Summer 2015: The Good and the Bad

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.

Click on the map above to explore our interactive map of 2015's new lifts powered by Google Maps.
Click on the map above to explore our interactive map of 2015’s new lifts powered by Google Maps.

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.2015 by manufacturer

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The New Longest Gondola in Turkey

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.

The Ba Na Cable Car in Vietnam was the world's longest when it opened. Photo credit: Doppelmayr
The Ba Na Cable Car in Vietnam was the world’s longest from when it opened in 2009 until 2014. Photo credit: Doppelmayr

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.

The Lifespan of a High Speed Quad

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.

The John Paul Express at Snowbasin is one of 31 high speed quads built in 1998. What happens when they are all 25 years old?
The John Paul Express at Snowbasin is one of 31 high speed quads built in 1998. What happens when they are all 25 years old?

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.

Many components on Copper's American Flyer have been upgraded but it still could use a complete replacement either with a modern detachable quad or six pack.
Many components on Copper’s American Flyer have been upgraded but it’s still an almost 30-year old lift that could use replacement.

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The Ten Longest Lift Rides in North America

The average lift ride in the United States and Canada takes just under five minutes.  In fact, only about four percent of lifts (fewer than a hundred) take more than ten minutes to ride. You wouldn’t know it hearing the average skier complaining about long and slow lifts at just about any ski area.  Below are the ten longest lifts by actual ride time at design speed.  Of course lifts do not always run at their design speed but this gives a pretty good idea of the longest rides.  Two of the top ten are detachable lifts that are so long that they take more than 15 minutes.

Silver Mountain's Gondola is one of only three lifts on the continent that takes more than 15 minutes to ride at design speed.
Silver Mountain’s Gondola is one of only four lifts on the continent that takes more than 15 minutes to ride at design speed.

1. Burfield Quad – Sun Peaks Resort, BC – 1997 Doppelmayr Fixed-grip quad

9,510 feet at 453 fpm = 21 minutes

2. Cyclone – Sunrise Park Resort, AZ – 1983 Yan Fixed-grip triple

7,982 feet at 450 fpm = 17.7 minutes

3. Gondola – Silver Mountain, ID – 1990 VonRoll 8-passenger gondola

16,350 feet at 1,000 fpm = 16.4 minutes

4. Castlerock – Sugarbush Resort, VT – 2001 Poma fixed-grip double

4,707 feet at 300 fpm = 15.7 minutes

5. Wallowa Lake Tramway, OR – 1968 Hall 4-passenger gondola

9.650 feet at 650 fpm = 14.9 minutes

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The Ten Shortest Detachable Lifts in North America

I”ve written a few times about the longest lifts of different types but what about the shortest? The considerable expense of a detachable lift is usually justified for long profiles where speed makes sense.  The average detachable lift in this part of the world is over 5,200 feet long while the average fixed grip lift is under 2,800 feet.  However, the slow loading speed of a high-speed lift also make sense for beginners and foot passengers regardless of the length of the line.  Hence there are plenty of very short detachable lifts that cost millions and take less than two minutes to ride.  Below are the ten shortest ones in the US and Canada.

Beaver Creek's Buckaroo Gondola is among the shortest detachable lifts but makes for a perfect beginner lift.
Beaver Creek’s Buckaroo Gondola is among the shortest detachable lifts but makes for a perfect beginner lift.
  1. Cabriolet – Mont Tremblant, QC – 1994 Doppelmayr detachable 6-passenger cabriolet

Slope length: 1,100 feet, ride time 1.4 minutes.

  1. Easy Rider Express – Sierra-at-Tahoe, CA – 1996 Doppelmayr detachable quad

Slope length: 1,165 feet, ride time 1.3 minutes

  1. Chair 3 – Horseshoe Resort, ON – 1989 Doppelmayr detachable quad

Slope length: 1,400 feet, ride time 1.6 minutes

  1. Super Glide – Alpine Valley Resort, WI – 2011 Leitner-Poma detachable quad

Slope length: 1,421 feet, ride time 1.4 minutes

  1. Valley Flyer – Alpine Valley Resort, WI – 1999 Poma detachable quad

Slope length: 1,426 feet, ride time 1.6 minutes

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Six Companies That Operate 589 Ski Lifts

