Bridger Bowl Invests $5 Million to Transform Beginner Experience

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Located near Bozeman, Montana, Bridger Bowl is a nonprofit day-use ski area that has seen major growth and investment recently.  This year’s projects cater to beginner skiers and snowboarders.
Bridger Bowl is creating a first-rate learning center this fall, with four new lifts under construction to serve exclusively green terrain.  Following years of attendance records and upper mountain expansion, the move is similar to what Beaver Creek, Jackson Hole, Taos and the Yellowstone Club did recently combining short gondolas, new chairlifts and/or covered carpets to create dedicated teaching hubs away from facilities for other guests.  At Bridger, the Snowflake lift is being moved away from conflicting skier traffic to a completely new area, the Virginia City double replaced with a Skytrac triple chair with loading carpet and two new SunKid conveyors added.  An addition to the Saddle Peak Lodge and new Snowflake Hut cap this major investment by the Bridger Bowl Association, the mountain’s nonprofit owner for the past 63 years.  Impressively, the entire expansion is being paid for with cash reserves.

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2017-18 Bridger Bowl trail map showing the new lift layout.
Bridger Bowl’s redevelopment over the last two decades is a model for nonprofit community ski areas everywhere.  At the turn of the millennium, the mountain ran one modern quad chair and five Riblet doubles built between 1964 and 1978.  Every lift was subsequently replaced with new fixed grip triples and quads with loading carpets from Garaventa CTEC, Doppelmayr CTEC and now Skytrac.  With six Chairkit systems, Bridger Bowl is the largest operator of loading carpets in North America.  “The conveyors are very effective in reducing mis-loads and allow the lifts to be operated closer to full speeds,” Four Mountain Advisors noted in the mountain’s master plan.  “This helps maintain lift capacity without the added costs of a high-speed lift.”  While at one point Bridger operated two mile-long doubles, the new strategy relies on a larger number of shorter, well-placed fixed-grip triples and quads.  Virginia City and Snowflake are the fifth and sixth modern lift replacements in new alignments.

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In a Booming Region, Stevens Pass Looks to Expand

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Up to five more high-speed quads like the new Jupiter Express could join the Stevens Pass lift fleet over the next 10-15 years.

Once again in 2016, Seattle found itself the fastest-growing big city in America, and the only one of the top five in close proximity to major mountain resorts.  The Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area is now home to 3.8 million people, seven figures more than metro Denver or the Wasatch Front and growing faster than both.  Yet despite being generally outdoorsy and with high average incomes, Puget Sound residents have only three real choices for where to spend a day skiing.  Unlike in neighboring Oregon, where three resorts flank Mt. Hood and another Mt. Bachelor, Washington’s large volcanoes never saw ski development before being placed under conservation.  Most of Washington State’s ski areas lie far from Puget Sound, along which two-thirds of Washingtonians live, concentrating some 1.5 million skiers annually at The Summit at SnoqualmieStevens Pass and Crystal Mountain.

Crystal spun off from Boyne Resorts in April to become Seattle’s only locally-owned and operated mountain. The resort’s master plan includes new lifts but most of them have already been built.  Michigan-based Boyne still operates The Summit at Snoqualmie, just 45 minutes from Amazon’s new 24,000-head complex in Downtown Seattle.  The Summit’s approved plan includes a dozen new lifts but almost all of them simply replace very old ones.  That leaves the place where I first rode a detachable chairlift in 1997, Stevens Pass, to meet much of the Puget Sound region’s growing demand for local skiing.  As the second busiest resort in Washington, Stevens averages double the skier density of Crystal and Snoqualmie.  Located along U.S. Route 2, Stevens Pass grew under the ownership of Seattle-based Harbor Properties, which also at one point held Mission Ridge and Schweitzer.  In 2011, Harbor sold Stevens to CNL Lifestyle Properties with operations assumed by Karl Kapuscinski of Mountain High, California.  Stevens saw one new lift during CNL’s tenure, a Doppelmayr detachable in Mill Valley called Jupiter Express.

