In 2008, a 53-year old Taos Ski Valley welcomed snowboarders for the first time in a move that once seemed unthinkable. Then a game-changing new lift up 12,481’ Kachina Peak debuted in 2015, serving terrain accessible only by hiking for six prior decades. This season, the renaissance continued with the opening of the slopeside Blake Hotel and announcement that Taos would be the first ski resort in the world to become a B Corporation, joining the likes of Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s. Now we learn Taos will launch a re-imagined beginner facility with two new lifts next season and will finally join 167 of its North American counterparts with the opening of its first detachable quad in 2018. Talk about a transformation.
This off-season will see complete renewal of the beginner complex with the removal of two lifts and the addition of two new ones. Stadeli doubles Rueggli (1991, the old lift 2) and Strawberry Hill (1970) will be retired and the area around them re-contoured. A new Skytrac fixed-grip triple will better serve beginners and a six-passenger pulse gondola will link a remodeled children’s ski school to the Resort Center. “This gondola is going to be a huge improvement, connecting our newly designed Children’s Center with our new hotel and plaza base area,” Director of Operations John Kelly told me. “The terrain associated with these new lifts will be getting a full redesign and regrade to widen and enhance our beginner terrain.” The new lifts are in addition to the Pioneer lift, a triple chair that arrived from Deer Valley in 2012.
Rising to mid-mountain, a Leitner-Poma high-speed quad will replace lifts 1 and 5 in 2018. The 2010 Taos Master Plan envisioned a 7000′ detachable rising all the way to the summit and replacing Lift 6 as well, but that plan appears to have been modified. The long-awaited foray into detachable lifts follows construction of five new Poma and Skytrac fixed-grips at Taos since 1989. What may be called Al’s Express will most likely reach the summit of the existing lift 5, a 1973 Stadeli double chair that only operates on peak mornings. The new lift will also replace Lift 1, a 1989 Poma Alpha quad that ends 400 feet lower than 5 and serves as today’s primary out-of-base lift. After 2018, the remaining largest ski resorts in North America without a detachable lift will be Red Mountain, 49 Degrees North, Loveland and Bridger Bowl.
This will be the first joint project since Skytrac joined the Leitner-Poma Group last spring and plays to both companies’ strengths. Skytrac will supply the fixed-grip chair while Leitner-Poma will bring its expertise to build the gondola and detachable.
Even after these changes, Taos will retain three classic Stadeli lifts on the upper mountain. Lift 6 dates back to 1976 and 7A was installed in 1990 with used parts from 1 and 2. Maxi’s (lift 7) is a 1984 Stadeli triple. Both lifts 4 and 7 are identified for eventual replacement in the 2010 Taos Master Plan along with a second lift to the ridge. I think Taos skiers (and snowboarders) will find the new lifts a welcome change with friendlier beginner options and a 4.5 minute ride to the heart of the mountain. Welcome to the 21st century, Taos!
As one of America’s oldest resorts, Loveland Ski Area has welcomed skiers to the Continental Divide continuously since 1937. Although now surrounded by the likes of Keystone, Breckenridge and Winter Park and with I-70 literally cutting through it, Loveland remains a local favorite with plentiful snowfall and varied terrain served by nine fixed-grip chairlifts. The first double chair – a Heron – debuted at Loveland Basin in 1955. A second ski area, Loveland Valley, opened in 1961. A number of Heron, Heron-Poma and later Lift Engineering lifts were added through 1990. The first modern Poma quad chair debuted in 1996, followed by a series of Leitner-Poma triple and quad chairs to modernize the fleet. When Lift 9 opened in 1998, it became the highest-elevation chairlift in North America, a title Loveland held until Breckenridge opened the Imperial SuperChair in 2005.
Loveland now averages more than 300,000 skier visits annually and visitation increased by 45 percent between 2002 and 2010. The ski area is now implementing projects from its 2013 master plan, a road map aimed at improving the guest experience while maintaining a laid-back vibe. SE Group prepared the plan and notes, “Loveland has been known for its abundant, high quality snow; fun and diverse terrain; and uncrowded slopes.” I visited on a bluebird Sunday in January and never once waited in a lift line.
Loveland generally builds lifts below maximum capacity and skier density is much lower than the industry average, with 1,800 acres of skiable terrain and an hourly lift capacity of over 14,000 skiers. The development plan notes that Loveland’s lift network generally serves the terrain well, but some lifts are approaching the end of a typical 35-year lifespan and a few changes should be made. Just last week, lifts 1 and 6 had to be closed for multi-day repairs but have since re-opened.
