments. The longer of the two lifts will replace the mountain’s original double chairlift, built in 1972. The double ran up the center of the mountain and was one of the last remaining Borvig lifts in Canada (only eight remain now.) Chairs from the lift are being sold tomorrow on a first come, first served basis for CA$200 apiece.

A second new triple chair will service a dedicated beginner area, which Searchmont lacks currently. This lift will be 2,000 feet long and open new terrain west of current trails. Combined, the lifts will cost US$2.6 million and will be installed by local contractors. An existing Doppelmayr quad chair and a Blue Mountain triple chair will remain in service as well.

Searchmont is one of four mid-sized ski areas in North America installing more than one new chairlift this summer. The others building two are Arapahoe Basin, Colorado, Gore Mountain, New York and Timberline Mountain, West Virginia.

Could a Gondola Solve Little Cottonwood Canyon’s Woes?

Between crush loads of cars, large avalanches and frequent collisions, Utah State Route 210 can be a nightmare in winter. The 13.5 mile road connects the Salt Lake Valley to Little Cottonwood Canyon’s legendary Alta and Snowbird resorts. Utah’s Department of Transportation is currently studying ways to improve mobility in and out of the canyon with a focus on peak winter demand. Starting with 105 possibilities, the DOT last week narrowed its focus to three options: enhanced bus service, bus service combined with road widening and a hybrid bus/gondola option.

Stretching more than eight miles, the gondola would be among the longest in the world with more stations than any 3S system built to date. A tricable design was chosen for its ideal balance of speed, capacity and tower spacing. The lift would begin at the bottom of LCC, pass through an angle station at Tanners Flat and arrive at Snowbird 24 minutes later. Another 10 minute hop would link the eastern terminus at Alta Ski Area. The premise of the gondola is not to replace the road but rather divert a portion of trips to the air. This would be the second lowest capacity 3S ever built with thirty 30 passenger cabins arriving at stations every two minutes. A modest capacity would help manage costs and allow for towers spaced thousands of feet apart.

The Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola could operate in winds up to 68 miles per hour and strategically placed towers could keep it running when snow slides and crashes close the road. Guests and employees would enjoy an aerial journey through the canyon unlike anything in the United States. The system would cost $393 million, $77 million less than road widening but $110 million more than an enhanced bus solution. The gondola itself would run $240 million while the other $153 million is associated infrastructure such as parking and tolling. The aerial option would cost the least to operate, just $4.5 million per year versus $6.2-9 million annually for the bus options.

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Amid Growth, Schweitzer Eyes Expansion

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The Cedar Park Express, constructed last year by Leitner-Poma of America, is one of six new lifts built at Schweitzer since 2000.

With four major lift replacements completed over the last 15 years, North Idaho’s Schweitzer Mountain Resort is looking beyond its boundary for the next phase of on-mountain development.  Completed just last summer, phase one of the resort’s 2018 master plan included two key lifts in the North Bowl replacing an outdated double.  The mountain also recently completed a gorgeous summit lodge called Sky House and two more chairlifts above its village.  Looking ahead, Schweitzer’s two longest lifts to date are planned for opposite ends of the resort.

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Privately-held Schweitzer will proceed carefully as growth makes sense.  The resort does not participate in a multi-resort pass product but skier visits have grown almost 35 percent over the last 15 years.  Current development focuses on the village, including a $35 million boutique hotel under construction.  “We have a pretty conservative approach,” notes President and CEO Tom Chasse. “Our business is growing but we want to make sure that we are financially sound and don’t get ahead of ourselves.  We also want to maintain a razor sharp focus on improving the overall customer experience with everything that we do.”

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Phase three will see the launch of a dedicated day use and ski school portal away from the overnight village.  “Growth has been huge the last few years and we need to find solutions for our parking issues and ease the burden on our existing village,” notes Mountain Operations Director Rob Batchelder.  “I’m very excited about solving those problems with this third phase of development in the Mid-Mountain area.  Physically, we need room to grow and Mid-Mountain does that for us.”  The $50 million project will include a day lodge, three dedicated beginner lifts and 6,400 foot detachable chairlift.  The latter will include a half mid-station with access to six new intermediate trails.  Riders staying on board will gain access to North Bowl without the need to transit the village or ride the busy Great Escape quad.

