Vail Announces Largest Set of Lift Upgrades in North American Ski History
$325M, 19-lift, 14-resort project will transform ski experience at some of the continent’s busiest resorts for 2022-23
Ever since Vail knocked 20 percent off the price of Epic Passes last spring, shocking the ski world and turbo-boosting pass sales, many concerned citizens of Skidom have been saying some version of, “That’s great Dude, but where are you gonna put all the people?”
“On the damn mountain,” Vail answered on Thursday, with an absolutely monster project that will drop 19 new lifts on 14 mountains by the start of the 2022-23 ski season. Spanning the continent and touching every region the company operates in, these new lifts will in many cases transform the day-to-day experience at mountains currently saddled with outdated infrastructure. There’s a six-pack of six-packs, the company’s first eight-pack chairlift, a new gondola. There are fixed-grip quads replacing antique double-tower side-by-sides, new fast lifts replacing old fast lifts, and new lifts where there were none before. There are terrain expansions. There are projects everyone was asking for and projects no one was asking for but just about everyone will love. With an estimated cost of between $315 million and $325 million, it is the largest single-season investment in lift infrastructure by a single entity in the history of North American lift-served skiing.
This titanic investment comes on top of the $120 million that will plant six new lifts at five mountains (Okemo, Beaver Creek, Crested Butte, Keystone, and Breckenridge), and relocate another ahead of this coming ski season. And there may be more to come (emphasis mine):
“Our teams have been hard at work identifying significant opportunities to improve the guest experience and have produced an initial list of exciting lift upgrades, a restaurant expansion and projects that expand access to incredible terrain for next season, with more to be announced,” said Vail chairman and CEO Rob Katz. “At some of our mountains, this means new high-speed lifts that will double how fast we can move people out of the base areas, and at others, the projects are all about making it easier for people to explore different sections of the mountain. Overall, our goal is for guests to have more time to enjoy the sport they love.”
You can view a full breakdown of the 2022-23 projects here. Vail confirmed that all lifts slated to be replaced are scheduled to operate for the 2021-22 ski season, which means we have one hell of a construction summer on the horizon. Here are some initial thoughts on what these investments mean for Vail and its skiers:
Vail signals commitment to the Northeast and full integration of former Peak Resorts
Prior to purchasing Peak Resorts in 2019, Vail ran two types of ski areas: those large enough to see from space, like Vail and Park City, and those you may have trouble seeing from the parking lot, like Mount Brighton and Afton Alps. This spoke-and-hub feeder system had worked well for the company, and it was hard to see how most of the Peak Resorts fit in. What to make, for example, of Attitash, which was not quite a destination but burly enough to be well beyond feeder status? Most of the Peak Resorts floated somewhere in this nebulous zone – was anyone really having the “Experience of a Lifetime” at Jack Frost? – and some puzzled observers doubted whether the company would hold on to all 17 ski areas over the long term.
The bulk of the Northeast and Midwest lift upgrades announced yesterday signal that Vail intends to do exactly that. Details:
Remember back in the ‘90s when the Chicago Bulls would exit their bus and an armada of fans and TV cameras and journalists with microphones would swarm Michael Jordan like seagulls to a slice of tossed bread, and the rest of the team would just look annoyed and walk unmolested into the hotel? Yeah that’s what skiing at Mount Snow has been like for the past decade. The line is 500 deep for the high-speed six-pack Bluebird Express, and the rest of the lifts – none built in this century – plod angry and ignored up the hill.
No more. The resort is yanking out the short, beginners-focused Tumbleweed triple and the longer Sundance lift, which currently starts at midmountain, below the exit to Tumbleweed, and replacing them with a high-speed six pack. It is unclear if the new lift will reach the summit or stop short of the top of Little John, as the current Sundance lift does, but Vail notes that it will “improve access to underutilized terrain and alleviate pressure on other lifts in the main base area, increasing uphill capacity by nearly 70 percent.”
Mount Snow will also get a new high-speed quad on the backside, replacing the current fixed-grip Sunbrook quad, which takes 14 minutes to crawl 900 vertical feet.
Whether Vail intended to keep Mount Snow was never in doubt, as this was Peak’s flagship and the frantic southern gateway to fabled big-mountain Vermont, but this statement investment in an aging lift fleet signals that the company views this mountain as central to its New England future.
Let me stop you right there, because I know what you’re thinking. It’s what everyone is thinking: why not replace the Summit Triple? It’s old. It’s unreliable. You can watch Dances With Wolves from beginning to end on the ride to the top. Why not replace it with… something?
