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January 2007

Lifts 2006-There Were Some Big Stories

Our annual lift construction survey is a contradiction in numbers...sort of. All in all it was an adventurous year for lift installers.

Written by Jennifer Rowan | 0 comment


If you’re like me, you’ve already checked out the tables before you started reading. And you’ve seen that we have an all-time low in the number of lifts that were built this past year—only 31. And you think to yourself, “Man sakes alive, I didn’t think things were that bad!”

Well, they’re not. Common wisdom tells us that you can’t argue with numbers, but I’m here to tell you that you can, and you should. First, let’s take a look at those numbers. The 31 lifts that were installed account for 63,661 VTFH (see box on right). Well, at least that’s up from last year’s 56,999. And then we take a look at who built those chairs: Doppelmayr logged 23 while Leitner-Poma came in at eight. Based on the numbers, it kinda makes you want to send sympathy cards to the fine folks at Leitner-Poma.

Well, don’t. Everything in the world of uphill cable transportation is just fine, thank you. What those numbers don’t tell you are the size and scope of the projects Leitner-Poma tackled. And Doppelmayr CTEC took on one more lift than last year. All in all, despite the numbers, it was a busy year for lift builders and a challenging year for engineers. And the bottom line is that guests have more ways to get to, and up into, our hills.

Region by Region

With seven chairlifts and one gondola, the East weighs in with 11,473 VTFH, which accounts for 18 percent of the total. But outside of the gondola at Stowe, Vt., all the action was to the south. Pennsylvania areas installed four new lifts, New York gained two and West Virginia has a new high-speed quad.

The Midwest boosted its lift installation numbers over last year’s by 100 percent—with one quad at Buck Hill, Minn. But while there may have been only one new lift, many areas opened with new lifts for their customers in the form of second-hand installations.

The Mountain states kicked lift installation butt with almost 47 percent of the total VTFH (29,785). The big news, though, was not in VTFH, but the fact that Colorado is now home to two spanking-new gondolas: one at Snowmass and one at Breckenridge. The Breckenridge gondola (see the November 2006 SAM Construction Site) was not built to get people up the hill, but to take them from the town to the lifts. As Leitner-Poma’s Tom Clink put it, “This gondola is more like three separate gondolas. There are two mid-stations with six 35-tire stations. It’s a huge project.”

Utah saw a flurry of new lifts, with The Canyons installing two out of the five. Outside of Colorado and Utah, Wyoming was the only other Mountain state to install a lift with a double at Jackson Hole.

Moving west, the Pacific region went from three lifts in 2005 to five lifts in 2006 and had almost 16 percent of the VTFH pie. Of note was an 8-person/6-pack chondola that went in at Northstar Resort, Calif. Oregon and Washington also hit the charts with one lift each.

In Canada, which accounted for 18.5 percent of the total VTFH, the lift-building season brought in five new quads and a 6-pack at Big White.

The Conveyor Story

Conveyor lifts continue to reign supreme at beginner areas and tubing hills across the country. A total of 74 conveyors went in averaging almost 300 feet in length. The longest conveyor award goes to Snowbird, Utah, and Big Boulder, Pa. Each put in 600-footers from Star Lifts. Breaking out the manufacturers, Star Lifts’ 35 conveyors accounted for 47 percent of the total lifts put in; Magic Carpet had 31 percent with 23 conveyors; and Kaser took 21 percent of the total with 16 carpets. At presstime, Magic Carpet still had some orders pending, which could bring the total number of conveyors closer to the 80 installed in 2005.

So, will the conveyor stampede continue? According to Pete Kavanaugh of Star Lifts, “Conveyors will likely continue the strong sales for a few more years, but then there will come a saturation point. Still, there are many uses for the technology, such as in loading areas.”

On the surface lift side, a total of eight lifts were installed this year. For Multi Skilifts, three handle tows went to tubing areas. At Star Lifts, two carousels, three handle tows and two rope tows went out to ski areas.

The Big Buyers

So, who had the deep pockets for lifts in 2006? No one, really. Intrawest bought two lifts, as did American Skiing Company. Booth Creek’s Northstar installed the chondola and a platter and Snow Time Inc. had a triple and a quad at Ski Roundtop and Liberty respectively. Aspen Skiing Company’s Snowmass went big with a quad and a gondola and Vail Resorts’ lift budget was all thrown at the Breckenridge gondola project. The new kids on the block, such as Moonlight and Tamarack, concentrated on other expenditures, which precluded chairlifts. In the end, lift buying was spread around, and guests from Belleayre to Big White are all winners.

Looking Ahead

Looking into the crystal ball of lift installations, what can we expect in the future? Are gondolas making a big re-entry? “I hate to say that gondolas are a trend,” says Clink. “It just happened that two areas needed transportation [Breckenridge and Stowe].”

Doppelmayr CTEC’s Jan Leonard thinks the numbers will be about the same, or a little more, for next year. The big difference is that his company already has eight detachables and four fixed grips on the books. The old days of waiting until the end of the season to order a lift just aren’t possible anymore. Never mind the permitting process, the problem is longer lead times on ordering the bigger items, such as engines and gear boxes. “While prices have stabilized, companies are not stocking bigger ticket items,” says Leonard. “Big engines over 600hp need six to eight months lead times,” concurs Clink. To hedge their bets, the folks at Doppelmayr CTEC are ordering engines and gear boxes in advance, at least on orders they have on the books.

Off the hill, Clink sees a wealth of opportunity in cable transportation systems in more urban environments. Currently, Leitner-Poma is looking at several city projects. And Doppelmayr CTEC’s tram in Portland, Ore., is a case in point. Getting people off the streets and into the air is a great way to move them around a city.

So, that’s the story for lifts in 2006. While the numbers tell one story, the reality is that last year’s projects were big, innovative and time-consuming. The way we move people around our mountains and around our communities is an ever-present problem, and lift companies are coming up with good solutions.