Howelsen Hill chairlift at risk of more landslide damage, study suggests
The prognosis is not good for the long-term stability of the chairlift that serves the city of Steamboat Springs’ historic ski hill.
Engineers who sent instruments deep below the surface of Howelsen Hill to better understand recent landslides told city officials this week that one of the central lift towers sits on a part of the hill that is especially unstable.
The report from Yeh and Associates also suggested another lift tower further down the hill might be at risk of moving in the future.
And shielding the towers from future slides won’t be cheap or come with a guarantee.
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To protect a single lift tower, engineers estimate it would cost as much as $500,000, not including the cost of reconstructing the tower itself.
After hearing the initial report from the soil study, some Steamboat Springs City Council members appeared ready to abandon the current alignment of the chairlift and start searching for a more stable route to send skiers up the hill.
Councilman Jason Lacy was among those who is starting to think the city would be better off looking for a new alignment, which might include the replacement of the current lift.
“Really, the main takeaway (from the soils study) is pouring lots and lots of money into the current (chairlift) alignment is not a good decision,” Lacy said. “I think we could pour millions of dollars where the lift currently stands, and we may end up in same spot we’re currently in.”
Landslides have created headaches for the city and the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club in recent years because they have nudged lift tower No. 6 out of alignment on a few occasions.
The movement, which occurs in the spring when the thick layer of topsoil on Howelsen becomes saturated by snowmelt and subsequently slides, has twice delayed the opening of the Alpine slide in recent years.
This spring, movement was detected as far down as 18 feet below the surface of the lift tower.
City parks, open space and trails manager Craig Robinson said the lift could be rendered inoperable as soon as next spring if the landslides continue to follow the pattern they have in recent years.
The lift tower that appears to be most at risk of moving in the future has already moved significantly during two of the last three springs.
What to do about the swaying chairlift tower was just one of several big questions the soil study raised.
Engineers also detected movement near the ski jumps on Howelsen.
Signs of the earth’s movement include cracks in concrete and a bump that has appeared on one of the jumps.
“There is no fast fix on this thing,” councilman Scott Ford said.
Ford and others who attended a briefing on the soil study on Wednesday left surprised at how quickly some parts of the hill were moving.
City officials were also told snowmaking operations on Howelsen likely are not to blame for the landslide woes. Rather, engineers suspect the landslides are part of a regional event, and a bigger contributor is likely the annual snowmelt from Emerald Mountain.
And a ridge on the ski hill might be creating a “bathtub” effect on the face of the hill that has shown some of the greatest landslide activity.
The soil study will be discussed in more detail Tuesday at a City Council work session.
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