Kicking Horse Gondola Evacuated by Helicopter

A transformer failed yesterday afternoon at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, knocking two lifts out of service.  Crews restarted the Catamount quad on auxiliary but the Golden Eagle Express Gondola sustained damage to its safety systems such that it could not operate.  With nightfall approaching, some of the gondola’s 75 passengers were plucked out of cabins by helicopter at sunset, making for some pretty spectacular GoPro footage.  The rest were roped down by ground teams over about five hours. The 8-passenger, 11,188′ Golden Eagle Express was built by Poma in 2000 and rises more than 3,500 vertical feet.  The gondola remained closed today but the mountain hopes to have it back in business tomorrow.

Kicking Horse posted the following statement on Facebook this morning:

“Further to an electrical issue, the Golden Eagle Express Gondola was manually evacuated yesterday evening. With everyone safe, warm and fed, we apologize to each of you involved for the inconvenience. We are thankful that everyone is safe and credit to the talented team of professionals; Kicking Horse Mountain Resort teams, Golden and District Search and Rescue & Canadian Ski Patrol.  We are hopeful that the Gondola will be spinning later today, though currently is still on standby. We are offering skiing and snowboarding via the Catamount Chair & Pioneer Chair.  Stay tuned for further updates.”


Snow King Outlines Gondola & More

There aren’t many ski resorts that lose $200,000 in a good winter. That’s the loss Snow King Mountain projects for the next four months as it struggles to find a sustainable operating model in downtown Jackson, Wyoming.  The ski area opened in 1939, decades before its more famous neighbors even existed.  Snow King’s alpine slide, opened in 1978, sees many times more riders in the summer than the entire mountain attracts each winter.  Beginner and intermediate destination visitors simply don’t choose to ski the rugged, north-facing mountain with a 12-minute double chair ride to the top.

Snow King managing partner Max Chapman, Jr. outlines his group’s investments to date and vision for the future at a community open house December 11, 2015.

Last year, an investment banker with local ties named Max Chapman, Jr. led a group of investors in purchasing Snow King Holdings from the ownership group that struggled with the ski area since 1992.  This past summer, Chapman and company spent a crazy $14 million to build an alpine coaster, base lodge, retail store, ski school building, quad chair and fully-automated TechnoAlpin snowmaking system.  General Manager Ryan Stanley overhauled ticketing systems, bought new uniforms and even commissioned a brand new trail map and website.  This week, the King held a community open house at Snow King Hotel to outline a vision for phase 2 expansion and begin a multi-year public process in hopes of pushing Snow King to consistent profitability.  SKMR operates on a mix of private, federal and town land so Chapman knows he needs the community’s support.

The Panorama House will be re-imagined with a modern facility and integrated gondola (apparently with 1960s Riblet towers!)

The anchor of the project is a base-to-summit gondola to an all-new complex that will serve a variety of visitors year-round.  The facility up top would include a movie theatre, planetarium, cafeteria and fine dining overlooking the town of Jackson and Teton Range.  As of now the building would also include gondola cabin storage/maintenance and takeoff for a quad zipline plunging into town below at speeds up to 75 mph.  Chapman noted, “we want everything we build to be the best.”

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A Chondola for Gatlinburg, Tennessee?


Gatlinburg, Tennessee is the surprising home to a half dozen aerial lifts including the Gatlinburg Sky Lift and Ober Gatlinburg ski resort with a 120-passenger VonRoll aerial tramway.  This town of less than 4,000 may now be adding a Leitner-Poma chondola to the mix.  A new mixed-use development called Anakeesta includes the AerialQuest Adventure Park and a new hotel with a chondola connecting the two.  The project’s website is unclear on exactly what type of system is coming, but apparently it will take 12 minutes each way and have between four and eight passenger cabins (the photoshopped cabins on the website are Gangloff, not Sigma.)  The site calls it a chondola and Telemix although its not clear the person who wrote the copy actually knows what those terms mean.  Websites are cheap, gondolas are not so we will see if this one really opens in the Spring of 2017.

Site plan with the chondola connecting hotel to adventure park.
Site plan with the ‘chondola’ connecting hotel to adventure park.

Pulse Lifts

These days building a detachable lift means a capital investment of at least $3 million plus around $100,000 in annual maintenance.  A so-called ‘pulse’ lift offers the speed of a detachable system with similar infrastructure to a traditional fixed-grip lift.  Chairs or cabins are grouped together into ‘pulses’ and the entire lift slows down for loading and unloading.  When comparing types of aerial lifts there are always trade-offs; here they include low capacity and long headways.  Most pulse lifts can only move 300-600 passengers per hour and headway – the time a passenger has to wait for a carrier to show up – can be minutes instead of as low as six seconds.  Perfect for certain applications but unsuitable in most.

Pine Ridge lift at the Yellowstone Club, Montana.
Pine Ridge lift at the Yellowstone Club, Montana.

