Helicopter lifts towers onto Howelsen Hill as new chairlift starts to take shape (with video) | SteamboatToday.com

Helicopter lifts towers onto Howelsen Hill as new chairlift starts to take shape (with video)

A helicopter places a lift tower for the Howelsen Hill Ski Area's new triple chairlift on Friday morning. Once in place, contractors working for Skytrac secured the tower before the helicopter left to retrieve the top assembly.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Choppy whirring of a UH-60A+ Black Hawk heavy lift helicopter could be heard early Friday morning throughout Steamboat Springs, a noise symbolically ushering in a new era for Howelsen Hill Ski Area.

Skytrac Inc., based in Salt Lake City, Utah, used the heavy-duty chopper to transport four towers along Howelsen Hill as the installation of a new state-of-the-art chairlift progresses. Once complete, the new three-chair, fixed-grip lift will be able to more quickly run larger quantities of skiers and riders up the historic hill compared with its predecessor.

“This is going to make a statement for Howelsen for a long time,” Matthew Barnhard, project manager with the city of Steamboat Springs Parks and Recreation, said of the new lift.

Barnhard was on scene Friday morning at Howelsen to oversee the lifting of the towers, which he called a fast and smooth, yet expensive, process.

The approximately $3 million lift was partially made possible by a grant from the VF Foundation, the philanthropic arm of VF Corp. that now owns former Steamboat Springs-based company Smartwool. The Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, along with the city of Steamboat, also contributed to covering the new lift’s price tag.

“What we’re getting now with all the technology, all the safety features and all the efficiencies of it — we’re light-years ahead of where we had been,” Barnhard said.

The new lift’s drive system is top of the line, Barnhard said. Its variable frequency motor allows for operators to run the lift at almost any speed, from a crawl to a maximum 400 feet per minute. “Getting the best really feels good,” he said.

Contractors working for Skytrac climb one of the new lift towers at Howelsen Hill on Friday as they prepare to install the top assembly.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The former lift, which only boasted a two-seater, was taken out of service last season. Barnhard said it was a good lift while it lasted, though the goal for the new lift is to have at least 50 years of operation. Shifting of Howelsen Hill actually led to landslides that damaged the lift over the years.

To help combat stabilization issues, the city undertook a major stabilization project on the hill in the Third Exit area in 2020. This year, the city conducted micropiling, which are high-performance, high-capacity, deep-drilled foundation elements for added structural protection of the lift towers.

“We’ve been working with a geostabliziation engineer for like three years now studying the movement of Howelsen,” Barnhard said. “We actually had some pretty good recommendations on how to properly install and support this new lift alignment.”

A helicopter takes off from the parking lot in front of the Howelsen Hill Lodge on Friday morning to install towers for the new Howelsen chairlift.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

As there’s no absolute answer to avoid land movement on Howelsen — as Barnhard put it, it’s “man versus nature” — the new lift is made to last. “That was really our goal that we set out on this project,” he said.

Riders on the Barrows Lift — the name will remain the same with the new model — will also have a little difference in vantage point as the lift route was slightly shifted to the north. The only point to remain the same, Barnhard said, is the summit’s unloading station. The loading station will be about 130 feet closer to Howelsen Lodge at the base.

“That also allowed us to come up over the ridge and be on some more stable ground,” he said. “We had done so many soil borings on the hill looking for the best material to anchor our foundations into and just pivoting the alignment that much really put us in better material to be more stable.”

One thing that will certainly change, an answer to many people’s complaints, is capacity challenges. The new lift, being faster and having large accommodation, is also expandable. At the start of the season the lift won’t be running at 100% of its 61-chair, or 183 passenger, capacity. But as needs increase, and more people frequent Howelsen, more chairs will be added.

“This is an amazing thing that has been gifted to the community,” said Emily Hines, marketing and special events coordinator for Parks and Recreation. “It means that future generations will have the opportunity to fall in love with skiing and riding at Howelsen Hill for years to come.”

Construction of the new lift is on schedule, according to Barnhard. The lift is planning to start operation in a soft launch the first weekend of December. Meanwhile, construction will continue on the lift ahead of testing and certification by the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board in late October and early November.

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