Hot off the Press...Where Chairlifts go in their Next Life
From Sunday's Aspen Daily news by Madeleine Observer. Lifts travel by truck and by barge to new destinations
Built to last for generations of skiers, the fixed-grip double and triple chairlifts that once populated the local slopes are nearing extinction here.
Last month’s replacement of Snowmass’ 1978 Riblet center-bar High Alpine double with a sleek Leitner-Poma quad took one of the handful of remaining old chairs out of local circulation. But High Alpine, like the old Burlingame, Assay Hill, Naked Lady, Big Burn and Lift 1A chairs before it, is destined for a second life at a smaller ski area.
“Many of the old doubles and triples will run forever and ever,” said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. “These lifts have a much longer life than a lot of people assume.”
With relatively few main parts — bullwheel, motor, gear box and sheaves — the chairs made by manufacturers such as Riblet, Hall and Yan continue to roll at many of the country’s 471 operating ski areas.
Guests at major destination resorts like Aspen have high expectations when it comes to a lift’s speed and capacity, Berry said. But the old war horse lifts, with their lower maintenance costs, are perfect for price sensitive, low volume, medium-sized ski areas.
Instead of being put out to pasture prematurely for reasons of comfort and aesthetics, some familiar lifts have been repurposed at mountains from Alaska to Minnesota. One may even be operating as a people-mover in the Middle East.
Assay Hill to Eaglecrest, Alaska
At the community-owned Eaglecrest area outside Juneau, Alaska, a new-used chair from Snowmass has been a tremendous boost to beginner and adaptive skiing business, said spokeswoman Jeffra Clough.
The Porcupine Chair, now a tower or two shorter than during its long life as Snowmass’ Assay Hill Chair, replaced a 1975 platter-pull that was tough for snowboarders, first-timers and adaptive skiers.
Since its 2010 installation, the lift has made such a positive impact on business that Eaglecrest recently built a companion Porcupine Lodge for rentals and lift ticket sales, according to operations director Nate Abbott.
“I knew it was going to create a change, but I didn’t realize how much of an impact it would have on our business,” noted Clough, who helped orchestrate the lift’s multi-modal journey from Colorado to Alaska.
Clough didn’t know how much it cost to move the roughly 3,000 miles via trucks to the port in Seattle and a barge through southeast Alaska, to Juneau. From there it was driven about 12 miles to Douglas Island, just outside the state’s capitol.
Last season, when the area’s upper mountain lifts only ran five days due to little snow, Porcupine Chair was able to motor on for about 45 days.
“It was basically the only thing you could ride all season,” said Abbott.
This year, conditions are much different, with an 81-inch base as of Jan. 2 (compared to 20 inches a year ago) and all four lifts running. A short hike beyond the top of the Black Bear chair is said to offer views of the Gastineau Channel at high tide. Black Bear too is enjoying a second life, having been relocated from Northstar at Tahoe.
That’s how an area with a $46 a day lift ticket can make its finances work.
“We try to keep it really affordable, said Clough. “We’re a huge community presence, particularly for the youth. Again, that’s why the Porcupine Chair (Snowmass’ old Assay Hill lift) really helped us out.”
Naked Lady to Lutsen, Minn.
After years of being bypassed for the faster Alpine Springs quad chair, the Aspen Skiing Co. in 2008 removed the then 27-year-old Naked Lady double from Snowmass. Naked Lady’s new owner is Tom Rider of the Lutsen ski area in northern Minnesota, and the chair’s new name is 10th Mountain.
The repurposed lift is used to access chutes and intermediate terrain at the expansive midwestern ski area located on the shores of Lake Superior that was founded in 1948 by a group that included former 10th Mountain Division soldier George Nelson.
“The 10th Mountain name is in honor of our roots,” said Rider, who allowed that the Naked Lady lift’s sale was handled through a private broker. Despite costs for transport, reassembly that includes tower installation and reengineering the braking system, the price tag is still at least half, if not less, the cost of a new fixed grip lift. Rider put that at a minimum of $1 million.
Ski areas also prefer to recycle old doubles as opposed to acquiring the first generation of high-speed quads because of the maintenance that will be required, according to NSAA’s Berry. And it’s more cost efficient to operate a number of lifts by the same manufacturer.
“You see less activity in (resale of) the detachable lifts, there just isn’t as strong of a market for them, he said. “A small ski area has to be careful not so much with the lift acquisition, but with the cost of maintenance.”
