Following Cancellations, How Will Lift Construction Recover?

When Vail Resorts spelled out its suspension of operations in mid-March, the shutdown was hoped to last only a week.  Fifty days later, all 37 resorts remain shuttered and the company has borrowed more than a billion dollars to weather a possible extended recession.

Almost immediately, Vail Resorts postponed discretionary capital improvement projects including seven new chairlifts.  Vail is just one of numerous operators of lifts facing epic challenges due to COVID-19.  The impacts trickle down to suppliers, particularly global suppliers of large machinery like the Leitner Group and Doppelmayr.  While the two major lift manufacturers are of similar size and structure, their customers are incredibly diverse, from mom and pop outfits to governments, NGOs and Fortune 100 companies.

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As regular readers of this blog know, the lift business is not the same as the ski business.  Leitner-Poma, Skytrac and Doppelmayr USA have all completed projects for non-ski venues recently such as theme parks, zoos, stadiums and cruise ports.  Not only are these projects making up an increasing share of contracts, they tend to be large in scope and often include lucrative operation and maintenance deals.  Some of these non-traditional customers are in even worse shape than the ski business, more dependent on high guest densities and air travel.  Put another way, there is little chance the Walt Disney Company, Carnival Corporation or the Miami Dolphins would have signed to build their recent lift projects in today’s environment.  So-called “point of interest” projects may disappear entirely for a few years.

One bright spot could be urban transport.  The Portland Aerial Tram and Roosevelt Island Tramway have both remained operational throughout the pandemic, albeit at reduced capacity (the Portland Tram carries health care workers to three different hospitals and is about as essential as it gets.)  Large aerial tramways have been ceding market share to monocable, 2S and 3S gondolas, a trend which will probably accelerate with new personal space concerns.  With gondolas, each person or family can take their own cabin unlike on trains or buses.  There are lots of great concepts for urban gondolas in North America and infrastructure spending programs could finally get one or two off the ground.  Mexico already has a large urban gondola system in operation with two more under construction.

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News Roundup: Alterra

  • Neighbors aren’t happy about light and noise from Woodward Park City, though the new area was able to turn down the start alarm on the Hot Laps chairlift.
  • Mt. Baldy in Thunder Bay, Ontario plans to buy a new quad chair for next season.
  • The City of Durango considers whether building a new chairlift at Chapman Hill makes sense at an increasingly marginal elevation for natural snow.
  • Spout Springs will remain closed this season and is still for sale.
  • Mexico City begins work on Cablebús Line 2, a Leitner system with 7 stations, 308 cabins and 59 towers.  (Line 1 is Doppelmayr and already under construction.)
  • Seven people are injured and a gas station destroyed when a gondola haul rope being installed in Medellín, Colombia lets loose.
  • Alterra closes on Sugarbush and Win Smith transitions from owner to employee.
  • A French paraglider is lucky to survive being caught in a platter lift‘s haul rope.
  • To address crowding concerns, Crystal Mountain eliminates walk up lift ticket sales on weekends and holidays, effective immediately.  The resort will also no longer offer group discounts, gift card ticket redemptions or rental/ticket packages on weekends and holidays.
  • New York State opens its newest gondola in Lake Placid, called the SkyRide.
  • Geyser Holdings offers $4 million for the Hermitage Club and Boyne Resorts separately bids $3.6 million for the Barnstormer lift.  An auction could be held next month.
  • Skytrac’s Hilltrac people movers now feature Sigma cabins.
  • Montana Snowbowl opens its Snow Park expansion for the first time.
  • The owners of Perfect North Slopes plan to build at least one new top-to-bottom lift at newly-acquired Timberline, West Virginia this summer.
  • The State of Maine postpones a decision on a loan guarantee related to the sale of Saddleback Mountain.
  • A creditor claiming to be owed $62 million files to foreclose on Granby Ranch.
  • Edmonton urban gondola backers release robust ridership projections.
  • A gondola from Boise to Bogus Basin would be too long and cost too much to be practical.

 

A Solid Year Caps a Decade of Construction Growth

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The mostly new Steamboat Gondola features 137 cabins travelling at a brisk six meters per second.

This year saw installation of 43 new and 7 used lifts across North America, numbers similar to the last two seasons.  43 may seem like a modest number for newly-manufactured lifts on an entire continent but that number is a 54 percent increase from the start of the decade and the highest single year total since 2004.  Only seven resorts opted to install used lifts, mostly late model fixed grip chairlifts but also a detachable quad and one T-Bar.

While 2018 saw a record number of gondolas, multiple bubble chairs and a Telemix, 2019’s projects trended smaller with 22 fixed grip chairlifts and five surface lifts.  That’s the most platters and T-Bars built in the last 15 years.  Two of them anchor terrain expansions while another two service youth racing programs.  Loading carpets were included on five new fixed quad lifts, allowing them to run at slightly faster speeds.

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The Yeti Cruiser at Sasquatch Mountain Resort was one of three new Leitner-Poma Alpha fixed grips constructed across Canada in 2019.

