Seventy percent of the 1,277 T-Bars, J-Bars and platter (sometimes called Poma) lifts built in North America to date are no longer in service. That would suggest the traditional surface lift is a dying breed in the age of beginner-friendly carpets, which go in by the dozen every year of late. But over the last two seasons, a bit of a renaissance has emerged, with more mountain resorts adding brand new T-Bars and platters. Four T-Bars being completed right now represent the highest number in North America since 1987. Even more resorts are considering building these classic surface lifts, although the reasons why have little to do with learning to ski.
Yesterday I visited both Burke Mountain, Vermont and Cannon Mountain, New Hampshire, where local ski clubs recently partnered to build dedicated surface lifts on terrain used for racing. In some cases, these types of lifts are open to the public but other times not. New T-Bars are relatively cheap with costs typically covered by donors and/or program fees. Another reason for this application is speed; every T-Bar built since 2011 can move at least 550 feet per minute, significantly faster than most fixed-grip chairlifts. The Franconia Notch Ski Club’s new T was built by LST Ropeways and goes up to 690 fpm; Burke Mountain Academy’s nearly-finished one is a Leitner, shown below.
Eight new eight-passenger chairlifts debuted this ski season, the highest number in history. Twenty years since the technology debuted, Doppelmayr, Garaventa, Leitner and Poma have now built a combined 78 of these mega chairlifts on three continents and in eleven countries. With 2016 seeing the greatest number of eight-passenger chairlifts constructed, a question on everybody’s mind should be: when will the world’s second largest ski market finally build one?
Doppelmayr debuted eight-passenger chair technology in 1997 (in Norway of all places) and continues to be the market leader, having built two-thirds of those operating today. But for the first time ever the Leitner-Poma Group installed more than Doppelmayr and Garaventa combined last year. In 2006, Leitner built the first combined installation with eight-passenger chairs and 10-passenger gondola cabins and there are now seven of these across Europe. Bubble chairs and seat heating came along in 2000 and nearly every new eight-passenger lift features both these days. In total, 60 percent of eight seaters globally have bubbles and half sport heated seats.
Austria is home to over 60 percent of the world’s eight-passenger chairlifts and exactly five have ever made it out of Europe. Australia and Asia each got their first in 2003 but several leading ski markets have never gone there – among them Japan, Canada, China and the United States.
With work wrapping up on 36 new and four used lifts across North America, 2016 will go down as the best year for lift construction since the Great Recession. With Skytrac now a member of the Leitner-Poma Group, the big two manufacturers each supplied exactly the same number of lifts in North America – 17 – with one each for LST and Partek (although Skytrac provided controls for and installed the LST lift.) Doppelmayr and Leitner-Poma also had their best years individually since 2008 and Skytrac its second best in history with five complete lifts and a retrofit terminal for Keystone. These numbers include four gondolas manufactured in Europe by Leitner and Poma installed in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. If only lifts built by Leitner-Poma of America in Grand Junction are counted, Leitner-Poma had its third best year since 2008 with eight new lifts. I call it a tie.
While everyone knows the East had a horrible season last year, the Pacific states actually showed the softest demand for new lifts in 2016. Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California have steadily declined for more than a decade and just three new lifts went in there, the lowest number since at least 2004. The Mountain region saw 12 installations, virtually the same as last year and the second most since 2008. The Rockies also built the biggest lifts in the country – six-packs at Arizona Snowbowl & Big Sky, high speed quads at Steamboat & Vail and a two-stage gondola at Jackson Hole. The Midwest more than doubled last year’s count, achieving its second best year since 2004 with seven new lifts while the East was well below its ten-year average with six new lifts constructed in 2016. The big shocker: Wisconsin built more new lifts in 2016 than any other state or province with three new Doppelmayr quads at Wilmot Mountain, two Leitner-Poma quads at Cascade Mountain and a Skytrac quad at Christmas Mountain Village.
Canada finished right about average with eight new lifts, all built in the eastern provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Horseshoe Resort and Le Relais both added their first six-place detachables, which are sure to be well-received. Look for Western Canada to rebound next year after struggling since the recession. Perhaps most interesting is the four gondolas built for public transportation and tourism in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. I expect growth in Mexico and the Caribbean to continue as the urban ropeway revolution spreads north from South America (and hopefully to the United States!)
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort stunned the ski world June 24, 2005 announcing the iconic aerial tramway up Rendezvous Mountain would carry its final riders in 2006. The Kemmerer Family, owners of the resort since 1992, decided to retire the 40-year old jig-back at the first concerns about safety. “This decision has been extremely difficult and quite honestly a very sad one,” Jay Kemmerer lamented at the announcement. “We know this may impact our business, business to Jackson Hole and the State, but we must move on.”
