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Happy Trails?

Fall Line

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Roger McCarthy, the senior executive at Colorado’s Breckenridge Ski Resort, does not hesitate when asked how high-speed lifts have transformed skiing. “Long liftlines,” he says, “are a thing of the past.”

Larger and faster lifts, such as high-speed detachable quads, “six-packs” and gondolas, have all but eliminated the routine 30-minute liftlines remembered by many Baby Boomers who learned to ski during the 1960s and 1970s. In those days, skiers spent more time shuffling through mazes and swinging their legs on poky double chairs than they did carving turns.

Thanks to a boom in “uphill-transportation capacity” started in the early 1990s, liftlines have shrunk and uphill ride times are half what they used to be. Call it nothing less than a revolution in how America skis. Skiers once dreaded queuing up behind 75 people, but a high-speed quad operating at full tilt can now erase a line of 700 in 15 minutes. “Everybody’s gotten spoiled by the high-speed lifts,” says Mike Shirley, president of Bogus Basin in Idaho.

Technology’s impact on skiing is stunning. In less than a decade, U.S. resorts have increased their uphill capacity by 50 percent. In the 1993-94 season, the average ski area could transport 6,300 skiers uphill per hour; seven years later, that figure had jumped to 9,500. If every ski area in the country operated every lift at full capacity for one hour, they could move 2.4 million people. Whereas skiers in the era of double chairs spent two-thirds of their time waiting in line or riding a lift, they now spend close to that actually skiing. In short, more skiers can be delivered to the top of the mountain in a shorter period of time. Spoiled indeed.

“Folks can go out for three hours and get in as much skiing as they used to in eight,” says Tom Clink, assistant sales manager at Poma of America, a leading lift manufacturer.

The ability to pack more skiing time into fewer hours has transformed the sport. Waking before dawn to catch the first chair is no longer a priority. Skiers linger in the lodge over lunch and leave at midafternoon to beat traffic. “People wear themselves out sooner,” Shirley says.

But as with every technological leap, there’s a price: crowded slopes. While lift capacity has soared in the past 20 years, the number of U.S. resorts has decreased by about one-third and skier visits have remained steady. So you have the same number of skiers moving uphill faster at fewer resorts. The result? In industry jargon, “skier densities” have climbed, even with terrain expansions. While resorts don’t release statistics, anecdotal evidence abounds that skiers have less space on the slopes than they did a generation ago.

Resorts have devised ways to ease congestion. Some limit ticket sales, while others continually adjust lift speeds to maintain the balance between short lines (increase speed) and crowded slopes (decrease speed). Alta, Utah, does both. “For us, it comes down to one question: ‘Are you selling skiing or lift rides?'” says General Manager Onno Wieringa.

Deer Valley, Utah, allows a maximum of 6,500 skiers. President Bob Wheaton says his drive to keep waits to five minutes extends to the ski shop, ticket window and restaurants. Other resorts dislike cutoffs. “If a guy drives from Dallas with his kids and family in the SUV, you can’t tell him he can’t come in,” says McCarthy of Breckenridge, which may institute blackout dates for discount pass holders.

But how much space do skiers need? Resort planners believe six intermediate skiers per acre provides a good “comfort zone.” Beginners, with a smaller turning radius and range, feel comfortable in less space, allowing more skiers per acre. Experts traveling at high speeds need room to rip and require the lowest densities per acre. Then there are increasing numbers of snowboarders, with their wide turns and across-the-hill lines. And shaped skis have made skiers better sooner, opening expert terrain to more skiers.

Whiile modern lifts allow people to reach the summit faster, some worry they have also introduced a feeling of soulless mechanization. It is not uncommon to hear skiers and boarders “moo” while loading onto packed trams or in six-pack lines. Gone is the conversation and companionship that the slow double-chair provided.

Nobody is mourning the death of liftlines, but neither do skiers want to sacrifice what has drawn people to the sport all along: an intimacy with the mountains.

David Rowan, founding publisher of Ski Area Management magazine, believes balancing lifts with skier density is the industry’s central challenge. “Every time you increase uphill capacity, you have a huge impact on downhill crowding,” he says. “But the legacy of high-speed lifts is that they have made the sport more pleasant. Skiers like them.”

Uphill-and Make It Snappy
U.S. lift capacity, as measured in vertical transportation feet per hour per ski area, has soared, changing the way America skis.