After two huge years, gondola construction fell to two new installations in Colorado, one in New Hampshire and pulse versions in New York and Florida.  Detachable chairlift construction was just above the decade average of ten per year.  Only one of this year’s high speed chairlifts included bubbles and another heated seats.

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Vail Resorts completed the largest-ever lift investment at Stevens Pass, purchasing two Doppelmayr quads to replace aging Riblet and Thiokol lifts.

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News Roundup: Italian American

    • The Edmonton Ski Club and its Mueller T-Bar will reopen this winter following a one year hiatus.
    • The developer of Big Snow America is so confident in the American Dream project that it offered the Mall of America and West Edmonton Mall as collateral to secure a $2.8 billion construction loan.
    • Investors and Berkshire Bank battle over whose claim to the Hermitage six pack should take precedent.
    • The White River National Forest extends public commenting for the Breck Peak 7 Infill chairlift project to September 1st.
    • The Forest Service approved Aspen Mountain’s Pandora expansion awhile ago but the county still needs to approve necessary zoning.
    • SilverStar adds 24 hour security, surveillance cameras and enhanced line checks in the wake of the Sea to Sky Gondola downing.
    • TransLink’s CEO says the proposed Burnaby Mountain tricable gondola would be less susceptible to such an attack.
    • Grouse Mountain gives all Sea to Sky Gondola passholders free lift access through November 30th.
    • S2S cleanup will take awhile and trails remain closed for public safety.
    • Swiss manufacturer Bartholet shows it’s possible to build a new fixed quad in just three weeks.
    • Jaegerndorfer now exports Omega V cabins in miniature form to the United States.
    • Aspen Snowmass will add chairs to lifts at Highlands and Snowmass to address Ikon Pass crowding concerns.
    • Skytrac will manufacture towers for and install the new Leitner T-Bar at Ski Cooper.
    • This profile demonstrates why the Kaiser S2 excavator is so popular for ski lift construction.
    • MND Group, owner of LST Ropeways, says it has resolved “financial difficulties” by reorganizing its debt.
    • Doppelmayr names Jürgen Pichler its new global marketing chief.
    • It looks like Sunday River’s Locke Mountain triple will gain a tower or two thanks to the new T-Bar that crosses under it.
    • Arctaris Impact Fund hosts a community meeting and announces its intention to close on the purchase of Saddleback come early November.
    • Big Sky and Loon Mountain will launch the world’s first dual frequency RFID lift access system in partnership with Axess.
    • With a new detachable quad under construction, Bogus Basin caps a five year turnaround.
    • Alpine Media display screens will go live on more chairs this winter.
    • Big Burn at Snowmass may be replaced with a bubble lift.

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Eagle’s Rest Lift Returning to Jackson Hole

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The Bridger-Teton National Forest approved construction of a new Eagle’s Rest chairlift along with two possible alignments for Sweetwater in 2015.

The list of firms which have supplied ski lifts to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is impressive: Hall, Willamette, Murray-Latta, Mueller, Riblet, Heron, Doppelmayr, Garaventa CTEC, Lift Engineering, Poma, Doppelmayr CTEC, Garaventa and Leitner-Poma.  This fall, Skytrac Lifts will join the club as it builds a new version of one of Jackson Hole’s inaugural chairlifts from 1965.  The new Eagle’s Rest quad will follow a revised alignment from the original, which was removed to make way for the three station Sweetwater Gondola in 2016.  Running across six towers between the Sweetwater and Bridger gondolas, the new top station will be located near the bottom of Sundance Gully.  Beginner skiers and snowboarders will also be able to reach the lift from the new Solitude Station learning center.

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The new lift will travel just south and uphill of the old one, which was retired in 2016.

Eagle’s Rest will become the third new lift in five years for Jackson Hole, which just concluded its busiest season ever with more than 715,000 skier visits.  The Ikon Pass partner mountain will also add 14 new cabins to Sweetwater, increasing capacity between the base area, Solitude Station and Casper Restaurant by nearly 30 percent.  The new cabins will match the 48 Omega IV 8 LWI models currently in service.  Both the Skytrac quad chair and CWA cabins will be ready for guests this November.

Lookout Pass Announces Quad Project

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Before building lifts on Eagle Peak, growing Inland Northwest ski area Lookout Pass will replace core out-of-base Chair 1 with a Skytrac quad, its first brand new lift in 37 years.  The fixed-grip quad will double uphill capacity on the Interstate 90 side of the mountain and better position Lookout for planned future expansion.  The ski area, which sits at 5,600 feet along the Idaho-Montana border, added three Riblet chairlifts in the early 2000s but all came used via other mountains.

The new Chair 1 will follow the existing alignment and utilize some of the current Riblet towers with a slope length of approximately 2,900 feet and vertical rise surpassing 800 feet.  Lookout’s project is the fourth announced new lift for the State of Idaho in 2019 following commitments by Tamarack Resort and Schweitzer.  Sun Valley recently pushed back its Cold Springs quad project to 2020.

