Six Months After Flames, Gatlinburg Sky Lift Returns Friday

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This new and improved Gatlinburg Sky Lift replaces a Riblet double chair destroyed by wildfire on November 28th, 2016.  Photos credit: Everett Kircher

Two days shy of six months since an intentionally-set wildfire killed 14 people and destroyed more than 2,000 buildings near Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the iconic Gatlinburg Sky Lift will reopen this Friday.  On November 28th, 2016, Sky Lift employees left the lift running on its auxiliary diesel as they fled the fire, saving the haul rope.  However, the top terminal and some towers were so severely burned that the entire lift needed to be replaced.For 62 years, Boyne Resorts has operated a chairlift on Crockett Mountain and the company chose a Doppelmayr Alpinstar triple chair for its third incarnation.  Previous versions were a Heron double recycled from Sugar Bowl in 1954 and Riblet double brought to Tennessee in 1991.

Boyne Resorts announced construction of the new $2.4 million lift in early February and received its operating permit less than three months later on April 27th.  Doppelmayr and Boyne collaborated to re-create the Sky Lift’s iconic appearance with 11 orange towers and 92 yellow chairs with wooden slats in place of galvanized ones.  Although guests cannot yet get off at the top due to ongoing construction, the new lift is sure to be as popular as it has been for generations.  When Boyne sold and leased-back the Sky Lift operation in 2005, it attracted 400,000 annual visitors and was valued at $19.9 million.  Not bad for a 1,300′ double chair!

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News Roundup: Progress

News Roundup: Inaugural

Boyne Resorts Will Build New Sky Lift, Add Adventure Park in Gatlinburg

From the ashes..

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Three months since a wildland fire ripped through Gatlinburg, Tennesee, two brand new lifts are under construction as the gateway to the Smoky Mountains rebuilds.  As many suspected, the Gatlinburg Sky Lift will be replaced with a new version this spring.  “We are investing in a total replacement and are excited to be in process with installation of a new scenic chairlift,” spokeswoman Julie Ard of Boyne Resorts tells the Mountain Press.  The Riblet double’s haul rope and chairs have already been pulled in preparation for tower removal. The new Sky Lift will be the third version following the original Heron that operated from 1954-1991 and the Riblet that followed from 1991 until last November.  I’ve reached out to Boyne for the manufacturer of Sky Lift 3.0 and am waiting to hear back.  Update 2/6/17: The new lift will be a Doppelmayr Alpinstar triple chair with custom wooden seats.

Before the fire, Boyne Resorts had planned for and received approval to build an adventure park on the site, where the company has operated continuously for more than sixty years.  Zip lines, a suspension bridge, walking trails and more will eventually occupy 17.5 acres.  While that expansion will take some time, the lift project is progressing quickly.  “Reopening of the Gatlinburg Sky Lift is expected to be April/May 2017,” says Ard. “Just as our past guests who want to come back to Gatlinburg to continue traditions of experiencing this iconic attraction, and locals who are aware of its draw among tourists, we are eager to have this lift spinning again just as quickly as possible.”

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News Roundup: Behind the Scenes