First: it serves a complicated piece of terrain. The summit is high and tight, with just three trails branching off the terminal. The basic rule for lift-to-trail ratio is one seat for each trail. Second, Peak made substantial repairs in 2019 after a multi-month shutdown cut off the summit for a large portion of the season:
They will get to the Summit Triple. There are options aside from replacing the full top-to-bottom lift. How about putting a high-speed six in place of the Flying Yankee quad, and a new triple or fixed-grip quad running from mid-mountain to the summit? Or leave Flying Yankee in place and split the summit lift with a pair of quads, a high-speed at the bottom and a fixed-grip up top?
They will figure out something great. In the meantime, they could win over a few locals by letting them skin to the top when the triple does inevitably break down again.
I remember skiing Jack Frost two winters ago, plodding up the right side of the double-triple, thinking how wonderful it all was: the narrow trails, the catastrophic volume of ziplining humanity, the pair of double-doubles flanking either side of the ski area. A steady snow fell. It was all so hokey, so charming, so unpretentious, so Pennsylvania - and Jack Frost may be the most Pennsylvania ski area in Pennsylvania. And in that pleasant little moment, I thought, “I bet Vail cannot wait to level this joint and start over.”
They’re starting over. Vail will replace that late-1980s double-triple – the B and C lifts on the trailmap – with a fixed-grip quad. Another fixed-grip quad will replace the short E and F lifts, parallel beginner doubles that do not share towers. I imagine the two double-doubles have another decade left in them, at least – both are just around two decades old. A Quad, dating to 1991, is probably next in line for an upgrade.
If Jack Frost feels dated, Big Boulder feels like it was discovered after the ice age glaciers receded from the land, revealing the lift system of The Ancients. The runt of the Poconos, with half the vertical of most of its neighbors, Big Boulder has mostly masked this antique infrastructure with a lights-out park system. Fun for the 14-year-old snowboarders, but not exactly The Experience of a Lifetime.
Vail started last year by ripping out the Black Forest double, a Hall beater so old that it was once used to haul triceratops feed to the summit. That adjacent Merry Widow double-double isn’t much better, but Vail is making the Edelweiss triple its first priority, tearing out the 1989 Borvig and replacing it with a new fixed-grip quad. If I had to guess future replacements, I’d say pull the Merry Widow doubles for a quad, then replace the Big Boulder triple with another quad. Down the line Little Boulder and Tannenbaum could be upgrades to quads or triples. Big Boulder is small, but the problem is not overloading the trails – there are enough ways down to spread skiers out. The issue, as with everywhere in Pennsylvania, is the abysmal and abysmally managed liftlines.
This is the Midwest, but I’ll fold it in here since it was part of the Peak Resorts acquisition. Boston Mills might have more lifts than trails serving the clear-cut face of its 200-foot vertical drop. The oldest of these is Lift 5, a Hall Double that was built in 1964. Rumors abound that it operates either on coal or from several hamsters running on interior wheels. Either way, it’s got to go – and a new fixed-grip quad will replace it. I don’t know if you could actually eliminate liftlines at Boston Mills if you replaced all six chairs with eight-packs, but this is a good first move to modernizing a fleet that mostly dates to the 1970s.
Boston Mills’ sister resort, Brandywine is, improbably, even smaller, and with approximately the same lift-to-trails ratio. The newest of those lifts is a 1979 Borvig quad. The oldest is a 1973 Thiokol triple. Both of those will stay, while chair 3, a 1977 Borvig Triple, is coming out to make way for a new fixed-grip quad. Again, a good start and a demonstration that Vail intends to be a long-term steward of these busy urban hills.
I am trying not to read too much into the absence of investment in nearby Alpine Valley, though I fiercely hope that Vail feels overloaded on metro Cleveland and is hoping to offload this ski area to Wisconsin Resorts, owner of Alpine Valley, Wisconsin and Alpine Valley, Michigan. Like all skiers, the union of all three Alpine Valleys under one portfolio is at the top of my wishlist if a genie ever pops out of a bottle and offers to fulfill my any desire.
Vail’s toehold in the Northeast in 2017, Stowe foreshadowed the Peak Resorts purchase with a New England monster that fit the company’s destination mold. Like nearly anyone who has ever skied there, I dearly love Stowe. It’s steep, snowy, sprawling, and varied; about as good as you’ll get in the East and a regional top five on nearly anyone’s list.
That said, there are some quirks to the lift system, which serves three distinct base areas and lacks redundancy to any of its three summits. The most frustrating of these idiosyncrasies is the hike from the Mansfield lodge up to the Mountain Triple, which requires a Tough Mudder-esque haul up a near-vertical 100-or-so-foot hillside. Which in ski boots kinda sucks.
