The world’s first chairlifts were installed in 1936 and 1937 at Sun Valley Resort in Idaho.
Invented at the request of W. Averill Harriman, a Union Pacific Railroad magnate and the owner of Sun Valley, the lifts used the same overhead ropeway design as tropical banana conveyors. Inventor James Curran simply replaced the banana hooks with chairs and the bananas with people.
Prior to the invention of the chairlift, skiers had few choices for getting to the top of a ski run. They could hike. They could grab hold of a surface lift, like a rope tow or J-bar, or they could sit in a sled or “boat” attached to a cable and be towed uphill.
Chairlifts offered a faster, more comfortable way to get to the top of the mountain and soon became standard throughout the world.
Today, this simple aerial design has morphed into multiple types of lifts.
Hang around any ski resort and you’ll hear talk of “six packs,” “triples” and “high speed quads.”
At larger resorts you may encounter “trams” or “gondolas” and while these are not technically chairlifts, they use the same aerial design, replacing the chairs with closed cabins and boxes that can hold more people.
If you’re new to snowsports, understanding some terms can be helpful.
Fixed-Grip Chairlift: The first chairlifts were fixed grip. On fixed grip lifts, the chairs are attached to a cable and travel at a constant speed. Fixed-grip chairlifts are slower than detachable or high speed lifts. They are often used on shorter slopes and to limit the amount of ski and snowboard traffic in certain areas of a resort.
Detachable Chairlift ((aka High Speed Chairlift): Detachable chairlifts are the industry gold standard. Capable of moving large numbers of skiers and riders uphill quickly and efficiently, these chairlifts slow down dramatically at the bottom and top of the lift. This makes getting on and getting off easier. Individual chairs automatically detach from the cable to slow down. Once guests are seated, the chairs reattach and accelerate rapidly.
Double, Triple, Quad, Six Pack: These terms indicate how many people ride each chair. While single person chairs were the norm in the 1930s and ‘40s, only Mad River Glen in Vermont has an operating single person chair. It’s a nice nod to their history and a “must-ride” if you’re skiing there.
Bubble Chairlifts: Also called “domed” lifts, some resorts in North America have chairlifts with a plastic shield or “bubble” that can be pulled down to protect riders from the weather.
At a few resorts (Park City, Big Sky, Sunshine Village and Okemo come to mind), bubble chairs are combined with heated seats that warm while in the bottom lift station. These chairlifts offer extra warmth on cold days.
Gondola: Gondolas are enclosed boxes with benches. Riders remove their skis and snowboards and either carry them into the gondola cabin or place them in racks on the outside of the box. Gondolas are detachable. Most gondolas hold six people, although larger 8-10 person cabins (some with heated seats!) are becoming more popular.
Trams: Trams are very large boxes capable of holding dozens of skiers and riders. Trams start and stop completely to allow everyone to get on and off. Like gondolas, riders remove their skis and snowboards. They carry them into the tram.
What’s New In Chairlifts
There are several companies that manufacture and install chairlifts, gondolas and trams in North America, the two largest in being Doppelmayr and Leitner-Poma.
While one could argue that the basic design of a chairlift has not changed much since the 1930s, enhancements in convenience and comfort continue to improve the passenger experience.
Detachable chair lifts are probably the best example, as they significantly decrease the amount of time skiers and riders spend in transit.
Other add-ons like footrests increase comfort, while Kid Stops (a safety device attached to the restraining bar that comes down between passengers’ legs) enhance safety.
As for what’s new in chairlifts and chairlift technology, look for eight-passenger chairlifts and direct drive motors that eliminate the need for a gear box, thus saving on energy and maintenance expenses.
Look for These Lifts, Too
In addition to chairlifts, most ski areas and resorts have surface lifts as well.
Magic Carpets: A rubber conveyor belt, Magic Carpets are usually found on beginner slopes. Skiers and snowboarders ride the Magic Carpet standing up, with their skis and snowboards attached to their boots. The belt moves very slowly and “lifties,” or lift operators, help everyone get on and off.
Surface Lifts: Surface lifts predate chairlifts and are sometimes called “tows” (as in rope tows). A circular cable loop tows skiers and snowboarders to the top of a slope. A common surface lift is the Poma lift, which uses a disc placed between a rider’s legs to pull him or her up the mountain. Other surface lifts include T Bars and J Bars. Surface lifts are now frequently found on advanced terrain.
Basic Chairlift Safety
Chairlifts are continuously maintained and upgraded at resorts. While guest comfort is important, guest safety is paramount.
Chairlifts must meet national safety standards and are subject to random, unannounced state inspections. Day-to-day safety is important and resort employees continuously inspect and maintain chairlifts on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis.
Sometimes lifts stop with people on them. This is usually because a guest has fallen at the top or bottom and lift operators are helping this person get out of the way safely.
Other times, lifts slow or stop to allow young children, adaptive skiers and riders, and others needing a bit more time to get on and off the lift safely. Usually, a lift stopping is not a big deal and it will start up again within a few minutes.
During periods of heavy snow or high winds, resorts may opt to close a lift for safety considerations.
What You Can Do
In addition to the measures resorts and ski areas take to keep everyone safe, skiers and riders can also take steps to stay safe.
First, if you don’t know how to get on or off any type of lift, stand outside of the lift line and watch others use the lift or tow. Always ask the lift operators if you have questions about using the lift. They are there to help you.
Second, once you’re on the chairlift and everyone (up to five other people if you’re on a six pack) is comfortably seated and relaxed, ask if you can bring down the comfort bar or footrest.
One of the biggest mistakes skiers and riders make is bringing down the bar before everyone else is ready. This can result in people getting hit on the head or ski poles getting stuck. Always take a few moments to check in with your fellow riders before reaching for the bar.
Third, teach children that chairlifts are not a place to play, wiggle, swing their legs vigorously or drop their poles. Model excellent chairlift behavior yourself and help keep everyone safe.
Fourth, if your young children are in ski or ride school, talk to the ski school staff and instructors about how they get small kids on and off the lifts. Make sure they have a policy for doing this.
You can also purchase a helmet sticker from Parents for Safe Skiing to remind lift operators to help your child.
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