I am in Park City, Utah skiing this week. I’ve been marveling how ski lifts have progressed over they years. Yesterday, I rode a few six person high-speed chair lifts that moved an amazing amount of people. Much different experience than the slow two-person lifts that were more common a few decades ago.
Ski Lift History
In the late 1800s and early 1900s mine equipment was used to transport skiers up suitable hills for skiing. Sometimes they rode in the ore buckets!
In 1908, the first true ski lift was developed in Germany. It was a tow-rope system and pulled skiers 280 meters of distance and up 32 vertical meters.
From 1908 through the 1940s, the main method of transporting skiers uphill were various forms of tow rope systems and funiculars. They didn’t go very far usually, broke often, were dangerous and couldn’t transport a lot of skiers.
The first chairlift was invented by James Curran, an engineer with Union Pacific. America’s first ski resort at Sun Valley, Idaho, was owned by Union Pacific, and the company saw a need to be able to transport more people, more effectively up the mountain. The first chairlift was put into operation at Sun Valley in 1936.
The first double seat chairlift opened in 1946.
Triple and quad chairlifts came on the scene in the early 1960s.
The first six-person high-speed chairlift was installed in 1992.
Fixed vs. Detachable Grip Lifts
Until 1981 all chairlifts were of the “fixed grip” design meaning that the chairs were permanently affixed to the moving cable. With a fixed grip design, the chairs do not slow down for the skiers to embark or disembark the chair. As such, the chairlift cannot run very fast, and even at slower speeds, the chairs are quite difficult to get on and off and up to 20% of the embarking and disembarking result in failure and the lift has to be stopped. Such failures can result in injuries as well.
The first high-speed “detachable grip” chairlift was introduced at Breckenridge, Colorado in 1981. With detachable grip lifts, the chair unhooks from the cable when it reaches the terminals and the chairs are then moved much slower (around 2 mph) for loading and unloading. This technology allows the lift to move much faster – around 12 mph usually vs. the 5-6mph for fixed grip lifts.
Riding Ski Lifts is Very Safe
Riding chairlifts is quite safe. According to the National Ski Areas Association, “Since 1973 (when NSAA began compiling industry statistics), there have been 13 deaths attributed to chairlift malfunctions, a 44-year span during which the industry provided more than 17.1 billion lift rides to skiers and snowboarders” Additionally, there has only been one fatality since 1993. Thus, riding a ski lift is five times safer than riding in an elevator from an equipment malfunction standpoint.
Skiers, due to “skier error” do occasionally fall off ski lifts, typically when getting on or off the lift – rarely when high up. Falls when not embarking or disembarking are often due to medical conditions such as heart attacks or strokes.
Here’s a list of ski lift accidents compiled by snowboard.com. Not for the faint of heart!