Whitewater Ski Area will get its first new chairlift since 1975 this coming summer, when a Leitner-Poma fixed-grip quad will replace the Summit double chair in time for next ski season. “The team at Whitewater is really excited to be able to further improve the experience we offer here at the resort,” said General Manager Kirk Jensen on Monday. “It is going to be a significant upgrade for the resort and ultimately for our guests.”
The 3,088-foot lift will run in the same alignment as the old with a 6.2 minute ride time and a vertical of 1,241 feet. Towers will be taller, the center pole Riblet chairs gone and loading/unloading areas improved. Whitewater is owned by Knee Deep Developments Ltd. in a nod to the massive snow pack that usually graces Nelson, BC. The mountain’s two other chairlifts were relocated from other ski resorts, most recently the Glory Ridge triple from Vail in 2010. A truly new lift will be a welcome addition for guests at this gem of a ski area in the Selkirk Mountains.
Leitner-Poma wasn’t involved in recent work that likely caused last month’s fatal fall at Granby Ranch, but the original manufacturer of the lift will fix it. Ten days after re-opening using only the lift’s diesel auxiliary, Granby Ranch has a plan to restore Quickdraw to full capacity with a new electronic drive. In a statement issued today, The ski area acknowledged a third-party company modified the drive system over the summer, as I reported last week. “Preliminary investigation has revealed that the issue that likely caused the incident was the independent contractor’s modification to the lift’s electrical drive/control system,” the release notes. The third-party installed system only operated 13 days before a chair hit a tower Dec. 29th, killing 40-year old Kelly Huber of Texas and injuring her two daughters.
Earlier today, Granby Ranch said Quickdraw would be closed today and tomorrow for additional testing, as ordered by the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board. The area hopes to re-open again under diesel power in the next few days and Leitner-Poma will install the new electronic drive system in the near future. The CPTSB will release its official report on the December incident in the coming months.
Update 1/21/17: A state spokesman says the CPTSB ordered the lift closed until further notice at an emergency meeting after reviewing “unusual/irregular conditions” observed while Quickdraw was operating with the diesel auxiliary.
Breck has been on my bucket list for a long time. Not because of the skiing, necessarily, but because its collection of 23 lifts is among the most unique anywhere. Nowhere else can you find so many lifts with turns (5), lifts that cross other lifts (4), not to mention North America’s only double-loading detachable and its highest elevation chairlift. This weekend I made a break for Breck and the three other Colorado Vail Resorts to see what Epic is all about.
I’ll start with the BreckConnect Gondola, which first connected one end of town to Peaks 7 and 8 in 2006. The Leitner-Poma gondola is free and operates both winter and summer. Locals I talked to can no longer remember life without it. Although it has two mid-stations each with an angle change of more than 40 degrees, the entire system operates with one haul rope. It’s way cooler than taking a bus from the parking lot.
With strong Epic Pass sales and early snow blanketing its properties, Vail Resorts revealed today it will go big on new lifts in 2017, adding additional six-place chairlifts at Vail, Keystone and Breckenridge as part of a $122 million capital program. In the company’s first quarter results, CEO Rob Katz noted, “we remain committed to reinvesting in our resorts, creating an experience of a lifetime for our guests and generating strong returns for our shareholders.” The news follows construction of four new lifts at Vail mountains in both 2015 and 2016.
On Vail Mountain, the Northwoods Express #11 will be replaced, leaving only three CLD-260 first-generation detachables in service. The new Northwoods will also become the mountain’s 10th new lift in 11 years. At Breckenridge, Vail will upgrade the Falcon high speed quad on Peak 10 to a six-person detachable, allowing more guests to experience some of the best intermediate and advanced terrain on the mountain. The Falcon SuperChair is a 1986 Poma high speed quad also approaching the end of its useful life. At Keystone, the 1990 Doppelmayr Uni-model Montezuma chair will be replaced with a six-pack version.
Leitner-Poma is likely to build Breckenridge’s newest lift, which would extend a 16-lift streak for the manufacturer at Breck. Vail and Keystone operate a mix of Leitner-Poma and Doppelmayr lifts and could plausibly sign with either company. Noticeably absent from today’s release was any mention of new lifts for Park City or the newly-Epic Whistler-Blackcomb. Vail Resorts will detail further capital improvements in the spring but these three projects are a huge start.
Update 1/23/17: Leitner-Poma will build and install all three of these lifts.
8.5 miles. 12 stations. 500 cabins. $160-200 million. These are big numbers for a gondola in a town with barely 10,000 residents. Yet Branson, sometimes known as Nashville West, hosted more than eight million visitors last year. Jeff Green, President of American Gondola, Inc., says that fact combined with worsening traffic congestion make the city a prime candidate for one of the world’s largest gondola systems. “The need for a transportation solution when combined with the possibility of an entertainment attraction creates an opportunity to address both issues using a single system like an aerial gondola,” Green told me by email this week.