There are currently 17 pulse lifts operating in the US, Canada and Mexico; all but three are gondolas.  Nearly all were built in the last 15 years.  Panorama Mountain Village, Northstar California, Steamboat, Snowmass, Canyons Resort, and Le Massif all use pulse gondolas to connect village areas.  These lifts are usually less than 3,000 feet long and convenient for skiers and non-skiers alike.  Other pulse gondolas are attractions in their own right such the Iron Mountain Tramway at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, SkyTrail at Trees of Mystery, the Gondola at Royal Gorge Bridge Bridge & Park and the Riverfront Park SkyRide in Spokane.  There is also a new Leitner-Poma pulse gondola in Orizaba, Mexico with tripod towers that are hundreds of feet tall.

Spokane Falls SkyRide, built by Doppelmayr.
Riverfront Park SkyRide, built by Doppelmayr.

Snow Valley in Edmonton, Alberta has a very unique pulse chairlift built by Doppelmayr in 2008.  Instead of having groups of 3-5 chairs, it has just two groups of 20 closely-spaced quad chairs.  Because it is only 850 feet long, the lift can move 1,378 skiers per hour at up to 5 m/s, the same speed as most detachable lifts.  In fact the ride is only about a minute.  The lift slows to a beginner-friendly 0.8 m/s for loading and unloading.  Because of the low speed, skiers ride around the bullwheel at the top and unload facing down the hill.  It’s the only lift I know of with 180-degree unloading.

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Lift Profile: Sunshine Village Gondola

sunshine 365 sunshine 073

Sunshine Village is one of two ski resorts in North America with access provided by gondola rather than road, the other being Silver Mountain in Idaho.  Visitors park at the end of Sunshine Road and transfer to a Poma gondola for a 17 minute ride to Sunshine Village.  Along the way there are two angle stations, one where doors stay closed and the other with loading/unloading at Goat’s Eye Mountain.  All three sections share one haul rope driven by a 2,000 HP electric motor underneath the top terminal.  The Goat’s Eye angle station has indoor cabin storage and there are additional maintenance rails at each end.

When opened on November 22, 2001, Poma claimed the Sunshine Village Gondola was the world’s fastest 8-passenger gondola with a max speed of 1,200 feet per minute.  I don’t believe this was ever true as Whiteface’s Cloudsplitter Gondola opened two years earlier and can run 1,212 fpm.  There are now at least 15 gondolas in North America that can do 1,200 feet a minute or faster.  Regardless, Sunshine’s gondola is an impressive machine that moves 2,800 people per hour in each direction 15+ hours per day.  It cost $16 million to build.

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The 3S Gondola

A “3S” is a detachable gondola with two track ropes and one haul rope.  It combines the speed and stability of a tram with the capacity of a gondola.  Cabins generally hold about 30 passengers.  3S systems can move up to 4,500 passengers per hour at up to 8.5 meters per second.  They can withstand high winds and traverse long spans between towers.  These highly capable lifts are also expensive.  Only 12 3S gondolas have been built.  Perhaps the most famous of them, Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak, cost $51 million!

3S Gondolas are huge machines.
3S Gondolas are huge machines.

The 3S was developed by VonRoll of Switzerland.  The first one to open was the Alpin Express at Saas-Fee in 1991.  A second section opened in 1994.  When Doppelmayr merged with VonRoll in 1996, they inherited the 3S technology.  Doppelmayr built its first 3S in 2002 at Val d’Isere, France.  Called L’Olympique, it accesses the famous ski area of Escape Killy.

Kitzbuhel, Austria opened the 3S Bahn in 2004.  It connects two ski areas across a valley with an 8,200 foot-long unsupported span.  Four years later, Doppelmayr connected Whistler and Blackcomb with the Peak 2 Peak, featuring an even longer unsupported span of 1.88 miles.  Peak 2 Peak’s highest point above ground is an incredible 1,427 feet.  It remains the only 3S gondola outside of Europe.

Whistler-Blackcomb's Peak 2 Peak Gondola.
Whistler-Blackcomb’s Peak 2 Peak Gondola.

Leitner got into the 3S business in 2009 with a system in northern Italy.  The towns of Renon and Ritten were connected by a 2.8 mile-long 3S.  This was the first 3S built outside of a ski resort.  Another urban 3S was built across the Rhine River in Koblenz, Germany in 2010.  This Doppelmayr system moves 3,800 passengers per hour in each direction.  Also in 2010, Doppelmayr built the Gaislachkogl 2 at Solden, Austria.

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Lost Lifts of Moab

Moab, a town of 5,000 in the Utah desert is the surprising home of two failed lift projects – a gondola that never opened and a modern chairlift that lasted only a few years.