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Atlantic Canada’s First Gondola to Open at Cape Smokey

A modern Leitner-Poma gondola is coming to Nova Scotia’s beautiful Cape Breton Island. The new lift will become the centerpiece of a thousand foot mountain called Cape Smokey, which features views of the Atlantic Ocean.  With summer visitation outpacing winter in this region, the gondola will provide year-round access to skiing, sightseeing, mountain biking and a new tree canopy walk.

Cape Smokey was recently rescued by a New York-based investor group after falling into disrepair as a nonprofit society.  Developer Joseph Balaz purchased the mountain from the province of Nova Scotia for just CAD$370,000.  The area’s 1995 Blue Mountain quad last operated in 2006, leaving only a Poma platter lift operable in recent seasons.

Removal of the mountain’s quad chair has already begun and the base-to-summit gondola is expected to open in July 2021.

Mt. Rose Gains Expansion Approval

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New terrain at Mt. Rose, Nevada could be accompanied by a rare two-stage detachable chairlift under a plan signed last week.  Known as Atoma, the expansion would feature 112 acres of beginner terrain across the Mt. Rose Highway from the existing Wizard quad.  The project would include eleven developed ski trails, a skier bridge and new snowmaking.  A dual purpose detachable chairlift would provide both egress from the new terrain and a connection back to the top of Wizard.  Skiers and riders seeking to lap the new trails would unload at an angle station near the highway while others would remain on board.  Capacity of the lift would be 2,000 skiers per hour, providing a low-density beginner experience away from more advanced terrain.  The plan does not specify a chair size, though Mt. Rose’s two existing detachables both feature six place chairs.

Chairlifts with angle stations are quite rare in the United States, in part due to their high cost.  Garaventa CTEC built the first such lift on Vail’s Golden Peak in 1996.  Nearby Breckenridge debuted the Peak 8 SuperConnect in 2002, allowing mid-line loading.  Utah’s Alta Ski Area completed America’s first chairlift angle station with two separate drive systems in 2004 (Alta once planned to build a second such lift but opted instead for a gradual line turn with no loading or unloading.)  Steamboat’s Christie Peak Express followed in 2007 with unloading for beginners at an angled mid-station.  After a 12 year gap, Alpine Meadows and Leitner-Poma completed the Treeline Cirque quad in 2019 featuring an angle station at a cost of $10 million.  If the angle concept ends up proving too expensive for Mt. Rose, the Forest Service authorized installation of one 3,000 foot beginner lift and a separate 1,650 foot connector chair as an alternative.

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Mt. Rose has not released a timeline for construction or identified its lift manufacturer partner yet.

Jasper SkyTram Proposes Gondola Replacement

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The operator of Canada’s oldest aerial tramway is looking to the future in the form of a major redevelopment and eight passenger gondola.  The Jasper SkyTram opened in 1964 and currently carries 30 riders at a time up Whistlers Mountain from March through October.  Built by Pohlig-Heckel-Bleichert of Germany, the tram is approaching the end of its operational and economical life with facilities that no longer meet visitor expectations.

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A replacement gondola could run in a more environmentally and geologically sound alignment with all new terminal and tower locations.  The bottom station would sit along the Icefields Parkway at significantly lower elevation than the current base.  Shortly after departing the valley, gondolas would make a sweeping turn and eventually reach a top terminal with a modern interpretive center, restaurants, trails and barrier-free views.  The lift would become one of Canada’s largest, rising nearly 4,000 vertical feet over 2.75 miles.  The retired access road, stations and tower locations would be allowed to return to a natural state.  New terminals would be accessible for visitors of all abilities and the project would include additional parking, transit and bicycle facilities.

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The current stations are neither wheelchair accessible nor capable of handling demand on peak days.

I know first hand the limitations of aerial tramways for today’s visitors and Jasper is not the first location to consider alternatives.  Heavenly’s scenic aerial tram was effectively replaced by a gondola in 2000 and Grouse Mountain is considering making a similar move.  Gondolas are both comfortable and efficient, offering guests their own cabins and secure seating.  Under the proposal, lift capacity would increase from 200 per hour to 950 with less waiting and no need for standing in crowded cars.  Gondola technology would also enable year round operation.

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The concept is just that and no decisions have been made.  The SkyTram Partnership and Parks Canada are seeking public feedback, which can be sent to redevelopment@jasperskytram.com.

