New lift promises to be faster, more reliable |

New lift promises to be faster, more reliable

A Blackhawk helicopter piloted by Brian Jorgenson heads for its next pickup while installing parts of the new Elkhead Express ski lift at the Steamboat Ski Area.
John F. Russell

A faster, more reliable Elkhead lift

A sudden gust of air sent dust and dirt rushing past Steamboat Ski Area executive Doug Allen as he stood near the top of Tower run on the slopes of Steamboat Ski Area. 

A couple of hundred feet above him, a helicopter maneuvers a lift tower, which tips the scales at several thousand pounds, into place.

The tower is lowered onto a concrete pad, just a stone’s throw away from where Allen stands. He watches as workers from Doppelmayr rush to the base and start tightening the industrial-sized bolts that secure the tower to its foundation. 

The blades of the helicopter rotors continue to stir the cool mountain air with enough force that the workers, and a couple of people there to observe, must deal with the turbulence on the ground below. 

The gusts can make it difficult to stand at times, and nearby trees shake and bend as the blades thump the air into submission. Workers on the ground finish the work at hand, clearing the main cable and guide wires that were used to position the tower. Once the straps and cables are clear, the helicopter gains elevation, turns slightly and  heads back to the loading area for the next tower.

Allen, Steamboat Ski Area’s longtime vice president of mountain operations, peers through the dust that swirls around him and sees a vision of the new lift that has been years in the making — a project he believes will carry the ski area into the future.

“I’ve been working on it for years,” Allen said last week of the new Elkhead Express chairlift that is being installed on the mountain. “There is a lot that goes into this from the time it is just an idea until it becomes a reality.”

International flair

The process for getting a new lift installed involves approvals, budgets and more approvals, Allen said. It means dealing with internal decisions, international companies, overseas shipping, trucking companies, and finally, the helicopter that brought project to this point. 

“Ski lifts are truly an international affair these days with only two major suppliers worldwide, both having European roots,” Allen said in an email. “On our new Elkhead Express lift, the grips — the critical component that attaches the chair to the haul rope — are fabricated in Wolfort, Austria, where Doppelmayr has its worldwide headquarters.  The terminal equipment used in the terminals to slow the chairs for loading and unloading come from St. Jerome, Quebec, Canada.”

Allen went on to explain the terminal coverings also come from Austria, and the towers are fabricated in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the manufacturer, Doppelmayr, has its U.S. headquarters.

But the international flair will most likely be lost on the skiers and snowboarders who arrive at Steamboat Ski Area this winter. The years that went into improving the lift will be defined in simpler terms — how quickly will the lift gets each skier or snowboarder from point A to point B?

In new Elkhead Express lift, according to Allen, will be faster, more efficient and more reliable than its predecessor. It also features state-of-the-art safety bars on the chairs that will ensure that young or inexperienced skiers and riders can’t fall off the lift when it’s in operation.

Long-standing legacy

Both the old and new lifts, when operating at peak capacity, have the capacity to move 2,400 skiers an hour from the Priest Creek basin to the top of Tower run. But Allen said the old “fixed-grip” lift rarely ran at capacity because it was constantly slowed down or stopped because of difficulties in the loading process.

Those who have fond memories of the old Elkhead chair, can take comfort — and even visit the chair — after it is installed at the China Peak Mountain Resort located 65 miles northeast of Fresno in the Sierra National Forest.

But in Steamboat, the new lift, with its detachable chairs, will cut the ride time in half from 5 minutes, 25 seconds to just 2 minutes, 40 seconds. This will help keep skiers and snowboarders moving on a lift that provides a way to get to the gondola building for lunch or offers an easy way to get back to the base area at the end of the day.

Allen said the new lift carries on a legacy that dates back to 1972, when the ski area built a lift that carried skiers from the Priest Creek area to the top of a nearby saddle. In  1984, that lift was replaced by the one that was removed early this summer.

Allen believes the new lift will make an immediate impact this winter.

Seamless transition

The new Elkhead Express lift is just one of 17 that Doppelmayr has installed in the United States this season, according to Pete McKinnon, construction supervisor for Doppelmayr.

The parts for the lift were shipped to Steamboat Springs from around the world, and every part of the installation was well planned before the process started. 

Pouring the concrete and placing the towers and cross arms were just one portion of a much bigger process. Construction of the lift houses must be completed, the haul rope must be installed and spliced together and the lift must undergo numerous inspections to make sure that everything is in working order before the first passenger takes a seat on the new lift. 

McKinnon said every lift installation is different, and there are lots of variables that he and Dopplemayr crew members must deal with during the process. 

The project began in June and is slated for completion in mid-November right in time for the start of the 2016-17 ski season at Steamboat.

Looking to the future

The Ekhead Express is the first new lift to be built at Steamboat Ski Area since Christy Express was installed in 2007. Rob Perlman, president and chief operating officer of the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., said the company is thrilled about its most recent addition.

“We are very excited to replace our “fix-grabbed” quad with the new high-speed, detachable Elkhead Express,” Perlman said. “The lift services a key part of the mountain, and I think it’s an improvement that our guests are going to notice and appreciate.”

Perlman said he could not comment on the exact cost of the new lift because Intrawest, the parent company of Steamboat Ski Area, is a publicly traded company.

“I can’t say what that number is, but with the Elkhead Express, the new mountain coaster and mini-golf, it is significant that the company is willing to invest those type of dollars to make Steamboat even better,” Perlman added.

Perlman said replacing the Elkhead lift has been at the top of the ski area’s priority list for some time. He said the location of the lift, and the impact it has on skier traffic on the mountain was a big reason for the decision to replace it.

He added that Steamboat Ski Area is constantly looking at traffic on the mountain and making choices that will hopefully improve the experience for visitors. 

“This one stuck out as needing improvement,” Perlman said. ‘I’m just happy that we have decided to allocate the dollars and the resources needed to make this important improvement.”

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966

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