At 1,125 linear feet in its original incarnation, Naked Lady was shortened following its relocation to the top of Lutsen’s Eagle Mountain where it started a second life as the 10th Mountain lift.
High Alpine and Burlingame to Montana Snowbowl
The recently replaced High Alpine chairlift is now in the possession of Montana Snowbowl, outside Missoula. It’s in storage, along with Snowmass’ old Burlingame chairlift. Both Riblet-manufactured double chairs are intended for use in a section of the mountain slated for a 1,200-acre expansion that would open west-facing terrain along TV Mountain.
After years of review by the Lolo National Forest, Snowbowl received approval to double its present 1,138 acres to 2,243 acres. The acquisition of High Alpine, coupled with the Burlingame chair, is key to opening new terrain that offers low-intermediate skiing along with some advanced runs.
“Technically, we bought the High Alpine lift for like a dollar,” said Brad Morris, Snowbowl’s owner. “But we removed the lift at our expense.” He didn’t share those costs but said the chairs, towers, bullwheel and other equipment filled “six or seven semis.”
Closer to home and cheaper to relocate, Snowbowl bought another Riblet chair in 1994 from the Big Sky resort near Bozeman.
“That’s pretty typical in Montana. A lot of areas have (Riblet chairs). They’re simple lifts that have proven to be pretty reliable,” he added.
Containing these kinds of costs help an area like Snowbowl keep its $46 daily ticket, which serves college students and families.
“When the larger resorts go to high-speed quads, unfortunately they’ve got to charge high prices. That would kill this place,” said mountain manager Pat McKay. “Plus, new stuff breaks too.”
The area’s stalwart Grizzly chairlift, installed about 25 years ago, has upgraded components in the motor room and in its towers.The High Alpine and Burlingame chairs use some of those same components, he added.
McKay became personally acquainted with the two former Snowmass lifts when he was charged with unloading the trucks full of lift parts after they arrived on separate occasions.
If Snowbowl’s expansion, which has been envisioned for 20 years, begins this spring with timber clearing, McKay will again be hands-on with the aging yet sturdy lift parts. Lift towers won’t be flown in, however. “That’s too expensive. We’ll set them in with excavators,” he said.
Lifts 1A and 3 and Big Burn to Sunlight
The closest ski resort to the Aspen/Snowmass four-pack, Sunlight is another recipient of their used lifts. Snowmass’ Big Burn triple chair became Sunlight’s Tercero lift when it was purchased and installed in 1987. Today, Tercero transports riders about 450 vertical feet from Sunlight’s base.
Sunlight earlier acquired the parts of two Aspen Mountain lifts, 1A and lift 3, to make a hybrid that became its Segundo chair . First opened in 1972, It still operates today, on the cusp of Sunlight’s 50th anniversary.
According to general manager Tom Hays, “The lattice towers were the original 1A towers.” Other parts were pulled from Aspen Mountain’s number three lift, which was first built in 1954 and replaced in 1969, according to information gathered by lift historians and valley residents Steven and Nicholas Hallisey.
“We like to say if you like antique cars, you’ll love Sunlight,” quipped spokesman Troy Hawks.
While Hays said that slower, older lifts allow time for the crowds to spread out, they have practical applications as well.
“The maintenance is pretty straight forward. But the tramway board (the state’s regulatory agency) does the same inspections, twice a year,” as the new lifts, he emphasized.
In states that don’t have the oversight of a tramway board, the insurance companies and Forest Service step in to do testing, according to Michael Berry.
Recent parts and pieces
The old Funnel double chair, which was removed to make way for Snowmass’ Elk Camp Gondola, was sold to Ali Akbar Industries during the mid-2000s. It was at the time bound for Pakistan, said SkiCo’s Victor Gerdin.
Gerdin said he believes that “the purchaser actually used the lift to connect two hotel properties, and didn’t necessarily use it as a ski lift.”
While a popular reuse of an old lift is to sell off individual chairs or gondola cars that become memorable souvenirs for locals, the material’s value may also be realized through its sale as salvaged scrap metal. That was the destiny of the former Tiehack chairlift.
In other cases, SkiCo tries to internally recycle chairlift parts and towers within its own mountains. Those include line machinery, chairs and drive terminals that have been relocated relatively short distances. Most recently, the old drive terminal from the Ajax Express chair on Aspen Mountain took on another life as part of Snowmass’ shortened Campground lift, according to Gerdin.