Vail’s hitting detonate on that whole side of the mountain, yanking the triple for a high-speed six-pack that will start on level ground near the lodge. Thank Jesus. The replacement should take some pressure off the terminally congested FourRunner Quad and draw more skiers to the web of highly entertaining blue squares along the resort’s east side. This is Vail’s first new lift at Stowe since buying the mountain, and it’s a big and very welcome one.
“…and He scoffed at ye fixed-grip, low-capacity chairs, transforming each into a floating throne capable of transporting 100 knights to battle in the wink of a buzzard’s eye”
While Vail seems to have concluded that fixed-grip chairs still have some utility at its Eastern resorts, it’s taking a far more aggressive approach at its western flagships, handing out high-speed six-packs like goodie bags at a kid’s birthday party. Here’s a rundown:
A big theme at Vail’s Western resorts, where throngs of mid-mountain lifts spiral off into sprawling terrain pods, is to improve the experience of getting up and out of the chaotic base areas. At Whistler, that means trading the six-passenger Creekside Gondola for an eight-passenger upgrade with 35 percent more capacity. Upon exiting 2100 feet (but still not halfway up the mountain) later, skiers will find a six-pack where the Big Red Quad now stands. That will take them another 1800 vertical feet into the sky. And they still won’t be anywhere near the top. My God Whistler.
Slide off Keystone’s cluttered front side, with its long blue boardwalks ambling toward the pedestrian villages, and things get interesting pretty quick. North Peak and Outback both deliver long fall-line bumps and glades, and beyond those lay a series of steep open bowls for those willing to hike.
Those have been part of the trailmap for years, but Keystone will unlock Bergman Bowl to the masses with a high-speed sixer serving 555 acres and 16 new trails. Parts of adjacent Erickson and Independence bowls will be accessible from the summit. Vail is promising novice and intermediate terrain in what is now a deep black section of the mountain. This schematic published by the Forest Service shows the new lift landing shy of the summit, with greens funneling skier’s left, more or less along the line of the existing cat track to the far terminal of the Outpost Gondola. Another green runs from Outpost down to the bottom terminal of the new six-pack, which would land skier’s right of the blue square Prospector run.
There’s also something about a restaurant expansion which in the context of this lift announcement is like dropping a Caffeine-Free Diet Coke into your buddy’s beer cooler at the tailgate. And when he reaches in for a cold one and pulls out a soda he’s like, “who brought this guy?” and chucks it into the woods.
Most of the new chairs announced yesterday are replacements for one or two existing lifts, but in the case of Vail’s Back Bowls, they are adding capacity. A high-speed quad will run from the base of the High Noon Express and up Sun Down Bowl to Wildwood restaurant. I’ll admit I’ve never been enamored of the Back Bowls nor understood their appeal to the masses – 90 percent of skiers seem to crowd onto the blue groomers hammered into the drainages. Blue Sky Basin has more interesting terrain, and I’d prefer to ski in the trees than an open bowl. But people love them, probably too much for their own good – High Noon Express was ground zero for this meltdown two years ago:
The new chair should “materially reduce wait times on peak days at” High Noon, Vail said.
Meanwhile, Game Creek Bowl, which sits in a sort-of side zone between Vail’s front side and the Back Bowls, will get an upgrade from its current high-speed quad to a six-pack. That lift, a 1985 Doppelmayr, is one of the oldest high-speed lifts still in operation. And while the Game Creek pod isn’t terribly exciting in the context of broader Vail Mountain, it’s a very popular pod and the upgrade is welcome.
Threaded between Breck’s high-powered arsenal of high-speed six-packs and quads are a half-dozen double and triple Riblets dating as far back as 1970. They’re quirky, comfortable reminders that these mountains were once more escape than destination.
Still, it’s inevitable that all machines have a useable life. In this case, Rip’s Ride double, which dates to 1980, is giving way to a high-speed quad. This will increase uphill capacity by 70 percent at a popular beginner area. Riblet fans can relax: lifts 5, 6, A, C, and E remain in service. For now.
