For the first time since their journey across the Atlantic, Jackson Hole’s newest gondola cabins slept inside last night. With a parking and storage facility officially commissioned at Sweetwater‘s Solitude Station, 48 luxury vehicles that cost tens of thousands of dollars each now have a world-class home that brings together the latest lift technology with proven principles.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort opened its Bridger Gondola barn in 1998 and 84 cabins have been going inside for twenty years there. The CWA X models are in incredible shape for their age and number of hours, a testament to their quality construction, dedicated maintenance staff and indoor storage.
JHMR launched gondola number two in December 2016 and its CWA Omega IV cabins remained on the line continuously until yesterday. The winter of 2016-17 proved to be a monster in the Tetons and while the cabins performed well, fifty feet of snow often turned to ice on flat roofs. Frozen chunks would bounce up and down, making sounds that mimicked falling metal. Jackson Hole sometimes goes weeks or even months without a thaw and ice would also accumulate on the cabin floors and in ski racks (other fun liquids would freeze too!) Ice storms that can cripple door mechanisms and plague detachable grips thankfully never materialized last year and the days of worrying that storm would come are now over.
Jagged ridgelines spread in seemingly endless directions at Alta Ski Area, serviced by relatively few lifts in just the right places to make skiing there a blast. Alta has collaborated with various lift manufacturers over its 80 year history to create unique contraptions such as the Transfer Tow, a Yan rope tow mechanically more similar to a chairlift and one of the world’s only high-speed triple chairs, called Sunnyside. In 2004, Alta and Doppelmayr CTEC dreamed up Collins, two Stealth high-speed quads joined together at a 29-degree angle with loading but no unloading at the mid-station. “Don’t text and bend,” a sign at the Wildcat base warns riders destined for the full trip.
This season, the new Supreme detachable quad goes where no bend has ever gone before, replacing both the Cecret double and Supreme triple but without an angle station. Prior to 2017, there were a handful of lifts that turn a few degrees using canted sheaves, particularly in Utah, where the mining scene created an enduring checkerboard of public and private lands. Snowbird, Park City, Deer Valley and Moonlight Basin in Montana all sport lifts that bend a few degrees for one reason or another.
Breck has been on my bucket list for a long time. Not because of the skiing, necessarily, but because its collection of 23 lifts is among the most unique anywhere. Nowhere else can you find so many lifts with turns (5), lifts that cross other lifts (4), not to mention North America’s only double-loading detachable and its highest elevation chairlift. This weekend I made a break for Breck and the three other Colorado Vail Resorts to see what Epic is all about.
I’ll start with the BreckConnect Gondola, which first connected one end of town to Peaks 7 and 8 in 2006. The Leitner-Poma gondola is free and operates both winter and summer. Locals I talked to can no longer remember life without it. Although it has two mid-stations each with an angle change of more than 40 degrees, the entire system operates with one haul rope. It’s way cooler than taking a bus from the parking lot.
Cesar Dockweiler is the General Manager for Mi Teleferico, the growing state-owned gondola network in Bolivia’s capitol city. This week, he’s in Switzerland visiting suppliers working on the Blue and White lines for La Paz, which are about 75 percent complete. Throughout the trip, Mr. Dockweiler has been tweeting updates from CWA and Fatzer to his more than 3,000 followers.
Yesterday Doppelmayr released a series of videos on YouTube highlighting the specifications and features of the company’s latest evolution in detachable technology called D-Line. While these are computer animations, there is a real-life prototype at Doppelmayr’s Wolfurt campus and the launch customer opened the first D-Line gondola last December in Hochgurgl, Austria. The first video highlights the CWA Omega IV SI D cabin, which has a simplified hanger and larger overall dimensions. 10-passenger cabins appear to be the standard for D-Line rather than 8-passenger cabins.
You can also take a tour of the detachable grip-D with a virtual tear-down. The grip-D can support ropes up to 64mm in diameter, carry up to 4,000 lbs and operate on 45-degree rope inclines.
Perhaps most interesting is the Station-D, which has gotten some negative reaction for its appearance. We now learn there is a boxier version utilizing real glass that can even be customized into a video wall.
D-Line will be available in North America in 2017 alongside the current-generation UNIG terminals and Agamatic/DT grips offered by Doppelmayr.
There’s a lively discussion going on over at Alpinforum about the future of detachable lifts, which haven’t gotten much faster despite huge advances in technology over the last thirty years. The first modern detachable chairlift, Quicksilver at Breckenridge, went 787 feet a minute when it debuted in 1981. Since then, manufacturers have installed hundreds of gondolas and chairlifts capable of going more than 1,000 fpm.
30-year old lift: 1000 ft/min
Brand new lift: 1000 ft/min
The first lift to go 1,100 fpm was the Whistler Village Gondola in 1988 and the first capable of 1,200 fpm was Stowe’s gondola in 1991. Both were built by Poma, the early adopter of faster line speeds. The only detachable installed in North America since 1991 capable of traveling any more than 1,200 fpm is the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, debuting in 2012. As a tri-cable gondola, P2P has an impressive capability of 1,476 fpm (7.5 m/s.) Doppelmayr claims similar systems can go up to 1,670 fpm (8.5 m/s.) So far, the fastest 3S ever built goes 8 m/s and one that can go 8.5 will debut in Vietnam next year. Meanwhile, 1,200 fpm (6 m/s) remains the highest speed for a single cable detachable, a stat that hasn’t changed since 1991.
The truth is the vast majority of detachable lifts built these days have the standard design speed of 1,000 fpm (5.08 m/s) and operate even slower much of the time. In my experience, many ski areas run so-called high speed lifts at 800 or 900 feet a minute on all but the busiest of days. As users on Alpinforum note, ski resort operators care more about reducing stops, wear and tear than shaving thirty seconds off a ride time that the average guest won’t even notice.
We’re used to lifts that run in a perfectly straight line between terminals but sometimes a lift just has to have a turn. Common reasons for this uncommon occurrence include buildings in the preferred alignment and challenging property lines. Most lifts with turns are detachable systems with angle stations which are very expensive. But not all lifts that need to turn require loading or unloading mid-way. In a handful of these cases, lift manufacturers have avoided the need for angle stations or extra bullwheels by designing towers with canted sheaves.
The first company to use this trick was Riblet with Chair 5 at Breckenridge way back in 1970 1986. Closely-spaced towers 10A, 10B and 11 have angled sheaves in a compression-support-compression setup. I’m not sure of the exact angle of the turn on Chair 5 but its a couple of degrees. (Edited to add later: the lower terminal and towers of Chair 5 were moved in 1986, 16 years after the lift was first built.)
Most of the lifts that turn using angled sheaves were built by Doppelmayr CTEC and its predecessor Garaventa CTEC and turn less than five degrees. A turn is typically accomplished over three towers with the middle of the three being a depression assembly. The Cabriolet at Park City (formerly Canyons) was the first modern lift with this setup and opened in 2000, connecting the main parking lot to village. Its five degree turn was required due to private property lines and existing buildings.
A year after the experiment at The Canyons, Garaventa CTEC built another detachable with a turn for Snowbird. The Baldy Express turns between towers 10 and 12 again due to private property lines. The first six pack with a turn was the Six Shooter at Big Sky (formerly Moonlight Basin) which was built in 2003 and has a couple degree turn between towers 24 and 26. I’ve heard Six Shooter’s turn was due to a surveying mistake that would have put the top terminal on Big Sky Resort’s property. Doppelmayr CTEC engineered the turn rather than re-doing a bunch of tower bases. The irony here is that ten years later Big Sky ended up buying the land and lifts anyways.