Breckenridge May Have the Most Interesting Lifts in the World

The Snowflake lift at Breckenridge, CO is the only lift of its kind, making a 45-degree turn.
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.

Even with the option to ski back to town via the Four O’Clock ski run, the BreckConnect is an immensely popular transportation solution.
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.

The Peak 8 SuperConnect links Peaks 9 and 8 with an angle station in between.
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See How CWA Builds Gondola Cabins in Switzerland

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.

Pictures from CWA show how workers still make gondola cabins one at a time and largely by hand.  Because the company builds on demand, even a lift with just four cabins can have its own custom design.

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Take a Virtual Tour of Doppelmayr’s D-Line

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.

Will Detachable Lifts Get Faster?

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.

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.

avg speed over time
From 1984 to 2015, the average speed of a detachable lift in the U.S. increased by only 900 feet a minute.

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.

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Turning Lifts with Sheaves Instead of Stations

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.

Look closely at the very top of Six Shooter at Big Sky. The last few towers are in a different alignment than the rest of the lift.

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.)

If you look closely, the Baldy Express at Snowbird does not run in a straight line. Don't worry, this was by design and it's been done a number of times.
The Baldy Express at Snowbird also does not run in a straight line.  It’s by design!

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.

Canted sheaved on the Cabriolet at Park City, a 2000 Garaventa CTEC Stealth detachable.
Canted sheaves on the Cabriolet at Park City, a 2000 Garaventa CTEC Stealth detachable.

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.

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