As the 2007 Stevens Pass master plan notes, “demand for skiing facilities currently exceeds capacity both on the trails, on the lifts and in the base area.  A a result, Stevens Pass frequently experiences days when these facilities are overcrowded, resulting in the use of satellite parking, long lift lines, lack of seating and a shortage of restrooms.” The introduction concludes by noting Stevens has been over-utilized every year since 1995. But with its ambitious upgrade plan approved in 2015 and new stability following the sale of CNL’s ski holdings to hedge fund Och-Ziff last fall, more lifts and less crowding are on the horizon.

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Stevens’ two oldest Riblets are planned to be replaced under the current MDP filed with the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.  I will miss this breakover!

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Will Vail Resorts Build Big in 2018?

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With the additions of Whistler Blackcomb and Stowe, Vail Resorts’ reach is larger than ever.  The company typically announces new lifts projects in a single press release each December.  Photo credit: Whistler Blackcomb/Vail Resorts.

If you follow the ski industry, mark your calendar for four months from now, the week of December 4th.  Very early one morning that week, the largest mountain resort operator in the world will release its fiscal 2018 first quarter results and, more importantly to this audience, outline capital expenditures for 2018.  Last year, this is the moment Vail Resorts committed to building three six-packs as part of $103 million in capital spending for 2017 (the company later added a fourth detachable to this year’s class, the Red Buffalo Express at Beaver Creek.)  In December 2015, MTN announced a high-speed quad for Vail Mountain and in 2014, $50 million in improvements including three new lifts at Park City plus another six-pack at Vail.  So, what might be on the likely $120+ million agenda for 2018?

Vail Mountain

  1. Game Creek Express #7 six-pack.  The current 1985 version of Game Creek is the oldest operating lift on Vail Mountain and one of three remaining CLD-260 style Doppelmayr detachables there.  It is likely to be replaced with a six-pack, increasing capacity by at least 25 percent in popular Game Creek Bowl.  Of the recent six-pack upgrades at Vail, two were built by Doppelmayr (Avanti #2 and Mountaintop #4) and one by Leitner-Poma (Northwoods #11.)vail 4-1-07 184
  2. Orient Express #21 six-pack.  Three years newer than Game Creek but still with DS grips, Orient Express serves some of the most popular terrain in Vail’s famous Back Bowls below the equally popular Two Elk Lodge.  A six-pack upgrade would be the first such lift in the Back Bowls or Blue Sky Basin.
  3. Wildwood Express #3 six-pack.  A 1995 CTEC, Wildwood is not as old as other detachables recently replaced at Vail, but it serves a high-traffic pod between Mid-Vail and its namesake Wildwood.  Parts from this lift could be used as spares for Riva Bahn/Pride Express and Cinch, Bachelor, Grouse Mountain and Strawberry Park high-speed quads at Beaver Creek.
  4. Born Free Express #8 replacement.  Born Free is the 1988 sister ship to Orient and runs parallel to the Eagle Bahn Gondola, built 1996.  Vail could opt to address both lifts in the coming years with a gondola like Keystone’s or replace only Born Free with a new high-speed quad or six-pack.
  5. Golden Peak Race lift.  In April, Vail submitted a master plan amendment to add a third lift on Golden Peak above the Riva Bahn mid-station.  This short fixed-grip chairlift or surface lift would primarily serve an extended race course.vailgoldenpeakexpansion

Beaver Creek

  1. Arrow Bahn Express replacement.  Beaver Creek doesn’t see nearly the traffic that Vail does and has seen ten new lifts since 2000.  However, Arrow Bahn Express is by far the oldest lift at Beaver Creek, built in 1988 to serve a separate Arrowhead ski area.  A CLD-260 like Game Creek, Orient and Born Free but with lower hours for its age, Arrow Bahn might make it a bit longer.img_4153

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Mt. Spokane Backside Expansion is Finally a Go