Like many industries, much of the ski business is controlled by a handful of large companies. There are six such businesses in the Americas that operate more than 50 lifts each.  Their combined 589 lifts account for one fifth of all the lifts in North America and almost a third of the VTFH (vertical transport feet per hour.)  The top three operators are, as you would expect, Vail Resorts, Boyne Resorts and Intrawest.  But there are others including Mammoth Mountain, LLC which operates 55 lifts at four different ski areas in California and Powdr Corporation which has 68 lifts in five states.

logos

Vail Resorts doesn’t just own lots of lifts; the lifts they operate are bigger, newer and faster than average.  This winter, the company will operate 15 gondolas and tramways, 75 detachable chairlifts and 83 fixed grip chairlifts.  These numbers for Vail Resorts do not even include the lifts at Perisher, the company’s newest acquisition in Australia.  If you put each lift at each of Vail’s resorts end to end, the total length would be 115 miles.  The average lift owned by Vail Resorts is 21.5 years old, six years newer than the national average.  56 percent of Vail’s lifts were built by Doppelmayr and CTEC, 14 percent by Leitner-Poma.  Vail accounts for 11.4% of all the vertical transport capacity on the continent, with a total VTFH of 353 million!

Number of lifts for the six biggest operators and total life length in miles.
Number of lifts for the six biggest operators and total lift length in miles.

The second biggest resort operator is privately-owned Boyne Resorts, which has 126 lifts at 11 mountains.  Boyne doesn’t actually own most of the properties it operates; instead holding long-term leases through CNL Lifestyle Properties.  The lifts Boyne operates are older and smaller than Vail’s.  They include 30 detachable chairlifts and 85 fixed-grip chairs.   Doppelmayr and CTEC built 45 percent of Boyne’s lifts, followed by Riblet at 20 percent.  Boyne accounts for 5.3 percent of the total VTFH in North America or 162 million.

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Top Ten Biggest Lifts in North America by VTFH

Vertical transport feet per hour (VTFH) is the best way to measure how lifts move people up mountains.  VTFH combines hourly capacity and vertical rise into one number, usually measured in millions.  Ski Area Management uses this metric each fall when they look at how good of a year it was for the lift-building business.

The second stage of Revelstoke's Revelation Gondola has a VTFH of over 8 million, the highest in North America.
The second stage of Revelstoke’s Revelation Gondola has a VTFH of over 8 million, the highest in North America.

For a lift to score big it has to have a high hourly capacity (think lots of carriers, high speed) and large vertical rise (think big slope length with many towers.)  The Jackson Hole tram has a huge vertical (over 4,000′) but very low capacity so its VTFH is only 2,654,600 – not even in the top 400.  The Peak 2 Peak Gondola has a huge capacity but only rises 119 feet for a dismal VTFH of 243,950.  There are 49 lifts in the US and Canada that move enough people high enough to achieve a VTFH over five million.  Below are the top ten.

1. Revelation Gondola Stage II, Revelstoke Mountain Resort, British Columbia

2007 Leitner-Poma 8-passenger gondola

2,952′ vertical x 2,800 passengers per hour = 8,265,600 VTFH

2. Gold Coast Funitel, Squaw Valley, California

1998 Garaventa CTEC 28-passenger funitel

2,000′ vertical x 4,032 passengers per hour = 8,064,000 VTFH

3. Heavenly Gondola, Heavenly Mountain Resort, California

2000 Doppelmayr 8-passenger gondola

2,874′ vertical x 2,800 passengers per hour = 8,047,200 VTFH

4. Gondola One, Vail Mountain, Colorado

2012 Leitner-Poma 10-passenger gondola

1,996′ vertical x 3,600 passengers per hour = 7,185,600 VTFH

5. Centennial Express, Beaver Creek Resort, Colorado

2014 Doppelmayr 6/10 chondola combination lift

2,102′ vertical x 3,400 passengers per hour = 7,146,800 VTFH

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Top Ten Longest Chairlifts in North America

Lodge lift at The Yellowstone Club is among the world's longest chairlifts.
The Lodge lift at The Yellowstone Club is the 6th longest chairlift in North America at 9,847 feet.