News Roundup: Building

  • talk six-packs with the Vail Daily.
  • Heavenly’s Comet Express remains closed following a Jan. 1st rope evacuation, apparently due to a gearbox issue.  This is one of the reasons Vail Resorts is replacing its fleet of 1980s-vintage detachable quads.
  • Doppelmayr and the United Nations are hosting a week-long urban mobility ropeway class in April.
  • The New York Times tells the tale of Big Sky Resort.
  • Ski patroller severely injured in fall from chair at Terry Peak.
  • Gondola proposed to serve airport in Vietnam’s congested largest city.
  • BC Parks considers a gondola to Mt. Seymour to alleviate parking and traffic problems.
  • Ski Area Management‘s lift construction survey dropped this week.  Highlights from its outlook for 2017:
    • “We’re off to a strong year for ’17, there are lots of people asking about lifts…It’s very positive compared to the previous two years.” – Jon Mauch, Senior Sales Manager at Leitner-Poma
    • “There’s a lot of enthusiasm about what could happen under a Trump administration.  People expect deregulation and a more business-friendly climate.” – Mark Bee, President at Doppelmayr USA
    • “We’re seeing lots of requests quotes, lots of major modifications and retrofits…It’s all being driven by the age of the existing lift infrastructure.” – Carl Skylling, General Manager at Skytrac
    • I’ve already identified 29 new lifts likely to be built in 2017, pacing well above the last few years for mid-January.
  • Slovakian manufacturer Tatralift debuts its third detachable lift using a Wopfner grip.  That makes seven companies capable of building a detachable lift globally – BartholetBMHRI (China), Doppelmayr/Garaventa (Austria), LeitnerPoma (Italy), LST (France), STM (Turkey) and Tatralift (Slovakia.)

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Ober Gatlinburg Survives Fire, Sky Lift Fate Unknown

Fast-moving fires tore through Gatlinburg, Tennesee last night, forcing the evacuation of 14,000 people and burning at least 250 structures.  The town home is home to the Ober Gatlinburg ski resort, a scenic aerial tramway and the Gatlinburg Sky Lift.  While reports are conflicting, Ober Gatlinburg posted on its Facebook page that the ski resort is undamaged and the company is assessing the lower tram terminal downtown.  VonRoll built a 130-passenger tramway between the town and ski resort in 1973 and it received new cabins in 2007.  The ski area features two Borvig quad chairs, a 1978 Riblet double and 1962 Carlevaro-Savio double.

The Gatlinburg Sky Lift’s lower terminal is apparently standing, but the hillside it ascends burned with unknown damage at the top station.  Boyne Resorts Senior VP of Marketing Julie Ard told the Petoskey News-Review, “At this time, we are focused on the well-being of our valued Gatlinburg Sky Lift staff.”  The Sky Lift employs 26 people.  Ard went on to note, “video posted today by state officials gives us confidence that our street-level building is intact, but status of the lift’s upper terminal and surrounding structures is unknown.”  Boyne has continuously operated the Sky Lift since 1954.  A Riblet double replaced the original Heron version in 1991.

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Fixed-Grip Chondola Coming to Anakeesta

Gatlinburg is a national park border town in Tennessee’s Smokey Mountains that attracts more than 11 million visitors annually.  This city with 4,000 local residents already includes Boyne Resorts’ Gatlinburg Sky Lift and the Ober Gatlinburg 120-passenger aerial tramway. Doppelmayr also built a quad chair in 2012 called the Wilderness Mountain Chairlift in nearby Wears Valley.  Anakeesta is a new project that brings two acres of retail to the center of Gatlinburg with a 65-acre mountaintop adventure park rising above. A unique fixed-grip chondola lift will connect Anakeesta Village with the park, dubbed AerialQuest.

anakeesta village

Anakeesta’s developers were kind enough to provide me with a few details on this unique lift.  I initially assumed it would be a pulse gondola system similar to the Iron Mountain Tramway that serves a mountaintop adventure park in Colorado.  Anakeesta’s chondola will be the first lift of its kind to feature chairs and gondola cabins.  I’m pretty sure no one else has done this anywhere in the world on a fixed-grip lift.  In order to accomplish the feat, line speed will be very slow – under 200 feet a minute.   The system will be 2,032 feet long with a vertical of 528′ and will take about 12 minutes to ride.  It will have 104 quad chairs with 8 six-passenger gondola cabins carrying a total of 1,000 passengers per hour. Since no contract has been signed, the developer is not quite ready to say which lift company they are contracting with.  But if you know your lifts you can identify the terminal in the drawing above.  Anakeesta will open in 2017, crowning Gatlinburg as the lift capital of the southeast!