The privately-funded system along Highway 76 from Downtown to Silver Dollar City would cost riders $15 per day and be geared towards visitors. American Gondola is working with Leitner-Poma and showed a Sigma Diamond demo cabin at their first public meeting a few weeks ago. I asked Jeff Green about the decision to work with Leitner-Poma at this early stage. “Both [Doppelmayr and Leitner-Poma] have very competitive products and the ability to provide a solution,” he said. “We have found L-P to be extremely knowledgeable and very interested in working with us to address and resolve all the issues and problems and to help us assure a quality product is delivered.”
The system would most likely be constructed with five separate haul rope loops and cabins interlining between them. American Gondola seeks a Memorandum of Understanding with the city this month and hopes to begin construction in 2017. The company has a long way to go but its list of backers is impressive. “Our financial investors have said, that if we could get the MOU next week, they would have our funding in place by the end of the year,” says Green. Of course, that is contingent on achieving final design, obtaining necessary property agreements, easements and permits. Green is optimistic and noted that the demo cabin was already a big hit. “Everyone, including city officials, appreciated the efforts of AGI and Leitner-Poma to provide an example of a cabin they could actually touch and experience.”
Just over a year ago, Arizona Snowbowl near Flagstaff hadn’t seen a new lift in 30 years. Now under the ownership of James Coleman, the resort is undergoing a renaissance with two new lifts in the last two years, new snowmaking coverage and expanded terrain. Last fall, Skytrac installed a new quad chair on the lower mountain named Humphrey’s Peak, a nod to Arizona’s highest mountain. This winter, Snowbowl will add the largest new chairlift in the country called the Grand Canyon Express. Built by Leitner-Poma, the six-pack is nearly complete and staff couldn’t be more excited about their mountain’s first detachable lift serving popular intermediate terrain with a six minute ride.
The first six-place lift in the state is large by any measure, not just gauge but also length (5,801 feet) with an impressive vertical of 1,546 feet. The line will have 61 chairs initially, moving up to 1,800 skiers per hour at 1,000 feet per minute. Arizona Snowbowl will be able to add 54 more chairs to reach 3,400 pph in the future. The new lift serves all of the terrain formerly accessible from the Sunset triple chair, which may eventually be removed. The Grand Canyon Express also accesses 90 percent of the acreage off Agassiz, Snowbowl’s workhorse lift that takes 13 minutes to ride.
With work wrapping up on 36 new and four used lifts across North America, 2016 will go down as the best year for lift construction since the Great Recession. With Skytrac now a member of the Leitner-Poma Group, the big two manufacturers each supplied exactly the same number of lifts in North America – 17 – with one each for LST and Partek (although Skytrac provided controls for and installed the LST lift.) Doppelmayr and Leitner-Poma also had their best years individually since 2008 and Skytrac its second best in history with five complete lifts and a retrofit terminal for Keystone. These numbers include four gondolas manufactured in Europe by Leitner and Poma installed in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. If only lifts built by Leitner-Poma of America in Grand Junction are counted, Leitner-Poma had its third best year since 2008 with eight new lifts. I call it a tie.
While everyone knows the East had a horrible season last year, the Pacific states actually showed the softest demand for new lifts in 2016. Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California have steadily declined for more than a decade and just three new lifts went in there, the lowest number since at least 2004. The Mountain region saw 12 installations, virtually the same as last year and the second most since 2008. The Rockies also built the biggest lifts in the country – six-packs at Arizona Snowbowl & Big Sky, high speed quads at Steamboat & Vail and a two-stage gondola at Jackson Hole. The Midwest more than doubled last year’s count, achieving its second best year since 2004 with seven new lifts while the East was well below its ten-year average with six new lifts constructed in 2016. The big shocker: Wisconsin built more new lifts in 2016 than any other state or province with three new Doppelmayr quads at Wilmot Mountain, two Leitner-Poma quads at Cascade Mountain and a Skytrac quad at Christmas Mountain Village.
Canada finished right about average with eight new lifts, all built in the eastern provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Horseshoe Resort and Le Relais both added their first six-place detachables, which are sure to be well-received. Look for Western Canada to rebound next year after struggling since the recession. Perhaps most interesting is the four gondolas built for public transportation and tourism in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. I expect growth in Mexico and the Caribbean to continue as the urban ropeway revolution spreads north from South America (and hopefully to the United States!)