For over twenty-five years, detachable quad ski lifts have seemingly ruled the slopes. A surprisingly old technology, the detachable platter tow was invented was invented in 1908. However, the first detachable high-speed quad chairlift wasn’t installed in North America until 1981, when Breckenridge opened the Quicksilver SuperChair. In 1985, Vail installed four high-speed quads, and the rest is pretty much history. Or is it?
Despite strong public demand for, and the expectation of, high-speed chair lifts, fixed grip lifts are still being installed at many ski areas. According to Victor Gerdin, Mountain Planner with Aspen Skiing Company, Aspen has installed 6 high-speed lifts and 7 fixed grip lifts, in the past 15 years. Yes, that’s right. The fixed grip lifts are winning.
1. Relative Cost and Value. High speed detachable chairlifts are much more expensive to purchase and maintain. They have many more moving parts, so they wear out sooner. Fixed grips chairlifts are relatively simple and can last 40 to 50 years.
2. Planning Criteria. Different ski areas have different planning criteria, but at Aspen/Snowmass the criteria is a nine minute ride. If a lift is shorter than 4,300 feet, it’s a perfect candidate for a fixed grip chair. And, depending upon the terrain, a longer ride can also be desirable, if it gives skiers and riders a needed rest.
3. Mountain Capacity. While many high-speed lifts are high-capacity, they don’t have to be. According to Victor, Aspen Skiing Company has many low-capacity, high-speed lifts. As he puts it, “We want to deliver people to the top fast, but we don’t want to overload the terrain.” Fixed grip or detachable, planners make a conscious decision about how to disperse skiers.
So next time you’re skiing at your favorite resort and you hear someone complaining about a fixed grip lift, look around. Is it a short lift? What type of terrain does it serve? Is it in a high-capacity area? A slow, fixed grip lift serving a busy base area is probably not such a good thing. But a fixed grip lift serving a super-steep shorter face? It might make sense.
See if you can guess what the planners were thinking. And, don’t discount terrain not served by the high-speed six pack. It is there that you may very well find a hidden gem.
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