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This 1982 workhorse will be retired at the end of this season and replaced with a Skytrac quad chair.

News Roundup: Back to Work

 

Three New Quads Debut in Utah

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The brand new Homestake Express seen on opening day at Deer Valley.

Utah ski resorts are proving this season that lifts need not be giant to positively impact guest experiences.  I got to visit the state’s three newest chairlifts this week, which are all short but sweet with beginner skiers in mind.

High Meadow Express – Park City Mountain

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The High Meadow Express is the centerpiece of re-imagined teaching terrain above Park City’s Canyons Village.  With mellow loading and unloading speeds, a quick ride time and an improved alignment, the high speed quad marks a significant step up from the fixed quad it replaces.  High Meadow Park is now wide open with perfectly pitched beginner trails.  Expanded snowmaking rounds out the freshened up beginner zone.

Homestake Express – Deer Valley Resort

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Homestake Express launched this morning at Alterra-owned Deer Valley, becoming the resort’s 13th detachable quad.  Ride time is now under two minutes between Silver Lake Lodge and Bald Eagle Mountain.  There are only eight towers now, down from 12, freeing up space on the busy Silver Link ski run.  The new Homestake also features slatted backrests for wind resistance.

Snowpine – Alta Ski Area

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In Little Cottonwood Canyon, the new Snowpine Quad carried its first skiers yesterday.  The Skytrac Monarch was manufactured just 30 miles away in Salt Lake.  While it only has two towers and a dozen chairs, the new lift serves dual functions.  It will provide ski-in, ski-out access to the new Snowpine Lodge, which opens January 30th.  Alta’s first fixed grip quad also provides a beginner-friendly alternative to the surface tow it replaces.  The return terminal is height adjustable for the big snow years.

 

Leitner-Poma & Skytrac to Build New Lifts in Outback Bowl at Schweitzer

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The beloved Snow Ghost double will be retired from Schweitzer Mountain Resort next spring after 47 winter seasons, the mountain confirmed today.  In its place, two new chairlifts will service Outback Bowl in improved alignments.  A Leitner-Poma high speed quad will climb through the Kaniksu Woods area with a Skytrac fixed-grip triple servicing the Lakeside Chutes vicinity above.  “Overall, we expect the two chair arrangement to complement our existing lift system and provide better access to some of the most popular terrain at Schweitzer,” says Tom Chasse, CEO of the north Idaho mountain.  Schweitzer completed a similar project on the front side in 2007, replacing 5,500 foot Chair 1 with the Basin Express and Lakeview lifts.

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Snow Ghost is a very long Riblet double with more than 30 towers.

The detachable quad chair will offer a capacity of 2,400 skiers per hour and rise 1,447 feet in just over five minutes.  The triple chair capacity will be 1,800 per hour with a vertical of 1,360 feet and an 8 minute ride time.  “We’ve seen over the years how a similar two lift system in the South Bowl has been beneficial when we have weather challenges,” said Chasse. “By having the two lifts serving different aspects of the North Bowl, our hope is to combat similar challenges on the backside of the mountain.”  As part of the project, Schweitzer will add gladed terrain and four new runs surrounding the new lifts, which have yet to be named.

News Roundup: Must Read

  • planning document shows Big White has applied to build two lifts east of Black Forest Express called Backcountry and Backcountry Connector.
  • Snow King Mountain’s expansion officially enters the National Environmental Policy Act pipeline.  Proposed lifts are a 1,500 pph gondola with cabin storage, a 3,015′ backside fixed-grip quad, one 679′ T-Bar or platter and two new carpets.
  • The iconic Volkswagen funitel marks 15 years of operation, having delivered over three million vehicles from factory to test track.
  • A proposed urban gondola in Loveland, Colorado would be built by Leitner-Poma with up to five stations.
  • Arapahoe Basin drops its new trail map showing the big Beavers expansion.
  • An avalanche takes out the last tower of a Doppelmayr six-pack in New Zealand.

  • Skytrac is hiring for project foreman and general construction positions.
  • Denver Post alum Jason Blevins, now writing for the Colorado Sun, traces the remarkable ski industry journey of the Mueller family from Vermont to Colorado.  Insights from his must read piece: Tim and Diane Mueller took out a second mortgage on their home to buy Okemo, invested in Catamount before it failed, nearly bought Steamboat and once bid to operate Winter Park.
  • Windham’s retired F lift heads to Greek Peak to upgrade lifts 3 and 5.
  • The New Mexico State Fair will sport a new skyride-style chairlift beginning next month.
  • Alterra Mountain Company hires an Executive Vice President/Chief Financial Officer from Wall Street and looks to name a Vice President of Planning and Resort Development.
  • Enjoy the most detailed glimpse yet of the world’s longest lift.
  • The name game continues: Wolf Creek’s newest high speed quad is now Charity.
  • One of the world’s oldest high speed quads is going away in favor of a six pack.
  • I’m in New Mexico this weekend checking out as many lifts as I can.  First stop: Taos, where this yet-to-be-named Leitner-Poma detachable quad is the fourth new lift in five years!