JHMR did move on but not in the way many feared. After two years of study, the Kemmerers opted to build a new 100-passenger Garaventa tramway at a cost of $31 million. A bi-cable gondola was cheaper and seriously considered but failed to uphold the tradition set by the original tram in 1966. National Ski Areas Association President Michael Berry said of the 2006 deal with Garaventa, “This huge investment by JHMR ownership to build a new tram stands alone in our industry. The tram at Jackson Hole is recognized around the world as a lift that access some of the most spectacular terrain in North America.” Big Red, as it quickly became known, was the first new tramway built at a U.S. or Canadian ski resort since the Alyeska Tramway in 1992. The next newest tram was Cannon Mountain’s, dating back to 1979. Almost a decade later, only Jackson Hole and Alyeska have built large new aerial tramways in the last 37 years (for this post I’m talking about multi-cable tramways carrying 25+ passengers. Arguably the “beer can” trams at Big Sky and Snowbasin are really reversible gondolas.)
Switzerland is home to 97 large aerial tramways. Italy has 59, Austria 40, France 35 and Germany 18 for a total of 249 in the Alps. Compare that with 21 tramways operating in all of North America: 14 in the United States, 4 in Canada and 3 in Mexico. Only a third of those are directly used for skiing with the rest dedicated to sightseeing or public transportation. More than half the trams operating in North America were built in the 1960s and 1970s with varying degrees of upgrades along the way. As the chart below shows, the aerial tramway staged a slight comeback in the last decade but aside from Jackson Hole and Alyeska, the trend has nothing to do with skiing.
The Royal Gorge Bridge & Park in Colorado hinted at the future of tramways in 2013 when it lost its tram to a wildfire. Instead of rebuilding, the park contracted with Leitner-Poma to build a reversible gondola at a fraction of the cost of a new aerial tramway. Even with just six 8-passenger gondola cabins, the new system can move more passengers than the old tram.
This winter, 57 lifts in North America will feature loading conveyors, a higher number than ever before. Since the first carpets debuted in 1995, the technology has improved as resorts seek to increase comfort and loading efficiency. The Austrian-based market leader, Chairkit (formerly ChairkiD) has installed more than 460 carpets worldwide. Another manufacturer called Emmegi built more than a dozen in the United States before going out of business in 2010. Italian conveyor company Compac has dabbled as have Rocky Mountain Conveyor (maker of Magic Carpet®) and Doppelmayr with its own version called LaunchPad. As with bubble chairs, loading carpets are ubiquitous in Europe but not so much around here.
The logic behind a carpet is simple. It helps beginner skiers who struggle to move quickly enough to the load point and reduces the relative speed between skier and chair on fixed-grip chairlifts. The goal is fewer mis-loads/stops/slows and increased loading efficiency. Some Chairkit carpets add a lifting table so that a lift operator can raise the entire loading platform by about four inches to safely load small children. Bridger Bowl, Crystal Mountain (WA) and The Summit at Snoqualmie opted for this feature on their respective beginner lifts.
The vast majority (84 percent) of carpets in North America are the longer type designed for fixed-grip lifts. They stretch about 30 feet from the wait here board to well past the load point and move slightly slower than the lift’s rope speed. Eight high speed quads and six-packs in the United States now have shorter carpets designed for detachables. Vail Resorts operates five of these on its newest six packs at Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Park City and Vail. Boyne Resorts is another major adopter of loading carpets with seven of them across its mountains.
The average detachable chairlift has 108 carriers while the average fixed grip lift has 103. Most people would assume the longest lifts have the most carriers but that’s usually not the case. One of the reasons is longer spacing on detachable chairlifts and gondolas. Also many long fixed-grip lifts get designed with lower hourly capacities and bigger spacing to save money. In fact, only one of the top ten lifts with the most chairs is also among the ten longest. Each of the lifts below has more than 200 chairs and, not surprisingly, all but two are fixed-grips.
Cyclone – Sunrise Park Resort, AZ – 352 Yan triple chairs
What about gondolas? There are a bunch of them that stretch two-plus miles. Even so, no gondolas come close to making this list. The Sunshine Village Gondola has the most cabins in North America with approximately 175 CWA Omegas and the Whistler VillageGondola comes in at number two with 160 Sigma Diamond cabins. The average North American gondola has just 74 cabins.
Now, who can guess which lift has the most towers?
In any given year, about a third of ski areas’ “new lifts” are actually lifts removed from other locations that are finding a new home. There are entirewebsites dedicated to the buying and selling of second-hand ski lifts. By my count, at least 374 lifts in the US and Canada have been re-engineered and re-installed at new places, either at the same ski resort or clear across the country.
