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July 2013

Climb Any Mountain

A Nevada base-area community needed to get its population to the slopes and found a solution in a unique transportation system.

Written by Rick Kahl | 0 comment

Aerial lifts are often very efficient for delivering guests from point A to point B. But when it’s not possible to travel a straight line between the two, other options can be more effective. The same is true for routes that go up and down a lot. For these situations, something like the Hilltrac can provide a better solution.

The Hilltrac, built by Skytrac, was designed for just those sort of unusual situations. This hybrid people mover is part elevator, part funicular, and part train. That is: guests ride in self-powered cars that they can operate themselves, like an elevator, but they ride on a track that can be curved, like a train track, and they can transport people up and down steep slopes, like a funicular. But that only begins to describe the capabilities of this novel lift.

The first installation of a Hilltrac, at the Ridge Resort residential complex next to Heavenly Valley, helps illustrate the capability.


At Ridge Resort in Nevada the issue was access to the slopes. The complex had operated a Yan tram for about 25 years to connect the property with Heavenly’s Stagecoach lift. But the lift couldn’t run straight from the resort to the Stagecoach; due to the resort’s irregular property line, the tram dropped guests at a terminal that left a bit of a walk to reach the Heavenly chair. A lift that followed a curving route, though, could drop off guests just a few steps from the Stagecoach.

So in 2011, Ridge became the first customer for Hilltrac. It installed an eight-passenger car on a track that’s 680 feet long. The Hilltrac transports guests from the property directly to the lift. Guests can hop on the car and ride from Ridge down to the lift, and back up at the end of the day. The one-way trip takes about 2.5 minutes; the car makes the round trip in about 6 minutes, given the amount of time it takes to load and unload. “It has worked perfectly,” says assistant resort manager Jeff Schwartz.

When Ridge decided it was time to replace the Yan tram, it looked at several options, including a funicular. But that, too, had to travel in a straight line, and failed to address the distance-to-the-Stagecoach issue. Hilltrac does. Ridge also liked that the Hilltrac is 95 percent made in the U.S.; the car itself comes from Switzerland.

“It was a bit more money than a funicular, but well worth it,” Schwartz says. That’s in part because the lift does not require an operator. It’s much like an elevator, in that guests operate the car with their room key. Guests push the call button, as on an elevator. It’s always waiting at the top in the a.m., by program., In the p.m., it waits at the bottom for returning guests. The system operates from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. When a group is ready, they just push the “run” button, and the lift does the rest.

So far, the system has proved reliable. Since launching in February 2012, the Ridge car had made 10,100 laps of the track by early June. That translates into 700 hours of operation, as well as 2,590 miles and 1.1 million vertical feet traveled.

“Another neat thing, it’s not bothered by wind,” Schwartz says. “We’re at 7,600 feet, and we had to shut the old tram down at times. But this lift is not affected by wind, and that’s really nice.”

And how do guests like it? “We’ve had lots of good response,” says Schwartz. “With the old gondola, guests had a long walk to the lift. The Skier Express is much easier. If you want to take a lunch break, it’s easy for people to get back to their room; the new lift makes the property more ski in/ski out. It’s nice in summer, too. Kids like to ride it, plus it accesses lots of hiking trails. We even open up for fun rides for a couple of hours a day.”

The resort has been pleased enough that it is planning to extend the track and reach more of the resort’s buildings; the system has the capacity for that.

“We really love it, it works great for everyone,” Schwartz concludes.


Director and co-developer of Hilltrac, Dave Metivier, says that Garaventa used to have a lift solution for difficult installations, a sort of rope-driven elevator. “We saw that this could have many applications,” he says. “We felt that if it was done correctly, it could be great.”

The engineers quickly learned that what such a lift needs most of all is versatility. The company, formed in 2005, built its first prototype in 2006. It has since gone through a lot of evolution. Initially, Metivier says, the engineers figured that it would be useful to be able to do a 10-degree reverse grade, and up to a full vertical rise. One of the first potential customers, though, had a different need: a lift that could first descend a 45-degree slope, and then up 45 degrees. “So we figured out that we needed something that would conform to every configuration imaginable,” says Metivier. “There are situations where you need to do a vertical curve in the line. Some customers need horizontal curves as well. Others want to do a reverse grade. And before long, you exceed the limits of what cables can do—they don’t do curves well.” And many traditional lifts are limited as to how steep the slope can be.

There were other considerations, too. If you have people milling around in the vicinity of a moving cable, for example, there are safety issues. “We had a lift concept with an electrification rail, but that has safety issues, too. And rail transports are limited as to steepness, the arc of the curve, and other issues,” Metivier says.

“So we asked ourselves, how do we eliminate all that?” The answer: a self-propelled vehicle that travels on a track.

Each car is powered by its own cycloid rack roller pinion electric drive. “It’s unique, in that it’s a self-contained vehicle. Everything’s on board, there’s no moving cable,” says Metivier. The AC induction motors are powered by lithium ion batteries that charge during the load/unload cycles. As with many electric vehicles, a regenerative braking system helps recharge the motor’s battery, in this case during the downhill portions of the run. So the system can run continuously, Hilltrac also developed a whole new track design for the car to travel on. (Both the vehicle technology and the track technology are patented.)

The result is a lift that can handle any degree differential, that can handle a reverse curve, be of unlimited length, and can do a full closed loop, like a train. And it can do all this with multiple vehicles on the line.

“Our standard design will do a 50-degree differential,” Metivier says. “It could do a vertical loop if necessary. No surface lift will do a big long curve. And auto systems, as at airports, are limited to the degree they can climb—usually it’s only three to five degrees. And a funicular is limited as to curves. At that point, we have a huge price advantage.”

Hilltrac has done two private installations where ropeways and funiculars wouldn’t work. One install has a 53-degree slope differential: it descends at 18 degrees then turns uphill, and travels around curves. Total length is 900 feet.

Hilltrac can handle bigger capacities as well. “Everyone wants more capacity,” Metivier says. “But to build a 60-passenger funicular cabin, it has to be huge. We limit the size to about 15 passengers; if they want multiples of that, we just add vehicles.” And capacity can be fairly high. “Vehicles can launch 10 seconds or so apart.” This approach allows Hilltrac to standardize its track size and the radius of its turns, which will help keep costs manageable.

And it’s an environmentally sound system, in that the system can run only when needed, and operation can scale up or down to meet the demand of the moment. “You can send up as many vehicles as needed for the crowd, so its greener,” Metivier says.

Like any new system, the Hilltrac had what Metivier calls “typical glitches.” For example, in its first winter, the car had a battery charger fail. “Now we sequence two chargers so we always have power.” As for charging itself he says, “we’ve got it down to almost no downtime. It’s come on line quickly. We’ve made it very robust in a short period of time.”

For all that, Hilltrac doesn’t fit every application. Metivier notes that a ropeway can still deliver people per hour like nothing else. But for a variety of people-moving situations, especially where topography throws a curve or two, Hilltrac can provide a solution where none was available previously.


Currently, Hilltrac has two commercial orders for private ventures at resorts, and one for a state park.

“We’re not limited to uphill transit,” says Metivier. “There are lots of applications, especially for locations where people thought they couldn’t put in a lift. We had the Air Force call, they wanted to use it to run to a remote radar site.

“It’s an on-demand system, a hybrid people mover/elevator. Hilltrac can eliminate roads in some instances. We can use it to transport material in housing developments or in any inaccessible location. Or, it can be a mass transit device. It can run on auto for high capacity uses, or, at off peak, can operate on a on-demand system. If the architectural world knew about this, it would be in malls, at beaches, airports. There are all sorts of applications.”