Twenty years ago this spring, 15 resorts faced near-disaster when the high-speed lifts they spent more than $50 million to build proved to be of faulty design and had to be retrofitted or replaced just a few years later. Lift Engineering, the company founded in 1965 by Yanek Kunczynski and more commonly called Yan, entered the detachable lift market in 1986 at June Mountain, CA reportedly after just one year of development. Yan built a total of 31 detachable quads in the US and Canada between 1986 and 1994. The majority of Yan’s customers were repeat clients such as Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation, which bought three high speed quads and the Sun Valley Company, which purchased seven. Whistler’s general manager would later write to Lift Engineering describing his team as the “unwitting recipients of a research and development project.”
Three incidents in two years sealed the fate of Yan detachables and eventually forced Lift Engineering to liquidate. On April 4, 1993, a 9-year old boy was killed and another child injured when loose bolts and a subsequent derailment caused two chairs to stack up on Sierra Ski Ranch’s Slingshot lift. The same lift had sent an empty chair to the ground two months prior when a grip failed. Lift Engineering settled a wrongful-death suit after the accident for $1.9 million. Sierra Ski Ranch’s marketing director would later state, “we found they just didn’t withstand the test of time” when the company committed $6 million to replace its three Yan detachables in 1996.
On December 23rd, 1995, a routine emergency stop on the Quicksilver high speed quad at Whistler Mountain initiated a chain reaction crash of four down-bound chairs, plunging skiers 75 feet onto the Dave Murray Downhill course below. 25-year old Trevor MacDonald died at the scene, nine people were seriously injured, 200 had to be evacuated and a second guest died 12 days later. The coroner’s investigation revealed Yan’s design failed to maintain the required 15-degree lateral swing clearance over towers, causing damage to grips over time. The type-11 grips could not maintain adequate clamping force for the maximum 38-degree rope angle on Quicksilver between towers 20-21 (Quicksilver was the only lift built with Yan’s type-11 grip owing to its heavier chairs with bubbles, the rest had the type-7 grip.) On two prior occasions, empty chairs had fallen from Quicksilver’s line, including one time three weeks prior to the deadly accident and in the same location. Leading up to December 23rd, mechanics were getting grip force faults 20+ times a day and had reportedly stuffed paper into the corresponding alarm. At the time, detachable lifts were relatively new and not required to stop automatically as a result of a grip force fault.
The MND Group announced yesterday it will begin selling detachable chairlifts and gondolas from 2016 through its LST Ropeways subsidiary, becoming the first new entrant to the detachable lift market since CTEC in 1990. Based in France, LST has built more than 550 lifts to date including a handful of detachable chairlifts utilizing grips from the defunct German company Wopfner. Yesterday’s announcement outlines LST’s all-new detachable product for both mountain and urban applications. The combined market, estimated by MND at $865 million over the next 25 years, has been a duopoly since Leitner and Poma joined in 2002. Hence new competition is big news.
LST has spent more than $2.7 million to develop detachable technology that doesn’t require licensing from others. The most important component of any detachable lift is the grip; LST chose a double-position grip that opens and closes only once at each terminal, reducing the number of cycles by half compared with a single-position grip (keep in mind a grip that stays open through terminals presents its own challenges.) LST says its patented grip requires less force to open and close than competing models, reducing wear while allowing speeds of up to 6 m/s (1,181 ft/min) and requiring 15 percent less energy. LST detachable terminals will be 70 feet long with 75 percent fewer tires compared with competing terminals. While LST says its stations will be shorter than its competitors’, I believe the shortest LPA terminal is ~67 feet. LST’s all-new carriers (both chairs and gondolas) “designed for comfort and safety” are forthcoming.
When detachable lifts were invented, no one knew exactly how many years they might last before having to be replaced. Now at 35 years since the first high speed quad went in at Breckenridge, we are getting an idea of what that number is. Twenty-two early high speed quads built in the 1980s have been removed and replaced so far at an average age of 23.8 years. The oldest of these was the Siberia Express at Squaw, removed this spring after 30 years of service. There are six more detachable quads built the same year as Siberia that are going into their 31st winter season.
Some would say that rather than looking at a lift’s model year and the associated technology, what really matters is operating hours. A machine that runs winter- and daytime-only will accumulate around a thousand hours a year while the Whistler Village Gondola will rack up 3,500 hours in the same year spinning 18 hours per day all winter and all summer. Since there’s no way for me to know how many hours most lifts have I will have to stick with looking at them by model year.
I”ve written a fewtimes about the longest lifts of different types but what about the shortest? The considerable expense of a detachable lift is usually justified for long profiles where speed makes sense. The average detachable lift in this part of the world is over 5,200 feet long while the average fixed grip lift is under 2,800 feet. However, the slow loading speed of a high-speed lift also make sense for beginners and foot passengers regardless of the length of the line. Hence there are plenty of very short detachable lifts that cost millions and take less than two minutes to ride. Below are the ten shortest ones in the US and Canada.
Back in November, Seilbahntechnik.net posted some interesting pictures of a prototype lift being built at Doppelmayr’s headquarters in Wolfurt, Austria. The lift is detachable with at least one six-pack bubble chair and 8-passenger gondola cabin on the line. More interesting are the terminals, which are different from any production model I have ever seen. They look similar to the Uni-G (the current standard terminal used worldwide) but are definitely different. Doppelmayr has been rumored to be working on a more economical detachable lift and this could be it.
Remember Doppelmayr CTEC tried using a less-expensive detachable terminal in North America called the Uni-GS from 2003-2010. It was discontinued it in favor of the Wolfurt-designed Uni-G, which made its North American debut in 2000. The terminal model used before that, what I call the “Spacejet,” lasted from 1995-2001, so the Uni-G may be due for a refresh.
I thought it would be interesting to do a statistical analysis of the types of lifts built over time in the US and Canada and see what lifts tend to still be operating today. I previously looked at the average age of lifts in different regions of the US and Canada and found that most lifts operating today are more than 25 years old. The statistics below will show why.
First I looked at fixed-grip chairlifts. I was surprised just how long ago double chairlift construction peaked – way back in 1971, when 146 double lifts were built in a single summer. That’s equal to all lifts built in North America over the past five years. Triple chairlift construction peaked in 1984 at 58. Just four years later, the most quad chairlifts were built – 36 in 1988. I would have guessed this to be much later. Since 1988, quad and triple chair construction has remained relatively constant and equal with almost no double chairs built.
On the detachable side, the number of gondolas built each year remains fairly steady, usually under five per year. Of the 473 high speed quads built to date, most went in between 1986 and 2007. Detach quads peaked in 1998, when 32 were built in one summer. Six packs peaked two years later but have always been less popular than quads. Last summer was the worst year for detachable construction since the technology was invented; just eight were built in all of the US and Canada. 2015 will be better with at least 16 being built right now.