How long will Howelsen’s Poma lift keep running?
Keeping the half-century old lift running long in to the future is a priority
Every Ski Free Sunday at Howelsen Hill, the Schnackenberg Poma Lift can be a puzzling predicament for unfamiliar skiers and snowboarders trying to make their way up the pitch.
Do you sit down? How do you traverse the uneven areas near the various exits? What do you do with your ski poles? Is it better to stay buckled in on a snowboard?
These questions flash in many newcomers’ minds — young and old — as they get jolted toward the top of the hill by the half-century-old lift Frankensteined together from equipment other ski resorts no longer use and installed at Howelsen in the early 1970s.
Keeping it running for years might be just as puzzling.
Work to retrofit the Poma’s gearbox and drive system was completed in 2019, and some parts can still be found off the shelf, said Howelsen Hill and Rodeo Manager Brad Setter. The towers that carry the lift were also overbuilt from the start with much thicker metal than more modern towers, Setter said.
If one of the bull wheels were to fail, it could stall the lift for an extended period until a replacement part can be found. Setter said finding an old part elsewhere or fabricating a spare has been explored in recent years.
“We don’t have answers on that yet, but it’d be great to have those as spare parts,” Setter said.
Keeping the Poma lift running is important to Howelsen’s most frequent users from the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club and Steamboat youngsters in general.
“The excitement of a kid’s first ride to the top on the Poma when they make it, that’s a real thing,” said Sarah Floyd, the SSWSC executive director. “It’s a goal for kids in the community to make it to the top of the Poma when they are 5 or 6 years old. It’s a huge accomplishment.”
The Poma is key for Howelsen’s Jump Complex, allowing ski jumpers to get off at various points on the hill — something that can’t happen with a chair lift.
Floyd said there are other key advantages to having the Poma lift, as it helps young skiers and riders develop their balance, gives them a sense of independence on the slopes and allows competitors to zone in on their craft.
“When you’re going up the Poma alone, you focus in on what you’re working on, what you did on your last run or your last jump so you can work toward improvement,” Floyd said. “When you get on a chairlift with your friends, no matter how focused you might be, you get distracted.”
The Poma isn’t as old as Howelsen Hill, the longest continually operating ski area in North America, which started in 1914 shortly after Norwegian ski jumper Carl Howelsen arrived in the Yampa Valley.
Early lifts included a boat tow, sleds pulled by an electric winch and even a T-bar-style lift that, for a time, went all the way up Emerald Mountain. As for the Poma, stories vary on when the lift was first installed, but Setter said it was in 1972.
“It came from parts of a couple different lifts is my understanding,” Setter said. “ I was told that parts of it were originally installed at Steamboat ski area and went from the Four Points area to the top of the mountain.”
Keeping the Poma going is a priority for a couple reasons. Replacing it with a chairlift would mean the end of the multiple exits that are key for ski jumping. Putting in a new Poma could be complicated as well, as the current one is grandfathered in with state regulations, allowing the various exits to be unmanned. A new one would require more staff, significantly increasing operating costs.
Setter said a new lift isn’t something that’s being contemplated.
“We don’t really need a new lift. We just need some spare parts,” Setter said. “All the drive and motor, those are only a couple years old.”
In addition to searching for spare bull wheels, city officials have work planned for this summer to improve the area where riders exit the Poma at the top of the hill, a continuation of work to stabilize the slope done in recent years.
Near the top of the Poma lift, there is a wooden retaining wall that is failing with age, and Matt Barnard, the city’s Parks and Recreation project manager, said it would be replaced after the snow melts. Similar to other stabilization work at Howelsen Hill, micropiles will be drilled into the hill and capped with concrete to help keep things in place.
The concrete will be above grade to help retain the right amount of snow in the Poma unloading area, and it will also include a railing to prevent skiers from falling down onto the slope below.
“The hill just kind of moves with time, so it’s time to replace that with a more secure, long-term solution,” Barnard said. “It will be a really nice improvement because it’s going to be maintenance free. Wood is never maintenance free.”
Barnard said the cost for this work will likely range between $150,000 and $225,000, though final details are still being ironed out. Barnard said other hill stabilization work has held up well, even when the hill is exposed to the additional moisture from snowmaking. As things move, more of this work may be needed.
“The Poma is such a huge asset to Howelsen Hill that we just don’t want to rock the boat up there at all,” Barnard said. “Getting this in place before the wood really fails, this is the right year to do it for sure.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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