There are 63 chairlifts in the US and Canada that stretch longer than 7,000 feet but only four over 10,000′.  Six of the top ten are in the State of Colorado and all but two are detachable quads.  Sun Peaks Resort near Kamloops, BC claims the title of the longest fixed-grip chairlift in the world and the only non-detachable among North America’s hundred longest lifts.  A ride on the Burfield Quad takes a painful 21 minutes to go 9,510 feet (and that’s at full speed.)  Below are the top ten longest chairlifts in the US and Canada.

1. Slide Brook Express, Sugarbush, Vermont – 11,012 feet

1995 Doppelmayr Detachable Quad

2. Chile Express, Angel Fire Resort, New Mexico – 10,992 feet

1996 Poma Detachable Quad

3. Sunshine Express, Telluride, Colorado – 10,732 feet

1986 Doppelmayr Detachable Quad

4. Village Express, Snowmass, Colorado – 10,074 feet

2005 Leitner-Poma Detachable Six

5. American Flyer, Copper Mountain, Colorado – 9,907 feet

1986 Poma Detachable Quad

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North America’s Top Ten Longest Lifts

North America’s top ten longest lifts are all gondolas or aerial tramways and only half of them are directly used for skiing.  Silver Mountain’s Gondola is number one although it is no longer the world’s longest.  Since 2014, that title has belonged to the Bursa Uludag Gondola in Turkey which is a ridiculous 28,871 feet.  This list does not include systems which have multiple haul ropes, such as Blackcomb’s Excalibur, which I consider to be two separate gondolas.

Silver Mountain's VonRoll gondola was the world's longest when it opened in 1990.
Silver Mountain’s VonRoll gondola was the world’s longest when it opened in 1990.

1. Silver Mountain Gondola, Silver Mountain, Idaho – 1990 VonRoll 8-passenger gondola

16,350′ ride time 16.4 minutes

2. Sunshine Village Gondola, Sunshine Village, Alberta – 2001 Poma 8-passenger gondola

14,894′ ride time 12.4 minutes

3. Peak 2 Peak Gondola, Whistler-Blackcomb, British Columbia – 2008 Doppelmayr 3S tri-cable gondola

14,497′ ride time 9.8 minutes

4. Sandia Peak Tramway, Albuquerque, New Mexico – 1965 Bell 50-passenger tramway

14,338′

5. Silver Queen Gondola, Aspen Mountain, Colorado – 1986 Poma 6-passenger gondola

13,216′ ride time 13.2 minutes

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Top Ten Steepest Lifts in North America

Below is a list of the top ten steepest lifts in the US and Canada.  I calculated these using a ratio of slope length to vertical rise using data from the manufacturers. To give you some perspective, Snowbasin’s tram has the lowest ratio at 1.11 while Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak has the highest ratio at 120.  The average lift is 4.65, meaning 4.65 feet of length to rise one vertical foot, on average.  Only three of the top ten are chairlifts and only five serve ski-able terrain.

Snowbasin's Mt. Allen Tram, built for the 2002 Olympics, is the steepest lift in North America.
Snowbasin’s Mt. Allen Tram, built for the 2002 Olympics, is the steepest lift in North America.

1. Mt. Allen Tram, Snowbasin, Utah – 1998 Doppelmayr 15-passenger tramway

1,165′ slope length x 1,047′ vertical rise = 1.11 length to vertical ratio

edit: Ski Area Management’s lift construction survey had the incorrect vertical for this lift.  It is actually 510′ making the Mt. Allen Tram about half as steep as posted above.

2. Mt. Roberts Tram, Juneau, Alaska – 1996 Poma 60-passenger tramway

3,098′ slope length x 1,746′ vertical rise = 1.77 length to vertical ratio

3. Lone Peak Tram, Big Sky Resort, Montana – 1995 Doppelmayr 15-passenger tramway

2,828′ slope length x 1,450′ vertical rise = 1.95 length to vertical ratio

4. Sulphur Mountain Gondola, Banff, Alberta – 1959 Bell 4-passenger bi-cable gondola

4,498′ slope length x 2,292′ vertical rise = 1.96 length to vertical ratio

5. Honeycomb Return, Solitude Mountain Resort, Utah – 2002 Doppelmayr CTEC quad

1,300′ slope length x 655′ vertical rise = 1.98 length to vertical ratio

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