California Express Draft Environmental Impact Statement Released

Web-Header-CA Express

A 16 minute flight between Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows took a jump forward this morning as the Truckee National Forest and Placer County released the draft environmental impact statement for the California Express gondola.  The big three stage lift was first proposed by the owner of both mountains, KSL Capital Partners, more than two years ago and is now being championed by Alterra Mountain Co.  At 808 pages, the EIS required under the National Environmental Policy Act outlines three possible alignments which could unite the steeps and village at Squaw Valley with the beginner and intermediate paradise of Alpine Meadows.

Two of the alternatives are new while the other two should be familiar to readers of this site.  Other concepts such as a pulse gondola, expanded shuttle service and even an underground train were eliminated as part of the preliminary review, which was completed by SE Group and Ascent Environmental of Sacramento.  Alternative 1 is the required no-action option, which would keep Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows separate but equal.  Shuttle buses would continue running every 30 minutes between the two mountains, which already share a common lift ticket.

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The lift would move 1,400 skiers per hour in 8-passenger cabins painted white to blend in with the winter environment.  It would operate from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm with skiing allowed from the mid-station(s) when conditions permit.  There would be separate drive systems and separate cabin parking facilities at each end so two sides could operate independently.  The middle section of the lift would operate as part of the Alpine Meadows side and approximately 40 percent of the cabins would be stored at Squaw Valley with the remaining 60 percent at Alpine during storm events and the summer.

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News Roundup: Replacements

  • Suit filed against Ski Liberty by family of boy who dangled from a chair for seven minutes after mis-loading.
  • Mi Teleférico’s four gondola lines transported 194,971 passengers last Wednesday, an impressive single day record.
  • Squaw|Alpine now wants an extension of permit for replacing Hot Wheels.
  • Doppelmayr remembers past CEO Artur Doppelmayr, who died May 12th.
  • Apparently the Utah Olympic Park is adding two new chairlifts this summer, although I am still trying to confirm.
  • Steamboat’s gondola rebuild is taking longer than expected and reopening has been pushed back two weeks to July 15th.
  • Vail Resorts will re-use chairs and towers from Keystone’s Montezuma Express in building the new Red Buffalo Express at Beaver Creek.
  • Saddleback Mountain Foundation needs $11.2 million to purchase Maine’s third largest ski area, including $3.2 million to replace the Rangeley lift with a fixed-grip quad.  So far, the group has only raised a fraction of that amount.
  • Sunday River’s new Spruce Peak triple will be a Doppelmayr Tristar, Boyne Resorts’ fourth.
  • Schweitzer works toward $6-8 million Snow Ghost replacement.
  • “It is not rocket science about lift geometry,” Aspen Council member says in frustration re: Lift 1A. “There is enough expertise in this community to know where a lift goes.”
  • Mont Ripley offers $1,000 for information leading to the arrest of arsonist(s) who damaged lift.
  • Longtime Whistler Blackcomb COO and Peak 2 Peak visionary Dave Brownlie is leaving to pursue new opportunities just seven months into Vail ownership.

If Aspen & KSL Go Lift Shopping, What Will They Buy?

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Although both KSL and Aspen have bought lots of new lifts lately, aging machines at many of their new and existing properties could be replaced over the next few years, including this 1989 Poma at Squaw Valley.

It’s been two weeks since the bombshell news that Aspen Skiing Co. and KSL Capital Partners are joining forces to bring twelve ski resorts under a new entity rivaling Vail Resorts.  While the deals won’t close for months, the new partners already say they plan to invest heavily in the guest experience.  “We have earmarked a lot of capital for improvements to be able to continue to reinvest significantly in the communities and the mountains,” KSL CEO Eric Resnick told the Denver Post.  “What’s exciting is being able to bring new opportunities with these communities and with these mountains to those customers who are already so passionate.”  This could come in the form of new lifts ahead of the 2018-19 season and beyond.  Below is a summary of announced plans and my speculation of what might be in store for KSL and Aspen’s upcoming resorts.

  • Alpine Meadows, CA:
    • Alpine Meadows applied for and received approval to replace the Hot Wheels chairlift in a new, longer alignment back in 2012.  A mid-station offload would allow beginner and intermediate skiers to access the lower mountain while others could continue to an unload near the top of Sherwood, providing direct access to Sherwood and Lakeview.  Approval for this lift likely expired in September 2015 but there’s no reason to believe Placer County would not approve it again.

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      The top station of Hot Wheels at Alpine could one day be home to a mid-station with a new high-speed quad continuing to Sherwood Ridge, where this photo was taken from.
    • Speaking of Lakeview, it is arguably the largest remaining pod at Alpine Meadows without detachable access.  This 1984 CTEC is older than Sherwood and with approximately the same vertical rise.  A high-speed quad is likely to replace it eventually.
    • Doppelmayr and CTEC have both built lifts at Alpine Meadows while Leitner-Poma has not.  That could change with the unification of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows.
    • I’ve written before about the Base-to-Base Gondola which is still on the table but still requires multiple government approvals.  It would traverse the White Wolf property between Squaw and Alpine with two angle stations along the way.

