Why Are Ski Lifts So High Off the Ground?

by Simon Knott | Posted On: January 26th, 2022
empty-chair-ski-lift-on-bright-winter-day

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When you go skiing whether you use a button lift, a T-bar, a chair lift, or a gondola they will all need steel and aluminum towers to support the cable, which pulls passengers up the mountainside. An average tower is 30 feet high for good reasons.

It is not unusual for more than 30 feet of snow to fall throughout the season, which will change the ground level considerably. Similarly, the continuous cable which runs around any ski lift will gradually become stretched from the weight of repeated passengers. As it stretches the cable will sag slightly, so higher ski lift towers extend the working life of the lift. Additionally, the terrain the ski lift climbs on won’t be consistent. Some stretches will be very steep and others less so. Using higher towers helps to even out these inconsistencies.

The first simple chairlifts appeared in Europe around 1908. Then in the 1930s, Averell Harriman, boss of the railroad company, Union Pacific, decided to build the first chairlift in the Sun Valley resort in Ketchum, Idaho.

He thought developing a high-end, resort-style, ski area would boost passengers for Union Pacific trains. There have been updates and innovations over the years but the essential model for ski lifts remains the same.

A continuous loop of steel cable runs around the ski lift housing at the top and bottom of the mountain. The chairlifts and gondolas are secured directly onto the steel cable. Heavy-duty electric motors at the top and bottom provide the power to keep the cable rotating.

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How Do Ski Lifts Change Speed When You’re Getting Off and On?

In more modern lifts a clever clutch system temporarily lifts the chair or gondola away from the main rotating cable. This slows down the chairlift or gondola enabling passengers to get on and off. On leaving the bottom section of the chairlift the chairs and gondolas are reconnected once more to the main cable and accelerate away at full speed. This best of both worlds system allows passengers to safely get on and off the lift but still enjoy a fast ascent.

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Ski lift equipment is incredibly expensive. It must work in some of the coldest and harshest conditions, where the safety of passengers is paramount also. Consequently, no expense is spared to ensure the equipment performs safely and reliably.

Engineers Survey The Mountainside

The towers that support the cable and chairlifts are made from steel and aluminum and often flown into position by helicopter. They are then bolted onto a preprepared concrete base, which has been dug into the mountain. It is not unusual for a simple, high-speed quad chairlift to cost over $5 million, while in Colorado chair lifts often cost $20 million upwards. On the Stubai Glacier, above Innsbruck, Austria their new gondola has been recently installed for £61million.

Building ski lifts takes specialized engineering skills. The engineers need to survey possible routes for the new lift and using CAD and 3-D modeling they look for the best compromise up the mountainside. Some sections may be extremely steep, which will need towers more frequently to provide adequate support.

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With such a high capital cost the durability of the ski lift is vital. In some parts of Canada and the US as much as 50 feet of snow can fall in a season. Clearly, if shorter towers were used to suspend the ski lifts, they would quickly become inoperable. With higher towers, there is a lot more tolerance for weather conditions.

Another safety consideration is that passengers on ski lifts or in gondolas might be tempted to jump off the lift mid-journey if the cable had sagged sufficiently or snowfall had raised the ground level sufficiently.

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