The Biggest Gondola You’ve Never Heard of is in Oregon’s Wallowas

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You probably don’t know about this lift, even though it has the largest vertical rise of any gondola in North America.  Yes, more vertical than if Vail had a top-to-bottom lift and more than the (much newer) gondolas at Revelstoke, Kicking Horse, Silver Mountain and Aspen.  You wouldn’t know how cool this lift is from the tiny ticket booth and parking lot, or from the tramway’s Facebook page, which lists it as “permanently closed.”  Despite all signs pointing to a lackluster roadside attraction, the Wallowa Lake Tramway, as it’s known, is incredible.

Situated at the far shore of its namesake, past the end of an abandoned railroad and at the dead-end of a 13-mile road, it feels like a trip to the Alps with high mountain peaks all around.  Opened in 1970 after two years of construction at a cost of $700,000, the tramway was conceived as the launch point for a large ski area, so the cabins have ski racks.  Although skiing never materialized, nearly fifty years later the gondola serves as a scenic throwback for the lucky few who venture six hours from Portland or 4.5 from Spokane or Boise (the local Lions Club opened a ski area nearby called Ferguson Ridge in 1983.) Those who trek to the Wallowas are rewarded with a 3,700′ vertical lift to 8,256′ Mt. Howard with monster mountain views along the way and a shimmering blue lake below.

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Not So Happy: Reopening Spout Springs Just Got Tougher

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The Happy chair at Spout Springs, Oregon seen May 28th, 2017 after a rough winter not operating.
I was expecting a typical recently-lost ski area scene as I drove toward Northeastern Oregon this morning.  Located in the Blue Mountains where Idaho, Oregon and Washington converge, Spout Spring Ski Area once featured three Hall lifts: two doubles and a T-Bar. When I arrived at the first lift, called Echo, I was pleasantly surprised at the shape it was in, looking as if it had operated this season with ANSI signs neatly stacked and chairs flipped.  After all, it has only been 15 months since these lifts hauled skiers.

Next I rounded the corner to the base-to-summit Happy double, which looked anything but happy.  Surveying the scene above, I instantly assumed vandals had somehow knocked over the building that houses the 1965 double chair’s bottom drive bullwheel.  But another clue was all around me.  The massive snow load from this winter in the Blue Mountains was probably too much for the almost 55-year old building to handle.  Not only did it fall on top of the terminal, wood got hung up in a chair which bent like a pretzel and caused the light side to de-rope in two places.

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The Echo double is the only lift at Spout Springs remaining in operable condition. Its bottom terminal building is similar to the one that fell on the Happy chair this winter.
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Jan Leonard, 1946-2015

Jan Leonard, founder of CTEC and a 40-year veteran of the lift-building business, died unexpectedly this morning at the age of 69.  Most recently, he was Director of Sales for SkyTrac Lifts in Salt Lake City and previously was President of Doppelmayr USA.

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Jan Leonard at SkyTrac earlier this year. Photo credit: Ski Area Management.

After graduating from Penn State in 1968, Jan went to work for American Bridge in Pittsburgh before meeting the manager of Killington on a ski trip and getting into the lift business. He went to work for Vic Hall in Watertown, New York in 1971 before moving to Logan, Utah in 1973 to join Thiokol Ski Lifts.  When Thiokol wanted out of the business a few years later, Leonard and Mark Ballantyne bought the company’s designs and started CTEC (Cable Transportation Engineering Corporation) in 1977.  CTEC built its first complete lift in 1981 and by 1992 was the largest lift manufacturer in North America with 450 employees.  CTEC built 144 lifts as a privately owned American company.

Leonard and Ballantyne sold CTEC to Garaventa of Switzerland in 1993.  Doppelmayr merged with Garaventa in 2002 to form today’s Doppelmayr/Garaventa Group, which ironically included Hall, where Jan Leonard started his career decades earlier.  Leonard stayed on as the President of Doppelmayr USA until 2007, when he left to be an independent ropeway consultant.   He was was off a lift company’s payroll for less than three years before joining SkyTrac in 2010 as director of sales.  “I don’t like losing.  The thrill of getting the sale is phenomenal,” he told SAM earlier this year.

Lifts by State (and Province)

Ever wanted to know how many lifts are operating in each state?  Read on.  Colorado has the most operating lifts of any state with 275.  California is close behind with 263 followed by New York (189) and Michigan (165).  There are only 9 states with more than 100 lifts each.  The majority of states have fewer than 20 lifts today.  Five sad states have no aerial lifts at all to my knowledge – Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii and Louisiana.  (Louisiana used to have a 6-passenger Poma gondola called MART that crossed the Mississippi River.)

Each one of Canada’s 10 provinces has at least 3 lifts used for skiing.  Only the Nunavut and Northwest Territories do not have a lift.  Quebec has the most lifts by far with 226 followed by British Columbia (165), Ontario (162), and Alberta (87).

The average age of lifts varies significantly by region.  Maryland’s 7 lifts average 17 years old while Ohio’s 33 lifts are more than twice as old at 34.4 years.  Utah and Montana stand out as having new lifts averaging 19.4 and 19.9 years old, respectively.  Places with really old lifts tend to be in the East and Midwest.  Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and New York all have lifts that average more than 30 years old.

It’s also interesting to look at which brand has the most operating lifts in each state/province.  25 states/provinces are dominated by brands which disappeared decades ago – Yan, Riblet, Borvig and Hall.  Borvig dominates in 5 eastern states – IL, VA, IA, ME, and PA.  Hall lifts are pervasive in many eastern states – ND, CT, MA, NY, WI, MN, OH, and SC.  Riblet still dominates all of the northwest and some of the midwest – MO, OR, WA, SD, AK, NM, IN, MI, and KY.  Yan takes its home state of Nevada and neighboring California and Arizona.

Doppelmayr is the most common lift brand in surprisingly few states – MD, GA, MT, NJ, NH, ID, and NC.  The story is different in Canada where Doppelmayr is the top brand in most of the country – BC, MB, SK, AB, QC, and NB.  Despite being gone for a decade, CTEC and GaraventaCTEC are still the most popular in Utah, Wyoming and West Virginia (thanks solely to Snowshoe Resort.)  Finally Poma and Leitner-Poma take their home state of CO plus VT and ON, NL, PEI and NS in Canada.