‘Six-packs’ advance lift tech, capabilities | VailDaily.com

‘Six-packs’ advance lift tech, capabilities

By the numbers

3,084: Chairlifts in North America.

74: Six-place lifts operating.

17: Six-place lifts at Vail Resorts’ ski areas.

1: Eight-place lift at Perisher on Australia.

Sources: Liftblog.com, Vail Resorts.

EAGLE COUNTY — Before sliding down a hill, it's first necessary to go up that hill. For those not in the mood to snowshoe, getting uphill is getting easier every season.

Vail Resorts announced late last year it will this summer replace its four-person Northwoods lift at Vail with a new six-person lift. There are also plans for new six-person lifts at Breckenridge and Keystone.

When those lifts are finished, Vail Resorts will operate 20 six-seater lifts. The current roster of 17 six-seater lifts — operating at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Park City, Heavenly and Northstar — makes up a sizable portion of the 74 "six packs" running this winter.

In an email, Vail Resorts spokeswoman Sally Gunter wrote that the idea behind the higher-capacity lifts is to "reduce lift line wait times and increase skier and snowboarder circulation throughout the mountain."

And, Gunter added, the company is meeting those goals.

Six-person lifts aren't new. The first was built in 1991, and 2000 marked the high point for construction of the bigger lifts, when eight were built in North America.

Peter Landsman, of Jackson, Wyoming, has had a lifelong interest in uphill transport, and runs the Liftblog website.

While overall skier numbers in North America have been flat for a number of years, Landsman said the bigger chairs have some advantages.

"You can run them in high winds when you can't run a quad lift," Landsman said. And, of course, "Vail (Resorts) buys them for capacity."

While any new equipment costs a good bit of money, Landsman said upgrading from a four-person to a six-person lift is relatively economical.

Little Red Tape

Many of the upgraded lifts run along the same paths as the lifts they replace. For ski areas operating on U.S. Forest Service or other federally-owned property, that means lifts can be replaced with relatively little in the way of federal approval.

And, with quad lifts still dominant in the industry, Landsman said its possible to re-use that older equipment to upgrade even older lifts elsewhere.

"Vail Resorts actually sent some of the old (quad) equipment to their new mountains in the Midwest," he said.

A six-person lift can add about 30 percent more capacity to a route — as much as 3,600 people per hour. But perhaps the biggest change in lift technology came many years ago.

Vail resident and former Mayor Andy Daly is a long-time veteran of the ski industry and is currently a co-owner of the Powderhorn ski area near Grand Junction.

Daly said the real revolution was the "detachable" lift, which can slow at its terminals and speed up on the trip from bottom to top.

Fixed-grip lifts, whether in two-, three- or four-seat capacity, could run at between 450 and 500 feet per minute. That made loading and unloading an often-tricky proposition.

The advent of detachable chairs meant lifts could slow to 100 feet per minute for loading and unloading.

"That gave you an opportunity to organize six people and get them on the chair in an orderly way," Daly said. "That's important when they're disembarking — everybody gets off conveniently."

Besides the ability to slow down at the terminals, detachable chairs also go faster than their fixed-grip counterparts. Passengers can ride uphill at more than twice the speed of a fixed-grip chair, which then slows to 20 percent of a fixed-grip's speed at the terminals.

"That gives guests time to gather their composure, and get off the lift in a safe manner," Daly said.

While six-person lifts are helping ease congestion at North American resorts, that isn't the end of chairlift technology.

Landsman said a few eight-person lifts are operating in Europe and Australia. One of those eight-place lifts is at Perisher, now owned by Vail Resorts.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.