Guests come to our resorts expecting an enjoyable day on the mountain. To access our slopes, though, guests need to ride our lifts; that involves navigating mazes, preload areas, and load and unload ramps, among other potential pinch points. We can help our guests enjoy a smooth ride by providing consistent solutions to common problems.
Frictionless lift loading and unloading serves several vital purposes. Most importantly, it improves guest safety, as there are fewer misloads and unseated passengers. That also reduces the frequency of lawsuits.
Efficient loading and unloading also allow the lift to approach or meet its hourly capacity, which helps keep lift lines and wait times as short as possible. Slows and stops have a major impact on the uphill capacity of our chairlifts. Several stops in a row can fill a maze, even on a slow day.
The indicator of a great lift operator is not his or her reaction time to an incident (which is important, of course) but how few incidents he or she must react to.
NSAA director of technical services Mike Lane, who led a series of lift safety bootcamps this fall, suggests that we can direct the behavior of our guests through careful design of lift mazes and loading and unloading ramps. What follows here are several basic ways to set up your operations to assist guests on their journey.
Guests begin their uphill journey by lining up in the maze. Design mazes to help divide the guests into appropriately-sized groups depending on the chair’s seating capacity, so that they arrive at the loading area as an organized group. A maze should be intuitive and allow the guests to enter and group up on their own, without confusion.
Some mazes have dedicated lanes for specific purposes, i.e., ski school or singles lanes. Signage for these lanes should be clear, and placed at the beginning of the maze.
Build mazes on a flat grade. Even a small incline can create chaos as guests try to climb. A steep decline in a maze requires the guests to use their edges to come to a stop. At the front of the maze, an ideal, gentle pitch allows skiers to stop with their poles, and snowboarders to stop by setting a free foot on the snow.
As snow depths change, maintaining a flat surface can be difficult, if not impossible. But a flat surface remains the goal, and the closer lift ops hew to it, the smoother a lift’s flow.
If a pitched maze is unavoidable, adjusting lane widths can make it easier for guests. If the grade is too steep and guests need to use their edges to stop, wider lanes provide room for that. However, wider lanes can be problematic, because they allow guests to enter the maze at unsafe speeds. To control the speed at which guests enter the maze, build lanes tighter at the opening, then let them grow wider for the preload area. A tight entrance forces most guests to slow down before entering the maze and allows them room to stop at the end.
Self-filtering mazes. As guests move closer to the front of the maze, they should be able organize themselves into groups. Use a self-filtering maze to allow groups to fall into place on their own. This guest-managed approach works well for quieter lifts, and helps keep the line flowing even on busier lifts. When needed, line organizers can help ensure the guests move through the maze.
Of course, guest interaction can be a key aspect of lift ops for some areas. Tim Bruett, assistant manager of lift operations at Deer Valley, Utah, says, “Deer Valley employs line organizers instead of a self-feeding maze. This allows us to add a level of guest service while helping the guests to the load ramp.”
When guests reach the end of the maze, they enter the preload area. Guests line up in their groups and move toward the loading ramp. NSAA’s Lane recommends that resorts determine the length of the preload area according to the chair capacity. For a double chair, the preload area should allow for two groups to stand in line. A triple lift should allow for three groups, and a quad for four.
Bruett says, “We like a long preload area, 15 to 20 feet long, and straight in line with the chair. This allows the guests to get acclimated before it’s time to load the chair.” When guests have extra time to get ready to load, they create fewer situations that require slows and stops of the lift.
To improve the odds of a smooth loading process, there should be no distractions for the guests once they are in the preload area, Lane says. Guests should be focused on loading the lift, period. That means no singles lanes, trash cans, or tissue boxes. These components of the maze should be incorporated well before the preload area.
Take charge. The lift operator can help to keep guests focused and engaged by developing a proactive approach while loading guests. Communication can be a very effective tool.
Guests are often overwhelmed—and sometimes scared—while loading the chair. An operator can prevent many loading incidents by reminding the guest of what to do. Often, an operator will say, “OK, wait there until the chair passes. … Alright, now shuffle forward,” to kids while they are loading. The same can be said to adults as well. Sometimes that is all it takes to get a guest to focus and load the lift.
This can be especially true when families are loading a lift together. One of the noble truths among lift operators is that it’s not the kids who cause problems, but the parents. Using clear language, the operator can take control of the situation. For example, one can say, “I want all four of you to line up right here until I tell you to move forward.” This relieves the stress from the parents so they can think and act in a clear manner.
While communication is an effective tool to prepare guests for loading, a well-maintained loading ramp is crucial for guests to actually load the chair. A loading ramp should be flat, smooth, and even. Proper ramp height allows guests to sit in the chair without getting hit in the legs. Determine ramp height based on the use of the lift, in accordance with ANSI and local authorities. Remember, ANSI code requires that seat height be displayed at the loading station [ANSI B77.1-2017 Table D-1].
Maintenance is key. Throughout the day, operators must maintain the posted ramp height. Adding or removing snow as needed will maintain the ramp height as the day progresses. Wrapping a piece of tape around a ski pole, at the approved height, is a quick and easy way to check ramp height.
With height established, keep the ramp smooth to allow guests to move up to the “load here” area. Ruts and grooves create unsafe loading conditions for guests. Raking the ramp on a bias—i.e., 45-degree diagonal—will smooth out ruts.
All of this preparation and maintenance is important; proper ramp maintenance gives the guest an easy and direct path to loading the lift.
There are three main components to an unload ramp: an approach, a flat top section, and a downhill ramp that moves the guest away from the moving chair and clears the unloading area for the next group. Each of these sections is a flat plane, and they meet with defined angles.
Create consistency. In describing a well-conceived unload ramp, Lane says, “Everything is defined for the operator, no decisions to be made.” Ramps constantly change throughout the day as guests use them. Defining the approach angle, ramp height, breakover point, and downhill ramp angle for your operators is important so operators can maintain the ramp to defined standards. Having consistent ramps at all lifts allows the operators to maintain them efficiently regardless of which unload station they are working. This consistency translates to the guests as they know what to expect when approaching the unload ramp.
Place “unload here” signs at the breakover point at the start of the downhill ramp. This breakover should be a well-defined angle. That helps ensure all guests unload at the same time. A curved break-over allows guest to stand up at separate times, creating confusion as they transition downhill. The breakover should be even across the width of the ramp, with an even plane descending away from the chair. Operators must maintain these surfaces by raking and adding or removing snow as needed.
Guests come to expect a level of quality from our resorts. Getting the basics right can have a big impact. Mazes, preload areas, and ramps should be set up consistently from day to day, with efficiency and ease of use in mind. A thoughtful, simple design that produces a consistent product helps our guests load and unload lifts without incident, providing a safer experience in which the guest spends less time standing and more time sliding.
Lift Safety Bootcamp
Mike Lane, NSAA director of technical services, has developed a Lift Safety Bootcamp. In module 1 of this bootcamp, Setting your Guests up for Success: Maze Design, Load, and Unload Ramp Setup, he discusses various scenarios lift operators encounter, how to solve common problems, and ways to develop plans participants can bring back to their resorts. The aim is to help create consistency not just within a resort, but between resorts as well. Consistency will help our guests know what to expect wherever they decide to visit.
The bootcamps were first presented at the regional fall meetings, and Lane plans to continue offering them through the winter conferences and future seminars. —AM