Moab Scenic Tram

Moab Scenic Tram from Google Earth.
Moab Scenic Tram from Google Earth.
Just south of Arches National Park stands the Moab Scenic Tram.  It’s actually a pulse gondola built by Doppelmayr.  A small group of investors spent $3.3 million to build the gondola along with a parking lot and two terminal buildings in 1999. From the outset it was criticized as the “tram to nowhere.”  Scheduled to open in April 2001, the tram’s owners got in a fight with the county over a removal bond to be paid in case the business failed.  Ironically the business never opened and the vandalized tram remains 16 years later.  Its windows and control panels have been smashed and graffiti is everywhere. The lift is very short with only five towers and a handful of cabins, some of which never made it onto the haul rope.  It is probably the world’s newest gondola to be tensioned with a counterweight and without level boarding.  If you’d like to check it out in person, it’s hard to miss at the intersection of US 191 and Route 128.

The lower terminal of the Moab Scenic Tram sits abandoned in 2015. The lift never carried a single customer.

Some cabins remain on the line while others lie in ruin at the base station.

Moab Scenic Skyway

The Moab Scenic Skyway scaled the Moab Rim.
The Moab Scenic Skyway scaled the Moab Rim.
On the other side of town was the Moab Scenic Skyway, a Garaventa CTEC quad chairlift which took hikers and bikers 1,000 feet up to the Moab Rim.  Longtime resident Emmett Mays had dreamed of building a lift on his property since the 1970’s.  He spent $2.2 million to build the lift, trails and parking lot and it opened in May 1999.  The entire lift was painted brown and orange camouflage colors to blend in with the rocks below.  Designed purely for sightseeing, it ran 250 feet a minute and took 16 minutes to ride round-trip.  The attraction lasted five years, closing in 2004.  The Nature Conservancy bought the land and the lift was sold to Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana.  It operates today as the Easy Rider Quad.  The galvanized chairs still have patches of brown paint on them!

It cost $7 to ride the Skyway.
Moab Scenic Skyway circa 2002.

Lift Profile: Sea to Sky Gondola

I got a chance to check out the Sea to Sky Gondola during its first few months of operation last summer.  It’s located along the Sea to Sky Highway between Vancouver and Whistler.  The system is just over 7,000 feet long and goes from a parking lot at sea level to a lodge 3,000 feet above.  There are 20 CWA 8-passenger cabins that take riders to the top in 7.1 minutes.  The summit lodge has expansive views of Howe Sound in addition to hiking trails and snow tubing in the winter.  The project cost $22 million to build and is owned by a small group of private partners.

The bottom terminal has a unique wooden roof over it.  No snow to worry about here.
The bottom terminal has a unique wooden roof over it. No snow to worry about here.

Doppelmayr began building the gondola in April 2013 and it passed its acceptance test in January 2014.  The bottom drive terminal has a unique wooden structure over it instead of the normal Uni-G terminal.  The lower section climbs an 800 foot cliff and none of the lift line is accessible by road.  Many of the 14 towers were anchored directly to bedrock.  Most trees under the line were left standing which would make for a challenging evacuation.

The first 3 towers have a combined 80 sheaves.
The first 3 towers have a combined 80 sheaves.

The gondola had a major accident on February 4th, 2014.  At the time it was only open for construction workers and the media.  The system stopped automatically around 8:30 am due to two rope position faults at tower 7.  The only personnel on-site were two operators, the Mountain Manager and an employee from Doppelmayr.  It took the Doppelmayr employee almost two hours to reach tower 7 on foot where he found a cabin on the ground.

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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!

Subway in the Sky

There is a ropeway revolution going on in the Bolivian city of La Paz.  Last month, Doppelmayr won the largest lift construction contract in history to expand the region’s urban gondola network.  The government of Bolivia will pay $450 million for six new 10-passenger gondolas.  To put it in perspective, Doppelmayr’s total revenue last year was $915 million.  The company says 80% its business still comes from building lifts at ski resorts but that seems poised to change with La Paz as an urban ropeway success story.

La Paz's Yellow Line. Photo credit: Doppelmayr
La Paz’s Yellow Line. Photo credit: Doppelmayr

La Paz already has three Doppelmayr gondolas that opened last year.  They have already carried more than 16 million people.  Each line operates 17 hours per day and a ride costs less than fifty cents US.  There are 11 Uni-G terminals where passengers load and unload.  The only major incident happened when a eucalyptus tree fell on the yellow line back in February, causing a deropement and rope evacuation.

Map showing Phase I and Phase II gondola lines.
Map showing Phase I and Phase II gondola lines.

Phase II of the system will add 6 lines and 23 terminals between 2017 and 2019.  Once completed, the network will include 19 miles of gondolas spread across 9 haul ropes.  There will be a total of 34 stations and a ridiculous 1,350 CWA 10-passenger Omega cabins.

There are plenty of examples of urban ropeways scattered around the world, but no other city has gone all in on gondolas like La Paz.  It will be interesting to see if any American cities follow their example.