The ski area that has sent the most lifts to other places is, not surprisingly, Whistler-Blackcomb. Ten of its former chairlifts live on at ski areas across the US and Canada. Some resorts operate fleets of lifts pieced together entirely from other places. Big Sky Resort operates nine used lifts, many of them hand me downs from other Boyne Resorts. Removed lifts that don’t get snapped up by other ski areas often end up at amusement parks and zoos.
A handful of lifts have been moved multiple times. The Dreamscape lift at Park City (formerly Canyons) is in its third location on the same mountain. Originally installed by Garaventa CTEC in 1996 as the Saddleback quad, it was replaced the very next season by a detachable quad. The fixed-grip quad became Raptor, which served the runs between Super Condor Express and Golden Eagle for three seasons, after which it was removed (and still not replaced.) That same summer, Raptor went to the opposite side of the mountain to anchor a major expansion called Dreamscape. I would not be surprised to see Vail Resorts replace Dreamscape this coming summer, giving the still-not-that-old quad chair a chance at a fourth life.
It’s almost November and by my count construction is wrapping up on 33 lifts across the US and Canada. With the usual caveat that there could be a lift project I haven’t heard about, 2015 will be the fourth year in a row that the total number of new lifts has declined. Nonetheless there are some encouraging trends – namely more of this summer’s lifts were (expensive) detachables and more were brand new rather than re-installations of used lifts.
Looking geographically, there’s no question the dismal snow situation last winter killed the market for lifts in the Sierras and Cascades. In a typical year, Washington, Oregon and British Columbia account for five new lifts and this year they had zero. The Rockies were a bright spot this summer, with at least one new lift being built in every Rocky Mountain state except Montana. Colorado had a particularly strong year, building five new lifts including four detachables. Utah had almost as good a year, thanks largely to Vail Resorts’ mega-project at Park City. Colorado averages 4.4 new lifts a year and Utah 3.3 and both came out ahead of those numbers this summer.
The Midwest was about average for snowfall last winter but its ski areas built just one new lift and one used lift this year. The one bright spot was Lutsen in Minnesota which spent $7 million with Doppelmayr to rebuild the Midwest’s only gondola. Looking further east, Vermont was a success story, getting three brand new lifts from both Leitner-Poma and Doppelmayr. Despite averaging more than five new lifts a year, nowhere else in the Northeast invested in a new lift despite a stellar winter in 2014-15.
Canada had a tough year with only three lifts going in at Sunshine Village, Boler Mountain and Mont Cascades. In a normal construction season the country’s resorts build 7-8 new lifts. My take is newer resorts in Western Canada – places like Sun Peaks, Revelstoke and Kicking Horse – were hit particularly hard by the Great Recession and still haven’t recovered.
It used to be when you boarded the gondola to Silver Mountain in Kellogg, Idaho, a huge sign proclaimed, “Welcome to the World’s Longest Gondola.” At 16,350 feet, the Silver Mountain Gondola held that title from its opening in 1990 until May 2009. That’s when Doppelmayr completed the Ba Na Cable Car in the mountains of Vietnam. A hundred and fifty feet longer than Silver’s gondola and a thousand feet taller, it broke world records for both length and vertical rise.
Fast forward a couple years and Leitner has crushed the ropeway length record again with a gondola in Turkey that opened in 2014. Like the Silver Mountain Gondola, the Bursa-Uludag Gondola connects a city with a ski resort but this one is split into in three sections. It starts in Bursa (Turkey’s fourth largest city) at only 1,300 feet above sea level and tops out at the Uludag resort town and national park at 6,000 feet. The combined system is just under 29,000 feet long with a vertical rise of 4,600 feet. It has 139 Sigma Diamond cabins and 44 towers. The entire system takes only 22 minutes to ride at 6 m/s, replacing a 35-kilometer drive on a mountain road that took over an hour.
As if the Ba Na Cable Car and Bursa-Uludag Gondola aren’t cool enough, there’s also a 26,000 foot 3S gondola under construction in Vietnam that will relegate Silver Mountain’s gondola to the world’s fourth longest.
When detachable lifts were invented, no one knew exactly how many years they might last before having to be replaced. Now at 35 years since the first high speed quad went in at Breckenridge, we are getting an idea of what that number is. Twenty-two early high speed quads built in the 1980s have been removed and replaced so far at an average age of 23.8 years. The oldest of these was the Siberia Express at Squaw, removed this spring after 30 years of service. There are six more detachable quads built the same year as Siberia that are going into their 31st winter season.
Some would say that rather than looking at a lift’s model year and the associated technology, what really matters is operating hours. A machine that runs winter- and daytime-only will accumulate around a thousand hours a year while the Whistler Village Gondola will rack up 3,500 hours in the same year spinning 18 hours per day all winter and all summer. Since there’s no way for me to know how many hours most lifts have I will have to stick with looking at them by model year.