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This one’s a long time coming.  The Washington State Supreme Court this afternoon upheld two lower courts’ decisions to allow Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park to add a sixth chairlift and seven new runs on the northwest side of the mountain, a project first proposed circa 2005.  Ever since then, the nonprofit that operates the ski area has fought the Spokane Tribe, Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Spokane Mountaineers, Conservation Northwest, Native Plant Society, Lands Council and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to move the project forward.  At issue were 279 acres of old growth forest and alpine meadows popular with backcountry skiers that are now poised to become part of the ski area, one of only a handful nationwide located in a state park. The expansion will allow the nonprofit mountain to open more reliable northwest-facing terrain in lean snow years and meet growing demand for outdoor winter recreation in the Inland Northwest.  “This is a very exciting day for every skier in our region,” Mt. Spokane general manager Brad McQuarrie celebrated in a press release. “We can now turn our vision into a reality so that more skiers can enjoy more of the mountain.”

When I visited Mt. Spokane this spring, logging equipment was staged near the summit awaiting the court’s decision.  A double chair removed from Bridger Bowl in 2013 sat in the main parking lot undergoing modifications for its new home.  The Riblet will be called Red Chair for obvious reasons and has upgraded CTEC components including its bottom tension terminal.  “This chairlift has a long and storied history, including ties to the Spokane community from its inception, as Riblet Tramway Company was the original builder of this chairlift based in Spokane,” the mountain’s release noted.  Mt. Spokane’s existing chairlifts will also get new names this fall to replace numbers one through five.

 

Construction begins tomorrow morning and the ropes are expected to drop for the 2018-19 season.

Town of Breckenridge Considers Gondola Transit

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The Vail Resorts-owned and operated BreckConnect Gondola could be complemented by a second public system, a study funded by the Town of Breckenridge has concluded.

Could a north-south gondola effectively move people through the town of Breckenridge much like Telluride and Mountain Village pioneered twenty years ago?  A team from SE Group presented Phase 1 of its Gondola Transit Study (pages 28-47) to the Breckenridge Town Council on July 11th.  The document looks at siting, capacity and cost for a system that could include up to seven stations with the goal of creating a system which reduces traffic congestion, improves connectivity between Breckenridge Ski Resort and the town and enhances the experience of riding transit.

The study’s first siting principle was to serve core destinations from peripheral parking areas to get people out of cars. Another principle placed stations no more than 2,400 feet apart with the assumption that skiers would not willingly walk more than 1,200 feet in winter.  The shortest and simplest option would begin at the Satellite North Parking (Station 1) and end at the BreckConnect Gondola (Station 5) with three mid-stations.  This option would span 7,530 feet and utilize 84 gondola cabins.  The second option (Stations 1-7) would follow the same route but add two more stations at Riverwalk Center (Station 6) and F-Lot parking (Station 7).  This one would be 10,395 feet with 116 cabins.  The most ambitious alternative, dubbed 1-7b would include the same first five stations but diverge at Gondola Center to the ice rink.  This would stretch 12,630 feet with 140 cabins and seven stations.  All routes contemplate utilizing separate haul rope loops so that only certain stages could be operated during off-peak times and seasons.

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The report notes the first two alternatives could be built easily, as “[they] present few physical barriers; alignments easily pass between existing buildings, transect relatively few private parcels, and appear to have a clear corridor.”  The third alternative with stations 6b and 7b reaches more people but a high cost.  While the 40-foot corridor for Stations 1-7 encompasses land owned by the Town, CDOT, Vail Resorts, the Summit School District and one private landowner, the alignment for stations 6b and 7b adds four more private parcels and significant complexity.

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Disney Unveils Bold Skyliner Gondola Plan

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A six-station Disney Skyliner gondola network will connect two parks with four vacation resorts at Walt Disney World, the company announced yesterday.

