Reflecting on a Year Like No Other
At this time last year, 2020 was destined to be busy in North America with more than 30 ropeways already scheduled for construction. As the 2019/20 winter went on, more announcements came seemingly each week. Vail Resorts, Alterra and Boyne all unveiled ambitious plans including multi-lift projects at Beaver Creek, Mammoth and Okemo. Yet in the background, the Coronavirus was advancing around the world. The situation came to a head the weekend of March 14th, when hundreds of North American resorts closed in order to protect public health. Facing uncertainty about summer and beyond, many businesses decided to postpone expansion capital entirely.
Despite immense challenges, US and Canadian resorts did add a total of 28 new lifts in 2020. Most companies which went ahead were small- to medium-sized, ones often forgotten in this era of consolidation. In Maine and West Virginia, mountains which had sat idle for years revved back to life with brand new lifts to welcome back guests.
Almost all this year’s lifts directly replaced older machines. The average age of a lift retired in 2020 was 40 years as resorts said goodbye to Halls, Riblets, Borvigs and more. Some replacement projects simply couldn’t wait for the pandemic to be over.
Expansion lifts make up about 40 percent of the total most years but in 2020 they were just 20 percent. Sun Valley forged ahead with Sunrise, a 380 acre addition near Seattle Ridge. After skiing the new terrain, guests will enjoy a high speed ride back to the Roundhouse on a new Doppelmayr quad. Other expansions include Lake Louise’s West Bowl project and Nordic Valley’s yet-to-be-named southward expansion.
Arapahoe Basin replaced not one but two Yan fixed grips with modern Alpha models, including the legendary Pallavicini double with a new double. Aspen Skiing Company purchased its first direct drive lift from Leitner-Poma, a replacement for Big Burn at Snowmass. The State of New York committed millions to upgrade three fixed grip chairlifts at two mountains.
Fewer resorts opted to reinstall used lifts this year than the last three years. In California, Dodge Ridge repurposed Sun Valley’s old Cold Springs lift and a community ski hill in Alberta reinstalled a Mueller T-Bar. In the northeast, both Bousquet Mountain and Magic Mountain installed 1980s Poma Alpha lifts with plenty of life left in them.
The largest used lift project was the Wenatchee Express at Mission Ridge. The Washington ski area brought a 1987 high speed quad over from Austria and expects to open the lift in mid-January. It will feature refurbished bubble chairs and all new controls.
Skytrac completed numerous retrofits to older lifts, including a new drive terminal at Snowy Range, Wyoming, a new return terminal at Beaver Mountain, Utah and new tower heads on a Thiokol triple at Homewood, California. Doppelmayr supplied new CWA cabins for Whiteface’s Cloudsplitter Gondola as part of a major upgrade project there.
Ski resorts remained the lift companies’ bread and butter as other sectors of the travel industry took a pause. Doppelmayr realized a high capacity transport gondola at an Alaskan cruise port known as Icy Strait Point, which was contracted before the pandemic hit. The other 27 lifts were built at ski mountains.
As far as lift types, Doppelmayr completed an aerial tramway at the Yellowstone Club utilizing gondola size cabins in a jig-back configuration. After three growth years for gondolas, chairlifts took center stage in 2020. Perhaps enclosed lifts just weren’t as appealing this year. Twice as many fixed grip chairlifts were completed as detachable, the same ratio as last year. Ski areas in Vermont and Idaho added new T-Bars.
The largest new lift of the year was the Arizona Gondola, a Leitner-Poma Telemix with a direct drive. The cabin to chair ratio is quite high with two six passenger chairs between each eight passenger gondola. North America now has a total of ten combination lifts and six direct drives with hopefully more to come next year.
Doppelmayr’s largest project of the year was building two modern lifts for Timberline Mountain, West Virginia. The entire mountain is now serviced by a UNI-G six place detachable with beginner guests riding a new fixed-grip quad. The lifts mark a massive improvement from the three Borvig and Heron-Poma fixed grips which stood before.
Regionally, the East Coast saw the most new lifts installed with additions in six states. The Rocky Mountains, typically the largest region for lifts, saw installations fall more than 60 percent with eight lifts erected.
Canada was also down this year and only one new lift got built in the Midwest, a Skytrac at Hyland Hills, Minnesota.
West Coast lift building was about on par with recent years. Two new machines were constructed in Alaska and one each in Washington, Oregon and California.
2020 was a huge year in Mexico with seven new gondolas installed but both Doppelmayr and Leitner supplied these lifts from Europe instead of manufacturing them in the United States or Canada. Therefore these projects are excluded from the charts.
On the manufacturer front, sister companies Leitner-Poma and Skytrac realized 11 complete lifts and rival Doppelmayr installed 10. MND Ropeways, formerly known as LST, completed its third US T-Bar at a community ski hill in Idaho. SkyTrans fabricated a short triple chair for a nonprofit Alaskan ski area in its first year of operations. New York-based Partek did not build any lifts for the first time in nine years.
On the eve of 2021 there’s reason for optimism. Not only did resort groups already make payments for lifts not completed this year, a whole new set of projects are approved and ready to move forward. 2021 is pacing similarly to 2018, a year when 43 lifts were built.
I foresee 2021 as full of coronavirus vaccinations with a pent up demand for travel and low interest rates for borrowing. These factors could converge to yield many exciting lift projects next year.Article by Peter Landsman