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Building a ski lift in a ski resort is the most expensive outlay for a ski resort company. All the equipment must operate year-long and for six months of that must operate in extreme cold, ice, snow, and high winds. In addition, ski lifts often routinely carry more than 250 people at any one time, who expect to get to the top of the mountain. So, the levels of safety, advanced engineering, and thorough maintenance also add to the installation cost. So you can imagine the cost is pretty high for these state-of-the-art machines.
For most ski resorts the planning, construction, and operation of the ski lift system is the most expensive cost in the business. The advanced technology that is employed offers more comfort for passengers, improved safety in hostile environments, and better reliability. However, all these advances come at a cost so ski lifts for larger resorts regularly cost more than $20 million, and currently, the most expensive ski lift in Austria costs $83 million.
The Austrian ski lift manufacturer and installer, Dopplemayr, is one of the leading companies in the field. Their products are used throughout European ski resorts, and they are now also starting to install ski lifts in the US and China. Their products range from conventional chair lifts to gondolas and larger cable cars.
How are Ski Lifts built?
The ski lift site appraisal is usually conducted by helicopter at first to get an overview of the terrain. Then an accurate model is created using computer-aided design (CAD) and the optimum route up the mountainside for the ski lift is planned.
Numerous factors are taken into consideration when planning the best route. These include the speed of ascent, the prevailing weather, the incline, how many pylons will be needed among others.
Some sections of the route may be particularly steep, needing extra pylons to support the chairs. Once accurate modeling has been tested, equipment for the installation is manufactured on-site and this is shipped to the resort ready for installation.
The pylons supporting the cable and chairlifts are flown into position by helicopter in large sections. The ground around the base of the pylon is ready prepared with a concrete base onto which the first steel and aluminum pylon is bolted. Subsequent sections are flown into place and located by engineers, who bolt the two sections together.
Once the pylon is completed the tracking assembly for the ski lift cable is bolted onto the top.
The installers then continue to the next pylon and repeat the process up the mountain. The job of the installers is a dangerous one.
As the helicopter swings the next section of the pylon on top of the previous one, the installers must be at the same level to guide it into place. They must be fully aware of the swinging pylon to avoid being crushed.
Then when the machine housings at the top and the bottom of the lift are constructed, the cable can be threaded around the pulleys on top of each pylon. Finally, the chairs for the ski lift can be attached along the cable.
Technology pushes prices up
In larger resorts in the US and Canada, it’s not unusual for a chairlift to cost more than $20 million. In 2019, a Dopplemayr D-line Direct Drive Ramcharger 8-person chairlift was installed at Big Sky Resort in Montana.
It includes some of the latest features and climbs 5000 feet (1500 m) in five minutes. With its increased capacity it can transport 3200 skiers per hour, 25% more than the previous four-person lift. New features include individual head and footrests and heated seats, while the footrest and restraining bar rise automatically on arrival.
The motors at the top and bottom stations must haul a heavy load. Each chair weighs 2262lbs and with 64 chairs it totals 145,000lbs (65,800kg) and that’s with no passengers!
Each chair has a blue hood, which lowers and raises automatically, providing protection for skiers from snow and wind. Skiers can easily access the chairs from a continually moving carpet, which can be part-raised gives easy access to kids. In the event of a breakdown or a problem, the chairlift operator can make announcements directly to skiers on the lift via speakers located near the headrests.
The software used in the Ramcharger has uprated diagnostic ability and several programmable functions for different loads. At the end of the day, the chairlift has a program, which automatically gathers all the chairs inside the machine house at the top station to keep them dry.
Just a Ski Lift Chair can Cost $75,000
To get an idea of cost, each chair on the Ramcharger costs approximately $75,000, and with 64 chairs in total that makes $4.8, just for the chairs. So, it is easy to see how the figure of $20M+ for the entire chairlift is achieved. The price for some ski lift equipment is staggering, such as the new gondola on the Stubai Glacier above Innsbruck in Austria, which recently cost $83 million
It’s not unusual for a ski lift to have a lifetime of more than 30 years, so long as they are well maintained. Consequently, the capital cost can, fortunately, be financed over many years, otherwise, the installation wouldn’t be viable.
The capital or initial cost of the ski lift is only part of the story. Once up and running there are a whole new set of fixed costs, which are part of the everyday operation for ski resort owners. These include:
- 60% on staff costs
- 20% on maintenance costs
- 10% on electricity costs to operate it
- 10% on the insurance costs
In some ski resorts, the costs associated with ski lifts can amount to 48% of total costs, which goes to demonstrate how important ski lifts are in the overall business model.
Few of these costs can be lowered significantly. Automation has helped to some degree with staff costs, but the importance of safety is still paramount. When the ski lift operation still involves transferring skiers in awkward gear onto a moving chairlift then human interaction is always going to be a necessity.
With the cost of ski lifts, you can see why the cost of ski passes is so high and skiing is on the whole an expensive sport.