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      Uncompleted lift towers on Troy Caldwell’s White Wolf property between Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows could become home to a public gondola between the two mountains.

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Squaw-Alpine Applies to Build Base-to-Base Gondola(s)

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8-Passenger Sigma Diamond demo cabin in Squaw Valley’s shop.  Source

Earlier this fall, Squaw Valley Ski Holdings submitted its formal application to the Placer County Planning Department to build the three-stage gondola connecting Squaw Valley with Alpine Meadows that was first announced last spring.  Leitner-Poma will design the system on the heels of completing Squaw’s Big Blue and Siberia six-packs.  LPOA has lots of experience building detachable lifts with angle stations including similar three-section gondolas at Breckenridge and Sunshine Village.

The Squaw-Alpine gondola will be around 13,000 feet long with 37 towers and two ridge-top angle stations.  The unique system will have three haul ropes but only two drives located at the end stations (Breck and Sunshine’s gondolas have just one rope & drive each.)  In this sense, the base-to-base gondola is really two gondolas similar to Whistler Village and Revelstoke. What’s different at Squaw is the center section will operate with the Alpine drive by sharing a common bullwheel where the sections meet.  As such, the Squaw section could be run independently but the other two spans must operate together.  Regardless, cabins will normally make the entire trip from Squaw to Alpine.  The gondola’s hourly capacity will be 1,400 passengers per direction with 8-passenger cabins and a line speed of 1,000 fpm.  Squaw also plans full-speed operations during a power outage with generators at each drive station.

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Updated map with some changes from the original alignment.

The north mid-station on the Squaw side will be sited on private lands near the summit of the KT-22 detachable quad while the south mid-station will be in the Tahoe National Forest within Alpine’s existing permit boundary.  Skiers will be able to access some pretty awesome terrain from both mid-stations when conditions allow.  The Squaw Village terminal will sit between KT-22 and the Squaw One Express while the Alpine terminal will be between the Roundhouse Express and Hot Wheels. The gondola will actually fly over Alpine’s base lodge and under Squaw’s Funitel.  One interesting point from the application is that the Alpine mid-station at just over 7,700 feet in elevation will have no permanent road access or power line to it, which is part of why the central section has no drive motor of its own.  The terminal control systems, lights, etc. will run off a line generator and diesel genset.

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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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Squaw Valley | Alpine Meadows Base-to-Base Gondola

This week Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows announced plans for a base-to-base interconnect gondola.  Such a project has been likely ever since Squaw and Alpine merged in 2011.  The gondola’s alignment will include two angle stations with skier unloading – one below the summit of KT-22 at Squaw and the other on the ridge above the Alpine Meadows base area.  The two end sections will be within their respective ski areas and able to run independently of the middle stage.

Rendering of the Squaw Valley angle station near KT-22.
Rendering of the Squaw Valley angle station near KT-22.

It took Squaw four years to come up with this plan in part because the gondola will cross land owned by three different entities.  The Squaw section will be mostly on private land owned by Squaw Valley Ski Holdings.  Just before the first angle station, the alignment will cross into land known as White Wolf owned by Troy Caldwell.  You may remember Troy began building a private lift on his property a few years ago.  So far only the towers have been completed. One thing that many people don’t realize is that the top terminals of the KT-22 and Olympic Lady lifts are already on his property.  We will never know how much Squaw Valley Ski Holdings pays Troy Caldwell to lease this land but I am sure it is a lot.  The second midstation and all of the Alpine Meadows section will be in the Tahoe National Forest.

Map of the proposed gondola alignment.
Map of the proposed gondola alignment.

This would be the first gondola in North America with the ability to run three sections independently.  Breckenridge’s BreckConnect has two angle stations but only one drive and haul rope.  Examples of gondolas with two independent sections are the Whistler Village Gondola and Revelstoke’s Revelation Gondola although these resorts rarely run sections independently.  Killington sometimes runs just the upper stage of its Skyeship Gondola.

As proposed, the base-to-base gondola will be about two miles long and take 13.5 minutes to ride.  Capacity will be a relatively low 1,400 skiers per hour in each direction with 8-passenger cabins.  Squaw’s CEO, Andy Wirth, noted they are in talks with both Doppelmayr and Leitner-Poma.  Squaw has never had much brand loyalty – They built a Doppelmayr six pack in 2007 and an L-P one in 2012.  Before any contract is signed Squaw needs approval from the Forest Service and county which could take a few years.  In the meantime they could really use a good snow year or two!