It’s official: North America’s largest-ever gondola network is coming to Walt Disney World in Orlando.  Bob Chapek, Chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts announced the project in a Steve Jobs-esque keynote at a Disney fan convention in Anaheim yesterday. The name for the new system will be Disney Skyliner in a nod to the Skyway VonRoll gondolas which operated at three Disney Parks from the 1950s until 1990s.  “I’m proud to announce that we’re building a whole new transportation system,” Chapek said onstage to wild applause.  “The Disney Skyliner will soon give our guests a bird’s eye view of Walt Disney World.  Many of these gondolas will feature your favorite Disney characters and what a better way to get around the resort than with your pals in the sky.”  A simultaneous post on the Disney Parks Blog noted, “[This] new transportation system will add even more magic to your future vacation experiences.”

As rumored since February, there will be five stages connecting Disney’s Pop Century, Art of Animation, Caribbean Beach Resort, and new Riviera Resort to Hollywood Studios and the International Gateway at EPCOT.  Whistler Blackcomb currently operates the most gondola sections in North America – six – but they are not contiguous and utilize varying technologies. The longest of three individual lines at Walt Disney World will have two angle stations, one of which will serve the all-new Disney Riviera Resort opening in 2019.  All three lines will meet at a hub on the south side of Caribbean Beach Resort, where guest can change cabins based on destination.  Renderings confirm Doppelmayr and CWA ropeway technology and this is probably Doppelmayr USA’s largest lift contract ever (excluding DCC rail-based systems like the Oakland Airport Connector.)  Air conditioning does not appear to be included but the Omega cabins will include more open windows than normal like those on the recently completed Arthurs Seat Eagle in Australia and California Trail at the Oakland Zoo Singapore Cable Car.

Disney Parks Chairman Bob Chapek shows off Skyliner’s five stages and six stations at the D23 convention yesterday.  Photo credit: Inside the Magic.

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Mapping Mammoth’s Next New Lifts

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America’s third most-skied resort could see a bunch of new lifts over the next decade following its purchase by a new company rivaling Vail Resorts.

“One hundred million dollars” is how Mammoth Mountain CEO Rusty Gregory responded when asked about capital improvements in the wake of the recent purchase of Mammoth Resorts by Aspen Skiing Co. and KSL Capital Partners this spring.  While I can’t find a comprehensive online version of the 2007 Mammoth Master Plan prepared by Ecosign, the vision includes 17 lift additions and replacements including up to four new gondola stages.  A vast majority of the changes are likely to be realignments and capacity upgrades of existing lifts rather than the opening of new terrain.  Still, the possibilities are exciting at this already monster mountain.

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Mammoth currently operates the largest second largest lift fleet in the United States, with 27 machines averaging 27 years old.  All 14 lifts built before 1995 are Yan, while the 13 added post-1996 are exclusively Doppelmayr.  Remarkably, every lift Mammoth has built since 1998 has been detachable, 15 in a row with DT grips (the two Yan detachables got them in 1996.)  At some point, Mammoth’s impressive fleet commonality will have to end, but the streak may not be over just yet.

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Mammoth Mountain’s current trail map showing 3,500 acres serviced by 27 lifts.

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Nowhere to Go But Up: The Keystone Master Plan

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Keystone Resort in Dillon, Colorado hosts more than one million skiers and snowboarders annually and plans to add up to eight lifts to accommodate growing demand in Summit County.

Of the dozen North American skier visit champions, only one mountain operates fewer than 15 lifts.  Number one Vail has 25, number two Breck 23.  Whistler and Mammoth spin even more. But the fourth most-visited ski area on the continent has only 13 lifts. That mountain is Keystone, an intermediate skiing mecca under 100 miles from Denver International Airport.

In 2009, Vail Resorts and SE Group updated the resort’s master plan, a road map for expansion over the coming decades.  With eight new lifts planned for Dercum Mountain, North Peak and The Outback, Keystone’s plan outlines significantly more growth than slated for Vail’s other Colorado resorts.  Much of the expansion would come above current lift service, adding high-alpine terrain to attract a broader spectrum of skiers and snowboarders to Keystone.

