The pandemic has passed. Workers are lined up. The snow has piled up early. The vacationers are primed. The path is set for resorts to enjoy a bountiful holiday ski season and set the pace for yet another banner year for the resort industry.
But just like the inherent risks in the sport of skiing, there’s always something unexpected for the resort industry. This year, it’s chairlifts.
A global supply chain breakdown has left resorts waiting for parts and supplies for new lifts. Chairlift makers are racing to keep up with the busiest year ever for new lift installations and replacements. And early snow has challenged crews working alongside skiers to finish projects.
Only about 35 of the 60 new and replaced lifts planned for the 2022-23 ski season in North America are ready for skiers.
“The lift situation is definitely unique this year,” said Peter Landsman, the Wyoming chairlift savant who has visited every aerial tramway in the U.S. and tracks new lift construction at Liftblog.com.
Vail Resorts split its 18 new lifts for the season – part of its sweeping $300 million investment for 2022-23 – evenly between Leitner Poma North America and Austria’s Doppelmayr Group. Both lift companies are exceptionally busy this month as crews race to finish projects before the holidays.
At Vail Resorts’ Whistler, Doppelmayr has delayed the installation of a new six-pack chairlift and 10-passenger gondola. Only one of five new chairlifts in Utah planned for this winter is open.
Loveland has opened its new Lift 6, a Leitner Poma fixed-grip triple. Breckenridge opened its new Rip’s Ride on Peak 7 last month, debuting a high-speed detachable quad built by Leitner Poma.
Arapahoe Basin on Friday opened its new Lenawee Express, a detachable six-pack built by Leitner Poma that replaced a fixed-grip triple that is heading to a second life at Sunlight ski area. The mid-December opening of the Lenawee Express is about a month later than initially planned.
Steamboat’s new 10-passenger gondola from the base area and high-speed four-pack, each built and installed by Doppelmayr, have not opened yet.
Vail’s new high-speed six-pack Game Creek Express – which replaced a four-seat detachable – is load testing this week with plans to open soon. Vail’s new Sun Down Express four-pack is still under construction with helicopter work set for the coming weeks. Both of those are built by Leitner Poma North America.
Telluride’s Chair 9 replacement with a new four-pack detachable by Doppelmayr is delayed by a month and might not open until January, leaving an entire section of the front side of the mountain unreachable. The prolonged delay of Telluride’s Plunge chair has locals worried the resort will not be ready for holiday crowds.
The slow roll for new chairs is largely connected to supply chain challenges stemming from the global pandemic-related shutdown of manufacturing in March 2020. Haul ropes that are vital components for all chairlifts come from Austria and most shipments have been delayed by many months, forcing some resorts to move the incredibly heavy coils of cable up snowy mountains for installation.
Some haul ropes didn’t arrive until the middle of November, said Daren Cole, the head of Leitner Poma North America in Grand Junction, one of the world’s largest lift manufacturers.
Leitner Poma and its sister company Skytrac, in Utah, developed, built and installed about 26 chairlifts this year, a record for the company. They only recently got shipments of diesel backup engines for the new Sun Down Express chairlift at Vail and crews had to haul the massive machines over snow to the top of the mountain. Helicopters – typically used in the warm weather months – will fly the spliced Sun Down Express haul rope onto towers soon.
“A lot of the delays we are facing are due to third parties, but at the end of the day, I own that and I’m apologizing,” said Cole, who had to lay off workers when resorts suspended lift installations in 2020 and then rebuilt his manufacturing and installation teams last year during a labor crisis in Western Colorado.
North American ski resorts ordered 30 new chairlifts for the 2019-20 ski season, almost all of them built and installed by Doppelmayr and Leitner Poma North America. The next season North American resorts ordered 45 new chairlifts. This year lift manufacturers built more than 60 new chairlifts for ski areas in the U.S. and Canada.
“The demand has doubled in three years and they probably wish they had not taken quite so many orders but a lot of things happened that they never could have predicted,” Landsman said.
It’s not unusual for some resorts to push lift installation projects into December. But it is unusual to have 40% of lift projects still unfinished less than two weeks before the Christmas rush.
Many resorts saw the delays coming and began staging equipment on mountaintops in October and November. Then came early and consistent snow, which forced workers to park their trucks at the base and travel up mountains on snowmobiles and spend precious hours clearing snow from job sites.
Landsman, like other journalists who follow the resort industry, has been fielding emails from locals wondering if resort management is failing as lift projects drag on.
“There is nothing sinister going on,” he said. “There is a global supply chain problem and a labor shortage and lots of new snow. The good news is that in a month or two all these lifts will be finished and they will be turning for another 40 years.”
The Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board has not seen an increase in inspections this year. Most every new chair in Colorado is replacing an old chair – except for Vail’s Sun Down Express – so the total number of chairlifts requiring inspection is not shifting dramatically.
But the board’s inspection engineers could be working deeper into the winter for preseason inspections of new chairlifts that are still not completed. The board conducts at least two inspections a year of every chairlift in the state and sometimes as many as four, including a fall inspection of mechanical and electrical systems.
Board inspectors are unable to review chairlifts until they are fully installed and modifications are completed.
Resorts are already lining up new lift projects for next year. It’s likely that demand will continue to be high and manufacturers are expecting a similar number of new lift orders for 2023-24. (Landsman’s database shows as many as 48 new chairs on the books for 2023-24 and eight chairs set for 2024-25.)
Cole is ready. He’s already ordering haul ropes, which he said are delayed as much as 40 to 50 weeks. He’s ordered all his raw steel for towers and parts. He’d hired a director of manufacturing from General Dynamics and overhauled his manufacturing, procurement, engineering and installation teams.
He’s also working with resorts to get their orders lined up as early as possible and get permits from land managers approved early. Gone are the days when a resort inked a contract for a new chair in June and Cole had it up and running by Thanksgiving.
“The dynamics of how we sell lifts, how resorts order lifts and how we design them and install them, it’s all really changed,” Cole said.
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