Alterra Capital Plan Includes New Lifts and Expansions for 2020-21

North America’s second largest resort operator today announced the purchase of two lifts for Mammoth Mountain, new terrain at Steamboat Resort and a two year project to build new trails and lifts at Tremblant.  Alterra Mountain Company will complete $223 million worth of capital improvements in total for next season, up from $181 million in 2019-20 and $130 million the year before.  Rival Vail Resorts announced back in December spending of $210 to $215 million across 37 mountain resorts, including construction of six new lifts in 2020.

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Mammoth’s Broadway Express #1 and Canyon Express #16, both built by Yan and upgraded by Doppelmayr, will be replaced this summer.

At Mammoth, one of the most utilized lifts in the Alterra system, Broadway Express, will be replaced with a high-speed six place detachable, increasing uphill capacity by 42 percent to 3,200 skiers per hour.  Sister lift Canyon Express will be replaced with a 3,000 people per hour six pack, increasing uphill capacity out of Canyon Lodge by 66 percent.  Both of these lifts are likely to be supplied by Doppelmayr.

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This will be the last season for the Canyon Express, a workhorse lift above the Village at Mammoth.

In Colorado, Steamboat Resort will expand onto 355 acres of Pioneer Ridge, providing skiers and riders with more terrain to explore.  Pioneer Ridge will feature 1,800 vertical feet of advanced and expert gladed terrain accessible via the Pony Express lift.  Twenty five new chairs will be added to the Garaventa CTEC high speed quad, increasing capacity from 1,200 people per hour to 1,800.  The Steamboat master plan calls for Pioneer Ridge to eventually feature its own detachable chairlift.

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Steamboat will open up hundreds of acres of new terrain beyond Pony Express and become Colorado’s third largest ski area.

This summer, Tremblant will begin a two-year expansion project called Timber.  Quebec’s most popular mountain will open a new beginner zone with a magic carpet on Versant Soleil for 2020-21 to enhance the learning experience for new skiers and riders.  In late 2021, the Timber summit will open with a new high speed quad and eight trails leading to Versant Soleil and the North side.  “This project, which aims at diversifying the ski area, is part of the continued development of Versant Soleil and reaffirms Tremblant’s leader position as the #1 ski resort in Eastern North America,” said the resort.

“Three years ago, when we formed Alterra Mountain Company, an initial priority was to commit to investing a half a billion dollars by 2023 across our family of North American destinations,” said Rusty Gregory, CEO of Alterra Mountain Company.  “To date, we have invested more than $350 million and are committed to exceeding our original plan, spending $575 million by 2020 on lifts and gondolas, snowmaking, summer activities, real estate development, hospitality and technology, all in the name of creating memories for our guests through an elevated mountain experience.”  Privately-held Alterra owns 14 resorts, having recently completed its acquisition of Sugarbush.

Arizona Snowbowl to Install Combination Lift

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Arizona Snowbowl’s fourth new lift in six years will be the largest yet –  a chair/gondola combo lift rising almost 2,000 vertical feet.  The new base-to-summit workhorse will operate year round for skiers, snowboarders and sightseers beginning next winter.  “Since its inception, Agassiz has been the beating heart of Snowbowl,” notes the resort.  “With the replacement of the lift, we’re ushering in a new era.  More than an upgrade, the new Agassiz lift completely redefines the Snowbowl experience.”

Unlike most combination lifts, Agassiz will feature eight passenger gondolas between every two chairs (usually the ratio is more like one in four or five.)  Agassiz reaches an elevation of 11,500 feet and enclosed cabins will offer guests a comfortable option in inclement weather.  The gondolas will also provide improved access for guests with disabilities and ride time will decrease from 15 minutes to seven.  Capacity will remain a modest 1,200 skiers per hour so as not to overwhelm expert trails off the summit.

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In addition to summer and winter, Agassiz operates all fall for scenic rides.

The Leitner-Poma Telemix will be the third lift in the Agassiz alignment over six decades of history.  The existing Agassiz triple opened in 1986 and is currently inoperable due to a mechanical issue.  The CTEC is expected to be repaired this week and will finish out the remainder of the season.  Once removed, it will be stored for eventual re-installation at a location to be determined.

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Mountain Capital Partners has invested heavily in Arizona Snowbowl since purchasing the resort back in 2014.  Improvements to date include a new lodge, two different fixed-grip quads and a six place called the Grand Canyon Express.  2020’s project will be the largest in resort history and one of the most significant lift additions in North America this year.