Faster Rides, Shorter Waits: New Ski Lifts Changing U.S. Slopes This Winter
Major ski resorts across North America have plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into concrete, steel and padded seats in recent years, with 2022 ushering in a remarkable number of impressive new chairlifts and gondolas. New lifts tend to be safer, faster, have greater capacity, and sometimes include luxuries such as heated seats and wind visors.
The flurry of construction comes as many of the United States’ best-known ski lifts have been operating for 25 years or more, and require overhauls or full replacement. This past winter was also the busiest yet at U.S. ski resorts, with nearly 61 million skier visits despite dismal snow totals in January and February across the West. Without terrain expansion, the only way to curb lines is to increase speed and uphill capacity.
As with most construction in the mountains, many projects curried controversy, including two previously approved replacement lifts at Utah’s Park City Mountain Resort, that were blocked by the local planning commission for fears their added capacity would lure more visitor traffic to Park City. The mountain’s owner, Vail Resorts, responded by shipping the chairs, a six-person lift and an eight-person lift that were sitting in Park City’s parking lot awaiting installation, to British Columbia’s Whistler Blackcomb, where they will open next winter.
Rebuking the city’s move, the ski resort’s chief operating officer, Deirdra Walsh, said in a statement at the time, “Chairlift tourism does not exist.”
That may be true when it comes to straightforward replacement chairs, but many of this winter’s new lifts offer compelling upgrades and improvements to skiers’ experiences.
Here’s a guide to the most notable new lifts opening across the United States this winter. Some may even merit a tourist visit.
Palisades Tahoe, California: Base to Base Gondola
When the parent company of the erstwhile Squaw Valley purchased Alpine Meadows in 2011, it merged two ski resorts known for some of the steepest terrain in the Sierra Nevada, totaling 6,000 acres. The ski areas, now under one name, Palisades Tahoe, have previously only been connected via shuttle bus. The $65-million, eight-passenger Base to Base Gondola, which spans 2.4 miles, will make Palisades the third-largest contiguous ski resort in North America, behind Whistler Blackcomb and Park City. From the Palisades base, the gondola will ascend the resort’s famed KT-22 terrain and let skiers unload there before descending to the Alpine Meadows base area.
More ideas to embrace the cold:
8 New Hotels for Winter Enthusiasts in the U.S. and Europe: New and reimagined hotels in New England, the Alps and beyond offer stylish accommodations near the snow.
The Quiet Thrill of Winter Wildlife Viewing: In Colorado’s Rockies, birds and other animals stand out against the snow, and even if you can’t see them, their tracks let you know they’re around.
At a Club Med Ski Resort, Learning to Love the Apéro: Will the company’s all-inclusive approach work in the North American market? An avid skier puts Québec’s Massif de Charlevoix to the test.
Taking Back the Mountains: Big resorts are crowded, pricey and exclusive. But some skiers and snowboarders are trying to reclaim their sports by building a culture that is more inclusive and sustainable.
Making the Slopes Fun From Day 1: When it comes to designing terrain and the learning experience, resorts have finally started thinking about beginners.
New Ski Lifts Changing U.S. Slopes This Winter: A flurry of construction at major ski resorts has led to a high number of notable new chairlifts and gondolas opening this season.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Wyoming: Thunder
This chairlift will replace a 28-year-old four-person lift that brought skiers from roughly mid-mountain to some of the upper reaches at Jackson Hole. Other than the resort’s storied tram, Thunder is the only lift that gets skiers to the mountain’s Sublette lift and the steep terrain it services, including the narrow Alta Chutes and the uninterrupted descents of the Hobacks. The old Thunder’s chairs were “fixed-grip,” meaning they were rigidly attached to the lift’s cable. Many newer chairs, including the new Thunder, detach from the cable and slow down for loading and unloading, making it easier and safer for skiers to get on and off. Lifts with detachable chairs can be run faster — the new Thunder, which climbs 1,466 vertical feet, will halve the old seven-minute ride time.
Telluride Ski Resort, Colorado: Plunge
Plunge lords over some of the best terrain in North American skiing, with steep and consistent north-facing slopes covering 2,100 vertical feet. The top of Plunge, also known as Chair 9, nears 12,000 feet and gives skiers a bevy of choices: some of the most sustained steep bump runs in North America, groomed runs sheer enough to slow the sharpest of experts and forested terrain that twists between subalpine firs and Engelmann spruce. The old Plunge lift, a fixed-grip triple chair that was a local favorite, had been turning since 1985. The new detachable four-seater will increase uphill capacity by 70 percent to 1,800 skiers per hour and cut a ponderous 13-minute ride almost in half.
