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 Alpen Star 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!
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 Alpen Star 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.”
Big Sky Resort plans to build the most high-speed, high-tech lift network in North America over the next ten years, the company announced at media event this afternoon. Boyne Resorts Principal Stephen Kircher outlined Big Sky 2025, a $150 million road map for capital investment that includes a new North Village gondola, replacement of core lifts with bubble six-packs and additional lifts to serve new terrain. Enhanced snowmaking, new on-mountain dining and improvements to the Mountain Village will complement the massive investment in new lifts.
The rise of Big Sky from Chet Huntley’s four-lift outpost in 1973 to the Biggest Skiing in America with 26 lifts owes in large part to the Matterhorn-like mountain named Lone Peak. Boyne Resorts bought Big Sky in 1976 and slowly grew it into America’s largest ski resort by 2013 with the purchase of Moonlight Basin and the Spanish Peaks Mountain Club. Mr. Kircher noted none of the three mountains were financially sustainable in the 2000s and the uniting of the three has been transformative. Now with 5,800 acres of terrain, Boyne seeks to elevate the ski experience to match the grandeur of its mountain that is unmatched in North America. “We have a unique opportunity with the high alpine terrain here at Big Sky,” he noted.
With $13 million of construction underway on the mountain, Big Sky Resort will operate the second third largest lift fleet in North America this winter behind Whistler Blackcomb and Park City. The sprawling complex already includes two six-packs, five detachable quads and the famous Lone Peak Tram. This summer’s new lifts are just the beginning of a plan that includes the return of a gondola and ten more lifts (eight with bubbles) within existing boundaries and beyond. Big Sky 2025 will transition the resort from one with nearly the most lifts to one with the best lifts featuring loading carpets, bubble chairs, head rests and heated seats that skiers have become accustomed to in Austria and Switzerland but rarely find in the States.
Sunday River announced this morning a $2.1 million Doppelmayr fixed-grip triple will replace the Spruce Peak triple, where a terminal literally fell over last month. Willis MountainGuard and Boyne Resorts deemed the lift a loss after suspected grout failure sent the top station sliding from the bedrock it was anchored to the weekend of July 9th. The 1986 Borvig triple was Sunday River’s second oldest lift and the new version will re-use its new Chairkit loading conveyor. Doppelmayr will also replace the top terminal of Sunday River’s other Borvig triple on Locke Mountain.
Exactly when the new lift will open is unclear. Doppelmayr already has a packed summer building 17 lifts across the US and Canada. In the meantime, most of Spruce Peak can be accessed from the Chondola and Aurora lifts.
This is far from the first (and won’t be the last) late-season lift replacement after unexpected disaster. On June 11, 2012, a wildfire burned through Ski Apache in New Mexico, damaging two chairlifts and a gondola. The Native American tribe that owns the mountain announced a $15 million deal with Doppelmayr on September 5th and three new lifts were completed by January.
The Summit at Snoqualmie sits just 45 minutes from downtown Seattle, the 4th fastest-growing major city in America. With 20 lifts spread across four ski areas, the resort hosts nearly 700,000 skier visits in a good snow year, placing it among the top 15 most-visited resorts nationwide (in a bad snow year, it barely opens.) Three of The Summit’s areas – Summit East, Summit Central and Summit West are connected by ski trails while Alpental stands alone on the opposite side of I-90.
The Pacific Northwest region (Alaska, Washington, Oregon) saw a stunning increase of 142 percent in skier visits last year, more than double the two million visits from the year before. That fact, coupled with an aging lift system means The Summit is primed for major upgrades. The resort still has four Riblets dating from the 1960s and seven from the 1970s.
The Summit at Snoqualmie Master Plan approved in 2008 authorizes replacement of 11 lifts and construction of nine new ones with just six lifts remaining in their current state. The first of these projects have already completed, including all new lifts at Summit East/Hyak and the replacement of Silver Fir with a Leitner-Poma high speed quad. That leaves eleven lift projects planned for the next decade or two at Summit Central, Summit West and Alpental.
There aren’t many ski areas in this country with as modern a lift system as Crystal Mountain in the Washington Cascades. When I learned to ski at Crystal in the early ’90s, it was owned by a co-operative and featured a bunch of double chairs dating back to the ’60s and ’70s. In 1997, the co-op sold itself to Boyne Resorts in hopes of bringing desperately-needed capital improvements to Washington’s largest ski area.
Modernize Boyne did. In the first two years of ownership, the Kircher family brought Crystal the northwest’s first two six-packs. Two years later the Green Valley double was replaced by a Doppelmayr high speed quad, the mountain’s fourth detachable. In 2007, the Northway lift opened up 1,000 acres of new off-piste terrain. Perhaps the biggest project of all was the addition of the 8-passenger, top-to-bottom Mt. Rainier Gondola in 2010. Last summer, Crystal replaced its final remaining Riblet and Hall doubles with new fixed-grip lifts (one had been destroyed by an avalanche, leaving the mountain with no choice but to replace the only way to the summit.) Now almost 20 years since Boyne arrived on scene, the average lift here is less than 15 years old. It’s a far cry from many of Crystal’s northwest neighbors. Snoqualmie, for example, still operates 11 Riblet double chairs dating as far back as 1967.
By now Crystal has implemented much of its 2004 master plan but a handful of lift projects remain on the horizon. Two aging lifts still need to be replaced. Rainier Express was Crystal’s first detachable, opened in 1988, and is nearing the end of its useful life. The plan is to replace it eventually, possibly with a six-pack. The Discovery beginner lift is also slated to be replaced with a more learning-friendly and extended high speed quad.
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.
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!
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.