How Ski Lifts Slow Down (With One Simple Trick)

by Simon Knott | Published: December 22nd, 2022 |  Skiing Articles

We are all used to speeding into the ski lift station only for everything to nearly grind to a halt. What’s happening? How does the ski lift slow down?

Ski lifts slow down using a device that physically separates the chairlift from the main cable onto a slower moving cable as it passes through the station. This slows it down, so passengers can get on and off safely, before re-joining the main cable.

Skiers on the ski lift

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How Does a Simple Ski Lift Work?

The history of fixed-grip ski lifts goes all the way back to 1908 in Hohenwald, Germany, although Sun Valley ski resort in Idaho is also a contender for the first in 1936.

A ski lift is divided between two stations, one at the bottom of the hill and one at the top. A thick steel cable (haul rope) is suspended between one side of a set of static pylons and runs up to the top station.

The cable runs around a large wheel and down to the lower station on the opposite side of the pylons. At the base, the cable is looped around another large wheel to complete the circuit.

Ski Lift Chairs Are Permanently Attached To The Cable

Ski lift chairs are permanently spaced along the cable, attached with a grip mechanism that secures the chair to the cable. When the electric motor at the base station is started the cable rotates dragging along the chairs attached to it.

As the chairs are attached to the cable the maximum speed of the chairlift is dictated by how quickly passengers can get on and get off the lift.

What Were The Problems with Transporting Skiers?


When transporting skiers around the resort some areas are much busier than others. For example, the lifts leaving the central area of any ski resort are bound to have more passengers, as it is the only route up into the mountains.

So, ski resort engineers were faced with the problem of how to transport more skiers, more quickly up the mountain. At first, ski lifts carried just two passengers, so, as a solution, the chair width was extended over time to carry 4, 6, and then even 8 passengers side-by-side by widening the embarkation and disembarkation areas.

In addition, the speed of the cable circulating around the lift was increased however, the natural limit of this speed increase was soon realized when the lift was going so fast that skiers can get on and off safely.

How Could More Skiers Be Transported?

This stumbling block existed for quite a few years with no one able to crack a safe method for transporting more skiers up the mountain.

Eventually, the engineers at Austrian ski lift manufacturer, Doppelmayr, came up with the detachable ski lift, which was first deployed in 1981 at Breckenridge, Colorado, and which went on to become a game changer adopted around the world.

There were several prior attempts at prototype detachable ski lifts, but the Doppelmayr model was the first successful one.

What Is A Detachable Ski Lift?

Good to Know: On a detachable ski lift, the main transport cable connecting the lower and upper stations always travels at the same speed. The ingenious part of the design happens inside the two stations, where the chairlifts are separated from the main cable by a lever that deactivates the grip, like a clutch.

This leaves the chair free to continue around an outer, slower circuit, where passengers have plenty of time to get onto the chair safely. Once loaded the chair continues around the same circuit before joining up with the main cable, where the clutch is activated again as the chair is reattached to the cable and leaves the station.

At the top station, an identical process but in reverse takes place, where passengers have time to disembark and leave.

The Current State of Play on Ski Lifts and Gondolas

Skiers on Ski Lift

What for many years seemed like an impossible problem was suddenly solved with ingenuity and a bit of clever engineering. Using the detachable grip both ski resort owners and skiers are content.

Ski resort owners have to bear the higher capital costs of more expensive detachable ski lifts, but those costs are eased with the knowledge that many more skiers are going to be spending money on the mountain. Skiers and snowboarders are happy with detachable lifts with easy access to the mountain and a quick ascent.

Key Takeaway: To put the differences in speed in perspective a detachable ski lift averages 1000 feet per min (11.3 mph), while a standard fixed-grip ski lift averages 500 feet per min (5.6 mph). During the loading and unloading section in the stations when the chairlifts are detached from the main cable the speed is 200 feet per min (2 mph).

There are two more useful advantages to the detachable chair system. During bad weather, it is straightforward to house the chairs within the stations at the top and bottom to protect them.

Additionally, during extreme weather, the main cable is kept turning, as this stops snow and ice from accumulating, which would ordinarily have to be removed by hand.

Let's Recap

History of ski liftsSki lifts have been in use since 1908 in Germany, and since 1936 at Sun Valley in Idaho. Originally, ski lifts had a fixed grip, meaning the chairs were permanently attached to the cable.
Transporting skiers
Ski lift engineers faced the challenge of how to transport more skiers quickly up the mountain. They initially increased the width of the chairs to accommodate more passengers, and increased the speed of the cable. However, there was a natural limit to this speed increase, as the lift needed to be slow enough for passengers to get on and off safely.
Detachable ski lift

In 1981, the detachable ski lift was introduced by Doppelmayr in Breckenridge, Colorado. On a detachable lift, the main transport cable between the lower and upper stations travels at a constant speed. Inside the stations, the chairlifts are separated from the main cable by a lever, allowing them to travel at a slower speed and give passengers time to get on and off safely. The chairs then reattach to the main cable and continue on their journey.