How Many Lifts Could Vail Resorts Announce Next Month?

With four recent additions, Vail Resorts Inc. now operates just over 10 percent of American and Canadian lifts, more than any other company.  Vail prides itself on investing heavily in its mountains and the average lift at an Epic resort is three years newer than the rest of the industry.  The company’s lifts now number 305 in the United States, Canada and Australia with an average age of 24.6 years.  If we assume the average lift lasts 35 years, Vail would now need to replace an average of about nine lifts per year just to turn over its fleet.

A little less than a year ago, a smaller VR unveiled plans for seven new lifts as part of a $150 million annual capital plan, the largest in the company’s history.  Back in 2016, Vail committed to building three six-packs as part of $103 million in capital spending for 2017 (VR later added a fourth detachable to that year’s class, the Red Buffalo Express at Beaver Creek.)  In December 2015, the Broomfield-based company announced a high-speed quad for Vail Mountain and in 2014, it was $50 million in improvements including three new lifts at Park City plus another six pack at Vail.  Over the last five years, more resorts have consistently led to more revenue and more capital investments.  The company said it will invest $35 million at the four new mountains in the next two years, making it possible this December’s announcement will be the most valuable ever.

Colorado

Going resort by resort, the most obvious projects are ones already in the pipeline, namely the Game Creek Express #7 replacement and Golden Peak race lift at Vail.  But VR could go bigger like it did this summer at Whistler Blackcomb, spending $52 million to package four lift replacements together.  On Vail Mountain, additional aging lifts likely to be up-gauged to six-packs eventually are Orient Express #21, Born Free Express #8 and Wildwood Express #3.  The mothership mountain has the third largest and third newest lift fleet in the company and I expect investment to continue at Vail following this year’s pause.

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Vail’s lift 7 is the only chair in Game Creek Bowl and could use more capacity.

On average, the newest lifts within Vail Resorts are at Beaver Creek, which opened decades later than its peers.  A major expansion was approved in September – McCoy Park – which may be implemented in 2020.  In advance of those two new lifts, the Strawberry Park Express could be updated in 2019 to a higher capacity gondola.  The oldest lift at Beaver Creek is the 1988 Arrow Bahn Express, which eventually will be replaced by a newer detachable.  Probably not this year though.

Sticking in Colorado, Breckenridge is usually the first or second most visited resort in America and did not see a new lift in 2018.  I say a Riblet gets replaced here in 2019 and my vote would be 6-Chair with a high speed quad.  My second guess would be C-Chair followed by 5, A, E and Rip’s Ride.  If Vail decides to continue replacing older high speed quads instead, Beaver Run SuperChair is the logical candidate.

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6 Chair at Breckenridge is wildly popular despite being fixed grip and 40 years old.

Keystone has both expansion possibilities and lifts that could be upgraded.  The project everyone’s been clamoring for is a detachable lift from The Outback to replace WaybackPeru Express is the oldest high speed lift at Keystone and a core workhorse, making it likely to be replaced with a six pack soon.  Outback Express is one year newer and in a similar situation.  Another possible replacement is Argentine, a 1977 Lift Engineering double that the 2009 Keystone Master Development Plan proposed replacing with a two stage detachable.  The new lift would load near Peru, have an angle station above Lower Schoolmarm and continue all the way to the ridge of Dercum Mountain.  The Keystone MDP also outlines major expansions that I expect we will hear more about over the next decade.  They include a Ski Tip gondola, Bergman Bowl lift, Independence Bowl lift, Windows lift and Outback surface lift.  Whatever Vail chooses, I am hopeful for a new lift or two at Keystone in 2019.

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I don’t mind Wayback at Keystone but I also rarely ski in Colorado on weekends or holidays.

Crested Butte is the new kid on the block and Vail may wait a year or more to do anything lift wise.  The mountain’s Teocalli II expansion is still moving through the Forest Service NEPA process.  The Mueller family invested heavily in the Triple Peaks resorts over the years and I don’t see a whole lot needed near-term at CBMR.  Replacing original Teocalli with a high speed quad would be a nice way to burn some of the promised $35 million.

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Vail Resorts to Build New Lifts at Whistler Blackcomb, Park City, Heavenly & Perisher

It’s 4:45 am in Jackson Hole and I’m awake because today is the biggest day of the year for the North American lift business.  Moments ago, Vail Resorts released its first quarter 2018 financial results which include guidance on next year’s capital improvements to the tune of $150 million.  As I speculated it might, Broomfield, Colorado-based Vail is going all in on new lifts next year, with $52 million (CAD$66 million) going to Whistler Blackcomb alone.

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Goodbye Wizard and Solar Coaster, hello gondola on Blackcomb Mountain.

On Blackcomb, the company will add a signature 10-passenger gondola with mid-station replacing Wizard and Solar Coaster, two 1987 bubble quad chairs with very high hours.  The new 4,000 skier-per-hour machine will be W-B’s sixth gondola and the second-highest capacity lift in North America after Squaw Valley’s Gold Coast Funitel.  The mid-station will likely be located downhill of the current Wizard/Solar Coaster transition where more space can be created for a large terminal and cabin parking.  The two stages will be able to be run independently with two haul ropes and separate drive systems.  Together with the Peak 2 Peak and Whistler Village gondolas, the new gondola will create the world’s only three-gondola connection and an impressive 8.4 mile-long continuous sightseeing trip.  The nearby Excalibur Gondola, amazingly Blackcomb’s last all-new lift, debuted in 1994.

The 1997 Doppelmayr-built Emerald Express on Whistler Mountain will move to Blackcomb, replacing the Catskinner triple likely in a modified alignment.  An all-new Emerald six-place lift will also welcome skiers on Whistler Mountain for 2018-19.  “Our integration efforts at Whistler Blackcomb are largely complete,” commented Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz.  “We believe this plan will dramatically improve the on-mountain experience for our guests with enhanced lift capacity, improved circulation and a significantly elevated experience for skiers, riders and sightseeing guests.”  The three new lifts represent a combined 43 percent improvement in capacity over the lifts they replace and are part of the largest-ever capital improvement season at Whistler Blackcomb, topping even the 2008 construction of the Peak 2 Peak Gondola.  “We believe these transformational, mountain-focused investments are the most significant improvements we can undertake to support Whistler Blackcomb’s long-term growth and our commitment to pursue the most impactful projects to enhance the guest experience,” Vail noted.

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In a bit of a surprise, Vail chose to upgrade High Meadow at Park City Mountain, the main beginner lift at Canyons Village.

At Park City, the rumored Sunrise replacement will wait for another year but the High Meadow lift will be swapped for a high-speed quad chair, reducing ride time by 70 percent and anchoring a new family fun zone.  On the shores of Lake Tahoe, Heavenly will finally replace Galaxy, which has fallen into disuse.  A new fixed-grip triple chair will serve 400 acres of terrain that was inaccessible the past two seasons.  Vail Resorts will also replace a T-Bar with a fixed-grip quad at Perisher in Australia.  “We remain committed to reinvesting in our resorts, creating an experience of a lifetime for our guests and generating strong returns for our shareholders,” Katz concluded.

Galaxy will remain closed this season but 2018 will see a new lift go in on the Nevada side of Heavenly.

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News Roundup: Lifts in Strange Places

Chair 7 at Mt. Baker, WA
Chair 7 at Mt. Baker, WA