The Science of Chairlifts

Skiing has come a long way since the world’s first chairlift
debuted in 1936 in Sun Valley. Developed by an engineer, the one-chair lift was
inspired by the design of a conveyor belt that was originally built to efficiently
load bananas onto cargo ships. With a few modifications to the banana hooks
(replaced with seats) and engine (upgraded for power), ski resorts began to
embrace this new mode of aerial transportation and experienced what would be
the first of many growth spurts to affect this young sport.

 

But while modern lifts have become more complex in the past
76 years, its pulley-and-rope system remains the core of chairlift design. To
date, approximately 3,500 chairlifts, including surface lifts like rope tows
and T-bars, currently operate in the US – the majority of which are stamped
with a Doppelmayr, CTEC or Garaventa logo.

 

Doppelmayr, a European chairlift manufacturer and parent
company of CTEC and Garaventa lifts, has staked out roughly 60 percent of the
chairlift business for ski resorts worldwide, as well as a good majority of
lift-served transportation needs for urban areas, mines and amusement parks. The
company’s USA headquarters are based in Utah, near the Salt Lake Airport, where
I’m en route to meet with Mike Beeley, special projects honcho at Doppelmayr.

 

 

Beeley leads me on a tour of the Salt Lake factory. Here, in
early fall, welders are fusing the final pieces together on lift towers and
operator shacks that will, at the time of this publication, be operating at a
few eager ski resorts.

 

Every one of Doppelmayr’s 46 global offices specializes in
different parts. For the Salt Lake factory, many of the big-ticket items are
fabricated on site: drive platforms, tower structures, terminals, chairs and
electrical control systems make up the bulk of Doppelmayr USA’s local
headquarters. Remaining parts, like sheaves, ropes and gear boxes, are imported
from other international locations. But for now, the focus is on completing the
last of this winter’s chairlift orders at this Salt Lake factory before resorts
open for the season.

 

 

From start to finish, it takes a year or more of development
to get the bullwheels running. Even before blueprints are schemed up, the prospective
lift path is surveyed and analyzed for details that dictate precisely how and
where the lift will be constructed. Terrain and topography features, like slope
angle and soil density, give insight into the number of support towers, the
height of each tower and the lift load capacity. This information is handed off
to a team of in-house architects who translate pages of notes into precise
measurements and drawings, allowing the factory to begin construction on a
custom lift.

 

While new lifts are built to exact specifications, it’s not
uncommon for older lifts to take up residence at other resorts. Because parts
and components are constantly maintained by resort mechanics, the lifespan of
any given lift can last far beyond a resort’s original use for it. So rather
than junk the working and salvageable parts, resorts will sell the
infrastructure to another mountain that is then responsible for making any
necessary upgrades.

 

“Everything is replaceable,” explains Beeley. “As long as
you don’t need more capacity, you can continue to rebuild the lift. It’s not
uncommon for fixed-grips to operate for 40 years or high-speed detachable lifts
to run for 20 or more.”

 

But Beeley notes that zealous maintenance is a crucial
responsibility. “As lifts get older, parts get more difficult to find. It’s
good [for resorts] to do maintenance and [for us] to build backup parts,” he
says. Which is why rows of spare components, like engines, gear boxes and an
assortment of moving parts prone to wear-and-tear, are currently sitting in the
Salt Lake warehouse. Such an inventory saves resorts the headache of sourcing
hard-to-find parts and means skiers and snowboarders spend less downtime
waiting for a broken lift to reopen – a disappointing experience for anyone
whose favorite lift is unable to operate on a blower powder day. And for
Doppelmayr lifts in Utah, that downtime is often minimized.

 

 

Ensuring that moving parts are in working order is certainly
important to any lift, but the entire lift becomes a multi-million dollar hunk
of metal without a working control system. The system is nothing more than an
electrical circuit board of wires, switches and buttons, but even the smallest
control panel seems overwhelmingly complex as I inspect one that stands before
me. Roughly 1,000 feet of cable are thoughtfully jammed into this three-foot by
two-foot cabinet – a humble amount of wiring by today’s lift standards – as a
Doppelmayr technician tests each wire for a strong connection. Beeley indicates
that this small panel will be paired with a smaller lift, acting as the nervous
system for a fixed-grip triple-seater at a resort elsewhere in the Southwest.

 

Across the room, a larger cabinet is spewing even more
exposed wires and circuits that are hooked up to machines for testing. Beeley
explains that somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 feet of cable are wired into
this particular control panel, relaying specific information from each
component to a main computer system that monitors details like the speed of the
haul rope and the spacing and location of each chair and monitors the safety
systems installed on each element. “There’s no wire that’s not necessary,” says
Beeley.

