More lifts, gondolas and acres: U.S. ski industry keeps growing

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The new North Mountain section of Hunter Mountain in New York features five trails and 80 acres of skiable terrain.
The new North Mountain section of Hunter Mountain in New York features five trails and 80 acres of skiable terrain. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Hunter Mountain

Skiers from New York to Montana and from Colorado to Washington state will find major chairlift and gondola enhancements during the upcoming 2018-19 season.

Among the most noteworthy upgrades will be North America's first high-speed, eight-seat lift, which is set to debut at Montana's Big Sky Resort in December.

At Colorado's Winter Park, skiers will enjoy a new 10-seat gondola.

And at Hunter Mountain in New York, Arapahoe Basin in Colorado and Mount Spokane in Washington, new lifts this year will provide access to additional skiable acreage.

"We want to make sure we are always pushing the envelope, as far as what our customers have come to expect," said Hunter Mountain communications director Daniel Kenney. "That entails more chairlifts, more terrain."

Data compiled by the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) reveals that the U.S. will see 27 lift and gondola installations this year, which will offer a combined capacity of 56,500 people per hour and will ascend a combined 23,500 feet. Of those, 16 will replace older lifts, nine will be lift additions and two are relocations of retired lifts.

Ski resorts account for the lion's share of the lift development, but not all of it. For example, Spider Mountain bike park in Texas is installing a lift that had been retired from New Mexico's Taos ski resort.

While this year's number of new lift developments is down from the 2017-18 ski season, which saw the opening of 36 lifts and gondolas with a capacity of 66,600 people per hour, they're still above the levels of 2014, 2015 and 2016, NSAA data shows. The pace of development is also still strong by longer-term historical levels, said Mike Lane, the NSAA's director of technical services.

"The machines this year are relatively big and robust," Lane said. "They are state-of-the-art in terms of technology, state-of-the-art in terms of how they load, cost savings and energy efficiency."

Leading the way on that innovative front is Big Sky, which is touting its new Ramcharger 8 lift as "the most technologically advanced lift ever built."

Each of the Ramcharger's eight-seat chairs are 15 feet wide and offer riders the comfort of heated, cushioned seats and a weather-proof bubble. A loading conveyor will move skiers to the load point. The lift's electric motor, said Big Sky vice president of mountain operations Mike Unruh, will turn at just 12 to 13 revolutions per minute, rather than the roughly 1,700 rpm of a traditional lift motor, making it both greener and quieter.

"Comfort and experience are drastically improved due to all of these technologies," Unruh said.

The Ramcharger 8 replaces the older Ramcharger quad chair and will take as many as 3,200 passengers per hour between Big Sky's Mountain Village and the midmountain lodge that features the restaurant Everett's.

Big Sky could be a trendsetter in the U.S. ski industry, which has trailed Europe in eight-seat lifts.

"It's got to be the right circumstance, and it's got to be at a big base area," Lane said.

Montana's Big Sky Resort replaced four-seat lifts with the eight-seater Ramcharger lift this fall.
Montana's Big Sky Resort replaced four-seat lifts with the eight-seater Ramcharger lift this fall. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Big Sky Resort

A second major Rocky Mountains ski resort that will upgrade lift capacity at its main base this season is Winter Park.

There, the new $16.2 million, 10-seat gondola will replace the Zephyr Express quad, providing an uphill capacity of 3,600 people per hour. Winter Park said the gondola will reduce peak season wait times by 15 minutes.

At Hunter Mountain, Arapahoe Basin and Mount Spokane, new lifts will have an even more profound impact on skiers.

Hunter's North Mountain Lift, a high-speed six-seater, will ferry skiers up 1,000 vertical feet, opening access to 80 new acres of skiable terrain, including five new trails.

The lift will depart from above the Hunter North parking area and will anchor a new Hunter base area. The expansion will mainly include intermediate terrain, Kenney said, but it also offers tree skiing. He said the North Mountain Lift will open before Christmas, once state regulators finish the certification process.

At Arapahoe Basin, which is especially popular with expert skiers, the new four-seat Beavers chairlift will access 339 acres of new terrain. The new area, also called the Beavers, is to include two groomed intermediate runs, open bowls and what Arapahoe Basin calls, "some of the best tree skiing in Colorado."

Arapahoe Basin is also opening 129 acres of expert-only terrain aptly named Steep Gullies. The additions will increase the resort's skiable terrain to 1,248 acres.

Farther west, at Mount Spokane resort, the triple Chair 6 will allow for the opening of a new backside of the mountain featuring 279 acres of terrain, including 80 acres of trails and seven designated runs.

The lift, which will climb 1,428 feet over the course of a nine-minute ride, is slated for completion this month. Its opening will mark the end of a 15-year saga for Mount Spokane, which included 14 years of regulatory and legal challenges.

"We are obviously over the moon about it finally coming to fruition this season," guest services manager Brenda McQuarrie said.

Lane said the tax cuts that went into effect this year are one reason for this year's relatively robust spending on lift development by U.S. ski resorts. Industry consolidation, he said, is another factor and likely will continue to be one in the coming years.

Alterra Mountain Co., which operates 14 North American ski resorts, including 10 in the U.S., has emerged over the past two years as a challenger to industry titan Vail Resorts. This year Alterra is selling its all-mountain Ikon Pass in competition with Vail's venerable Epic Pass.

Peter Landsman, author of Lift Blog, agreed with Lane, adding that Alterra has said it will spend $500 million over the next five years on infrastructure projects.

Competition between the Epic Pass and Ikon Pass, Landsman said, will drive a lot of investment in bigger and better lifts by mountains as a way to win over pass holders.

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