Steamboat Ski Resort, Colorado: Wild Blue Gondola
Anybody who has spent a prime weekend or holiday skiing at Steamboat has spent healthy chunks of time in its gondola maze. At Steamboat, the existing gondola forms the main artery up the mountain; avoiding it takes time and multiple chairlifts — and often other lines. The new Wild Blue Gondola, which will augment current lifts, will be the longest in North America, at 3.16 miles when complete, and one of the fastest 10-person lifts in the United States. With Wild Blue in place, Steamboat will be able to move 10,000 people per hour up and out of the base area compared with 6,000 previously. The lower leg of the gondola will open this winter, helping curb lines at Steamboat’s base.
Sunday River, Maine: Jordan 8
Maine’s flagship ski resort has designs on expansion in the future and the start of those plans includes the Jordan 8, which replaces the Jordan Express. While riders in the old chair could be whipped by winds and New England squalls, Jordan 8 will be enclosed by a red-tinted bubble and offer individual heated seats for up to eight passengers. The chairs will weigh more than a ton each, but newer technologies from the Austrian lift manufacturer Doppelmayr will make this among the fastest chairs in North America, moving up to 3,200 people per hour.
Vail Ski Resort, Colorado: Sun Down Express No. 17
Vail’s wide-open backside terrain has been a draw for skiers in Central Colorado for 60 years. Getting into the mountain’s natural bowls has always been easier than getting out, with lines that can stack up at the High Noon Express No. 5 lift, among others. The new Sun Down Express chairlift offers relief to the bottleneck, with skiers now having two ways of getting out of the popular Sun Down Bowl. Those staying in Vail’s Lionshead Village will have a far more direct way to ski home, and can easily alternate runs in Sun Down Bowl and in Game Creek Bowl as the lifts terminate near each other. The Game Creek lift was also upgraded this year, increasing its capacity from four people to six.
Grand Targhee Resort, Wyoming: Colter
As Jackson Hole’s slopes have grown more crowded and its population has become, by some measures, the richest in the United States, there has been a marked spillover of home buyers across Teton Pass into Idaho. Those on the Idaho side, near the towns of Driggs and Victor, can choose to ski Jackson and brave the pass — whose steep grades are often frosted by snow — or they can head to the increasingly popular Grand Targhee. The resort, still sleepy compared with Jackson Hole, has ambitious plans of expansion. The first step is the new six-passenger Colter lift, which heads up Peaked Mountain. This will be the first lift-serviced terrain opened at Targhee in 20 years. The 600 new acres give Targhee 30 percent more area and offer steeper pitches compared with most of the resort. Colter will give skiers access to terrain only reachable previously via Targhee’s now-retired snow cats, whose treads let them carry people over the snow.
Waterville Valley Resort, New Hampshire: Tecumseh Express
The new six-person, high-speed chairlift replaces what was the first high-speed lift in New Hampshire. This will be the first detachable lift built in the United States by France’s MND Ropeways and will feature ergonomic seats from Porsche Design Studio, as well as a bubble that can be lowered over the chair to protect riders from New Hampshire’s winter winds.
Whitefish Mountain Resort, Montana: Snow Ghost Express
As Whitefish, once branded as Big Mountain, became more popular, it coped by building out its base area and lodging — the next phase is upgrading its lifts. To reach the resort’s summit and its more interesting terrain, skiers at the newer Base Lodge area have needed to board at least two chairs. The six-person Snow Ghost chair fixes that, as it will deliver up to 2,200 skiers an hour straight from Base Lodge to near the summit within seven minutes. Snow Ghost replaces Chair 4, which terminated farther down the mountain and was installed in 1978, before the construction of Base Lodge as a focal point of the resort.
Snowbird Ski Resort, Utah: Aerial Tram
Snowbird installed its Aerial Tram, the iconic people mover, before its first winter season in 1971. All of the original machinery that propelled Snowbird’s tram cars to and from the 11,000-foot Hidden Peak has been replaced for this winter. The most noticeable change for skiers will be the new tram’s floor-to-ceiling windows that will provide clear views of Little Cottonwood Canyon’s snowbound terrain. An even bigger lift project may be in the offing for Little Cottonwood Canyon soon. The Utah Department of Transportation recommended in August that a $550 million gondola running eight miles — the longest lift of its kind in the United States — be built as a solution to the traffic that plagues the canyon, whose road features several stretches directly in avalanche paths. In September 2021, Snowbird quietly purchased land at the mouth of the canyon where a base for the gondola might be installed.
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