 

Much like a luxury car brand, Doppelmayr strives to deliver
more than just reliable construction and powerful torque. Resorts can choose
their share of opulent add-ons meant to increase the passengers’ comfort. The
Orange Bubble Express at Canyons Resort, for instance, is arguably one of
Doppelmayr’s most innovative creations in Utah. As a chair enters the loading
terminal, an electric current heats the seat and directs warmth straight to
your keister for the duration of the ride, while a hard, see-through cover
seals out Mother Nature’s frozen secretions.

 

Other add-ons are geared towards the operations side. This
fall, Doppelmayr has introduced a new wireless control system, allowing lifties
to slow or stop the lift remotely without making a mad dash back to the
hardwired buttons when a passenger doesn’t quite make it on or off the chair.

 

Even low-tech features have evolved to become more
efficient. A new, fork-like comfort bar (commonly referred to as a restraining
or safety bar) debuted at Alta two winters ago. Its intentions are more or less
the same, but the addition of “leg compartments” is designed to help keep
pint-sized rippers from squirming around the seat – an issue that many
(falsely) believe can be prevented by pulling the bar down.

 

 

Once the add-ons have been chosen and architects have mapped
out the details, construction can finally begin. Frigid winds crack through the
clear skies on a sunny October morning at the top of Hidden Peak. From up here,
much like every day since July 15, Doppelmayr’s roving mechanics and Snowbird
Resort’s own maintenance crew are assembling Little Cottonwoods’ newest high-speed
quad, Little Cloud Express.

 

With the support of a twin-rotor helicopter, Little Cloud’s 1980-era
lift was removed and purchased by a private ski club in New York earlier this
summer, while the actual chairs were auctioned off in support of Wasatch
Adaptive Sports. Shortly after teardown, the maintenance team, aided by an
extra crane or two, set to work on the construction, completing this 3,484.7-foot
long structure in roughly four months. When the 600-horsepower bullwheel cranks
up for the first time this season, passengers will have a scant 3.5-minute
reprieve, cutting their old ride time exactly in half.

 

 

At the helm of such powerful machinery is perhaps one of the
most underrated parts of a lift: the lift operator. Between all the day-to-day
operations and loading zone maintenance, the safety of every passenger falls to
the hands of a liftie. “There’s this image that lifties are dirtbags,” says
Jeff Marzka, lift operations manager at Park City Mountain Resort, “but do you
realize how much responsibility lifties have?”

 

Stereotypes don’t apply to Marzka’s staff, which is represented
by a mix of ski bums, college grads, investment bankers, bio-chemists and
architects who return year after year for their seasonal gig bumping chairs. “These
guys feel a sense of ownership with their lift,” says Marzka. “They don’t want
to go anywhere else but their own lift. They know how it runs and they know how
to take care of their guests. It takes a special person to sit in the cold and
deal with hundreds of thousands of people.”

 

 

Back at Doppelmayr’s Salt Lake office, I run into Al Smith,
logistics manager at Doppelmayr and also my former boss during my Park City
Mountain liftie days nearly 10 years ago. As we catch up, I can’t help but let
a question slide: “Hey, did you ever see that movie Frozen?” I jokingly ask, referencing the 2010 horror flick that tells
the almost comical, life-or-death tale of three skiers stranded on a chairlift.

 

“That movie was terrible! I mean, absolutely offensive,” groans
Smith. And he’s not just talking about the acting. The entire premise of the
movie, which was coincidentally filmed at Snowbasin Resort, is full phony
misconceptions about the safety of chairlifts. “It gave everyone this horrible
idea that chairlifts are deadly. It’s so far from the truth. We had people
writing in letters, telling us they’d never ride a chairlift because they’re so
unsafe. It made us look like the bad guys.”

 

In reality, chairlifts are a heavily regulated mode of
transportation, meeting – and often exceeding – strict manufacturer, state and
federal safety guidelines, as well as ski lift-specific standards set in place
by the American National Standards Institute. And according to a 2012 report
from the National Ski Areas Association, passengers are three times more likely
to die riding an elevator than they are riding a chairlift; an oddly reassuring
statistic that few people likely give much thought to.

 

“Per mile, it’s the safest mode of transportation,” says
Beeley. “My family is riding this lift. We’re not in the business of hauling
potatoes.”

And thankfully so. Because, after all, hauling bananas is a
much more fragile process.

 

 

 

Glossary

Bullwheel: A
large wheel at the top and bottom of each chairlift on which the haul rope
turns

Comm Line: A
single cable, often strung between the haul rope, that carries data signals
from each tower to the control cabin

Detachable Grip:
A chairlift whose grips detach from the haul rope upon entering the terminal
and reattach before leaving

Drive Terminal:
The terminal in which the engine and gears are located

Fixed Grip: A
chairlift whose grips are connected to a fixed point on the haul rope

Grip: A clamp
attached to the arm of each chair that connects the chair to the haul rope

Haul Rope: The
cable to which all chairs are attached

Return Terminal:
The terminal at the opposite end of the drive terminal

Sheave: A wheel
with grooves along the edge that holds the haul rope in place

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