Vail is still trying to get a handle on its massive Park City ski area, the largest in the United States and the union of two formerly separate megaresorts. One current pinch point is the junction of the Quicksilver Gondola – which Vail installed to connect the former Canyons terrain with Park City in 2015 – and the Silverlode six-pack. The mountain will clear out the sixer and drop in an eight-pack, the first in Vail’s system and only the third in North America (Boyne Resorts installed the other two, at Big Sky, Montana and Loon, New Hampshire). This appears to be a purely functional play “to circulate guests on the mountain.” Silverlode, installed just 25 years ago, will also become the first six-pack in the United States to be replaced, a fact confirmed by the human lift encyclopedia known as Lift Blog (where nearly all links in this article lead). Boyne Mountain, Michigan installed the U.S.’ first six-pack, the Mountain Express, in 1992. That lift still stands.
Farther down the mountain, Park City will replace the circa 1993 Eagle triple with a high-speed six-pack with a mid-station and a new alignment. This upgrade will significantly help with moving skiers out of the base area.
Comstock Express is, again, one of the oldest high-speed quads still in use, a late-80s relic designed for a different mountain and a different time. Vail will drop a new high-speed sixer here, giving the blue-square bazillions access to the Tahoe cruisers of their dreams. Aside from the 1979 Yan Rendezous Triple – a redundant lift with no urgent need of a replacement – Northstar’s lift fleet is in pretty good shape. I imagine Arrow and Backside – two early-90s Doppelmayr high-speed quads – will come up for upgrades within the next five to 10 years, but otherwise the place is looking good.
Heavenly, like Breckenridge, still has plenty of fixed-grip lifts mixed in with its superfleet of high-capacity cruisers. One of the busiest of these is the North Bowl Triple, a 1984 Riblet rising 1,200 vertical feet out of the Boulder beginner area. A high-speed quad will replace this. It will be a nice upgrade that will, according to Vail, “reduce wait times at the [adjacent] Stagecoach and Olympic lifts.”
Here we’ll ask the question of overload
Frustrated urban planners have for decades been pointing out to obstinate road engineers a simple fact: when you add more lanes to a highway, you get more cars on the highway. Lane additions rarely decrease congestion, and sometimes make it worse.
Does the same phenomenon happen at ski resorts? I don’t know. The ski areas are too tight with their numbers to do any kind of real analysis, at least not with my current resources. But Vail is going to give us all a fantastic laboratory to test this in. And with Epic Pass sales absolutely exploding – up 42 percent in units sold and 17 percent in revenue, according to Vail’s earnings report yesterday – the company needed to show it was willing to take big steps to keep those skiers moving around the mountains.
Vail denied that this massive lift investment was tied to the increased volume of Epic Passes. When asked, Jamie Alvarez, director of Corporate Communications for Vail Resorts, said, “No, it is not. We announce new capital improvement projects each year as we seek to deliver on our mission of creating an Experience of a Lifetime for our guests. With an unprecedented number of projects planned ahead of the 2022/23 season, we were eager to get the word out sooner rather than later so we could begin working on these exciting lift upgrades. That said, as a Company, we do believe it is imperative to invite newcomers into the sport and make skiing and riding more accessible. And as we do that, we will continue to invest into our resorts to preserve, protect and enhance the experience.”
Still, liftlines are the worst part of skiing. And Vail is taking some serious steps to help eliminate choke points that the majority of skiers will encounter during their visits. When piled on top of the major upgrades at Okemo, Keystone, and Crested Butte; the terrain expansion at Beaver Creek; and the additional high-speed quad going in at Breckenridge ahead of the 2021-22 season, it is clear that Vail intends to continue investing aggressively across its portfolio to make sure you don’t have a bad time with your Epic Pass.
Yeah but why haven’t they installed a 10-person bowling-lane lift at Beaver Creek?
Even a project of this magnitude is bound to leave a few folks wanting in a portfolio the size of Vail’s. Stevens Pass has three relatively new quads, but its aging fleet has Riblets dating as far back as 1960. Afton Alps has an amazing 17 chairlifts serving its 300 vertical feet, most of them are Hall doubles from the ‘70s. I am shocked they haven’t consolidated some of these into quads yet. We’ll have to keep waiting for Mount Sunapee’s much-anticipated expansion.
Give it time. Vail’s portfolio is massive, the company’s commitment to its mountains clear, its ability to imagine, execute, and pay for large projects unchallenged. What we may be seeing here is a shift from buying new cars to fixing up the ones already in the garage, and that is going to be good for all of us.
For now, Vail has plenty to do to finalize permitting and orchestrate logistics to demolish and install an enormous number of lifts in a single offseason. Vail noted that all projects are still subject to government approval. It will be a small miracle if all 19 new lifts are actually spinning for opening day 2022, but that’s just the reality of operating in a complex ecosystem with many outside interests. But expect to see all of these eventually. And expect to see more projects like them. A lot more.