VAIL, Colorado - The sound of helicopter propellers echoed through Vail on Thursday as crews installed the towers for Vail's newest lift, Gondola 1.
Vail Mountain plans to announce the name of the gondola before its grand opening Nov. 16, which is also the opening day of Vail Mountain's 50th anniversary ski season. For now, the lift is being called Gondola 1, which commemorates the original gondola built in the same location in the 1960s.
As the helicopter hauled in each tower piece by piece, Vail Mountain Chief Operating Officer Chris Jarnot watched from the base area beaming with pride. He said he's been excited about the new gondola all along, especially as he watched construction progress throughout the summer. The resort began tearing down the old chairlift, the Vista Bahn, on closing day last season and the work hasn't skipped a beat since.
"It's exciting to see all this pop up in one day, but it's been exciting every day, all summer long, as we've made progress," Jarnot said. "It's going to be an amazing lift. I think people are going to be really excited when they see how well it works and how nice it is."
Nice is an understatement when you're talking gondola standards. This one will feature heated leather seats, free wi-fi access and it will hold 10 passengers per cabin. It's also fast, with a speed of 1,200 feet per minute, making it the fastest gondola of its type in the world, according to Vail Resorts. More than 70 percent of the gondola was manufactured in Grand Junction by Leitner-Poma of America, while the cabins and some other portions were manufactured in Europe.
The speed and occupancy per cabin equals a 40 percent increase in uphill capacity, whisking skiers and snowboarders to Mid-Vail in 7 1/2 minutes - a minute and a half faster than the Vista Bahn.
Vail Mountain spokeswoman Liz Biebl calls it a "tremendous improvement for the guest experience."
Skiers and snowboarders were already expressing gratitude for the addition Thursday on social media, with a few naysayers complaining that the larger uphill capacity will create larger lines at Chairs 3 and 4. Vail Resorts states on its website that Vail "will likely replace the Mountaintop Express Lift (Chair 4), adding uphill capacity in the not-too-distant future."
"Nice work guys," commented Aaron Burrows on Vail Mountain's Facebook page. "When that lift brings us all up to great skiing and conditions over the next 30 years, I'll try to remember those guys who hung 60 feet in the air installing it for me. Thanks!"
Two crews of seven waited at each tower location Thursday for the helicopter - a Siller Helicopters Sikorsky Sky-Crane - with four guys climbing the tower to catch the cables flying around in the wind to secure each piece of the base to the bottom base section. Some towers were assembled in two or three pieces, but others took more, depending on the terrain.
The gondola's haul rope or cable is expected to be installed later this month, which will allow all 111 gondola cabin cars to move through each of the 23 towers.
As Jarnot watched the tower construction, the sight of Vail's newest improvement also made him think of the other improvements that came with it. The slope between the top of the gondola - the same top station area where the Vista Bahn traveled to - and the base of Chairs 3 and 4 was flattened out and graded, which Jarnot said will become a much better experience for everyone heading that way.
And the ski rack area as you come into Mid-Vail from the Chair 3 and 4 side used to be a mess, Jarnot said, but the resort built a platform to clean that up and make the area more user friendly.
And while Jarnot can't predict what opening day snow is going to look like, he said the gondola's grand opening will take place on opening day.
He added that the goal, of course, is to have enough snow to open everything - including Vail's Back Bowls - on opening day.
"That's always the goal," Jarnot said.
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.