Dercum Mountain

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  • Ski Tip Gondola.  A new Ski Tip portal is planned with a 3,400′ x 1,154′ two-way gondola that could transition approximately 18 percent of skiers away from the crowded River Run and Marmot portals.  Skiers would ride the gondola to a point above the River Run Gondola mid-station and return there at the end of the day to ride back down.  Critics have suggested this gondola is merely a real estate play.
  • Two-stage Argentine high-speed quad.  A new high speed quad could replace Argentine and continue to a point near the Dercum summit with a mid-load angle station in the vicinity of the former Saints John and Ida Belle lifts.  Three new trails would be cut between Peru and Montezuma.  The mid-station would take pressure off the crowded Lower Schoolmarm trail and Peru Express.
  • Summit Learning Center Lift.  A new fixed-grip triple chairlift is proposed to connect the top of the new Argentine to the top of the mountain between Ranger and Montezuma. This would be the seventh lift to serve the summit of Dercum Mountain.  With the new triple’s 1,000 skiers per hour, a whopping 16,800 people could theoretically unload at the Summit House in one hour.

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Silver Star Announces New Gondola for 2018

Silver Star Mountain Resort in Vernon, British Columbia will build a Summit Gondola next year, ending a three-year drought for new lifts in the region.  The 8-passenger Doppelmayr will replace the Summit double, a 4,000′ Mueller built in 1970.  The lift will open in July 2018 and serve summer guests before opening to skiers and snowboarders for 2018-19. After the upgrade, Silver Star will operate one of the most modern lift fleets in Western Canada with seven Leitner-Poma and Doppelmayr lifts built since 2002.

A new gondola at Silver Star will complement the Comet Express six-pack with a 4.5 minute ride for both summer and winter visitors in the approximate location of the existing Summit double.

An initial fleet of 21 Omega IV LWI cabins in the five colors of the Silver Star logo will provide an uphill capacity of 1,200 passengers per hour, with the ability to add 22 more to meet future needs.  “These new cabins will whisk guests from the bottom to the top of the summit in a third of the time of the existing double chair,” says Silver Star Director of Operations and Maintenance Brad Baker. “The ride will now take four and a half minutes from village to summit traveling at five meters per second.”  Slope length will be 3,487′ and vertical rise 961′.  In a unique move, all foundations and the top terminal will be completed this fall with the remainder of the lift going in next spring in time to celebrate the resort’s 60th anniversary.  The addition of a gondola is a huge milestone for any resort and Silver Star will be no exception.

Doppelmayr to Build Arizona Snowbowl’s Third New Lift in Three Years

The new Hart Prarie quad at Arizona Snowbowl will be among the first Doppelmayr Alpen Stars in a top drive configuration.

After debuting the Humphreys Peak Quad in 2015 and the Grand Canyon Express in 2016, Arizona Snowbowl will replace its Hart Prarie lift this summer, marking another major investment by owner James Coleman.  Surprisingly, the contract went to Doppelmayr and Snowbowl will operate new lifts from all three major manufacturers next winter.  In a blog post announcing the project, General Manager J.R. Murray noted, “Arizona Snowbowl enjoys having the best learn to ski and snowboard progression terrain in the entire western US with Hart Prairie boasting a wide open and gentle meadow, allowing beginners to learn and gain confidence on the slopes. Snowbowl is where Arizonans learn to ski and snowboard because of the fantastic and easy terrain.”  The new quad chair will only improve that offering.

Hart Prarie is a 1981 Riblet with center-pole double chairs, one of two such lifts remaining at the resort.  The new top drive, Alpen Star-model Hart Prarie will feature a Chairkit loading carpet, padded seats and footrests.  An 1,800 skier per hour capacity doubles that of the previous lift.  The alignment will be slightly shorter – 2,533 feet – with a vertical of 518′.

With new Skytrac, Leitner-Poma and Doppelmayr chairlifts built since 2015, Snowbowl will have increased uphill capacity by 85 percent next winter. Impressive indeed.