How Do Ski Lifts Slow Down at Both Ends? The Secret of Detachable Lifts

by William Stupp | Updated: October 27th, 2022 |  Skiing Articles

The development of chairlift technology has been critical to the explosive growth of the skiing industry. One example of a highly significant improvement in lift technology is that chairlifts now slow down when skiers get on and off. But how does this work, and why do you never notice the lift slowing and accelerating when you’re in the middle of a lift?

Most chairlifts today are detachable, meaning chairs can detach from the main cable, seamlessly switching to a secondary track that moves at a slower pace. Chairs leave the main cable upon entering a lifthouse and return to it as they exit the building.

ski lift slow down

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How Exactly Does a Detachable Chairlift Work?

Photo by Chiara Coetzee licensed under CC0 1.0

As you have no doubt noticed, chairs and gondolas travel up the mountain on a thick steel cable held up by large poles. A grip attaches each chair to the cable, and the cable moves up and down the mountain powered by a large bullwheel located at the bottom of every lift.

These mechanisms cause the chairlift to move at a uniform speed. There is, after all, a single cable powered by one source which moves dozens (or hundreds) of chairlifts. So how is it that chairs slow down as you get on when they move at a constant, linear speed while ascending the mountain?

The Detaching Process

By detaching from the main cable line and entering onto a secondary track, chairs are able to move at slower speeds independent of the movement of all other chairs outside the lifthouses. 

On detachable chairlifts, the grips which connect individual chairs to the cable can be opened. This detachment occurs when a chair enters a lifthouse. With the help of rubber and metal rollers, the grip opens and the chair is pushed off the main cable and onto a secondary track.

On this second track, systems exist to ensure chairlifts are spaced out evenly. This is important for safety reasons. The chair moves along these slow speeds until it exits the lifthouse after skiers have gotten on or off. At that point, rollers open the grip once again and push the chair back onto the main cable.

What Are the Advantages of Detachable Lifts?

In the first few decades after the invention of the chairlift, chairs moved at a uniform speed for the entire ride from bottom to top. In terms of engineering, such a chairlift is easier to design and less complicated to maintain. 

skier chair lifts

But there were disadvantages inherent in this kind of construction. Lifts generally ran slower because, while motors capable of higher speeds could be created, speeds were kept low to avoid injuries caused by skiers failing to properly load and unload. Even with low overall speeds, accidents were still more common than today as lifts did not slow down whatsoever as skiers got on and off.

After all, it's easier to fall off a chairlift when it's moving faster, as you try to get on or off. With the advent of detachable lift technology, lifts are able to run faster overall while still slowing down so skiers can load.

This allows for higher speeds (which means less time on the lift and more on the snow), and an easier and safer loading and unloading process.

Detachable Lift Technology Lets Lifts Slow Down Without Going Slow

skier chairlift

Chairlifts and gondolas slow down when entering lifthouses thanks to detachable chair technology. They are taken off of the main cable line and transferred onto a different, slower moving track while in the top and bottom lifthouses, allowing skiers to load and unload at safer speeds.

It’s easy for skiers to ride a chairlift without paying much attention to the technical details or wondering how these wonderful contraptions work.

But, when you think about it, it really is remarkable that engineers have come up with a way to slow lifts down for the loading and unloading process without causing delays in the upward journey.

This means more actually skiing so here’s to the people behind this wonderful technology!