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Vail Files Preliminary Permitting Documents to Replace the Hated Attitash Triple
A four- or six-place detachable could replace Vail’s most frustrating lift
I don’t think this is gonna be a well-attended retirement party
It is the most hated lift in New Hampshire, and possibly in America. The Summit Triple at Attitash, 1,672 vertical feet of breakdown-prone steel dating to the Reagan administration. Ride time is over 12 minutes. It is the only way to the top of Attitash Peak (adjacent Bear Peak, part of the same ski area, is serviced by a high-speed quad).
For decades, a parallel Hall double ran nearly to the top, terminating 150 vertical feet down the mountain, at the top of the Northwest Passage trail. Former owner Peak Resorts removed that lift in 2018, just before a cascade of mechanical issues stilled the Summit Triple for the majority of the following ski season. While Peak eventually fixed the chair, it continues to suffer breakdowns. The double was never replaced.
Vail inherited this mess. Attitash was, along with Wildcat and Crotched, one of several “distressed assets” – as the Worcester Telegram’s Shaun Sutner called them last week – that came along with its Peak Resorts purchase in 2019. Why Peak invested so much into Mount Snow and Hunter while its New Hampshire ski areas faded is a mystery no longer worth solving.
Instead, Vail is looking ahead, filing preliminary permitting documents with the Forest Service to replace the Summit Triple with a high-speed quad or six-pack. Per the application:
With the decommissioning of the previous Hall double lift, the ski area uphill capacity has dropped significantly and has increased density on lower mountain trails. With projected increase in demand, a more robust lift infrastructure is needed to support increased visitation. The proposal will provide an improved guest experience at Attitash Mountain Resort by reducing the wait times associated with accessing the top of the main summit and increasing the amount of people that are able to travel up the mountain. The proposal will also modernize lift equipment and reduce the amount of time lifts are down for maintenance or repair.
The chair would follow the same line as the triple, with minimal widening to accommodate the beefier lift.
We could still be a long way from an upgrade. While the document says that work could start this spring and be in service by December, Vail says that the timeline is in flux, and that there’s no guarantee the project will happen at all.
“Our resort teams are constantly evaluating opportunities that will enhance the guest experience,” said Adam White, Vail Resorts senior manager of resort communications and marketing for the Northeast. “We are currently in the early phases of exploring the feasibility of many projects, including replacing the Summit Triple at Attitash with a high-speed lift. As such, we have submitted a project proposal to the US Forest Service which is standard process and protocol for any potential lift project. At this time, we cannot confirm if or when the project will move forward. New projects are announced each year as a part of our company’s commitment to continuously reinvest back into the mountain experience.”
Plenty of questions remain. The most urgent being this: how do you prevent the Attitash summit from being transformed into a replica of Elsa’s castle from Frozen if you’re sending 3,000 skiers an hour onto an already-congested peak? The capacity of the current triple is 1,500 skiers per hour. They empty out onto a narrow summit with just three trails branching off the terminal (although Upper Saco spiderwebs into half a dozen additional trails). Chairlift people tell me the ideal ratio is one trail per seat on the chair. Attitash’s existing high-speed quads carry 2,800 skiers per hour. Stratton’s six-packs each move 3,600. Either option seems like overkill to serve the current configuration:
This has always been the biggest problem facing a potential summit chair replacement, and it explains why the old double did not meet the triple at the very top. Vail could rethink or expand the trail network, of course, but there is no mention of that possibility in the permit. I really expected them to split the lift, adding a lower-level, high-speed quad as a complement to Flying Yankee on the lower mountain, and a new mid-mountain fixed-grip triple or quad to serve the summit. This would spread skiers more evenly across the mountain without making it top-heavy.
Regardless, a new lift – whatever it is – will be welcome. It will be interesting to see what they do with Flying Yankee, which shares a tower with the Summit Triple:
Which, whatever. The engineers can figure anything out. Together with a new fixed-grip quad going in this year to replace an ancient double double, these lift upgrades would bring the mountain’s fleet to a fairly modern state. Vail’s next big investment, both at Attitash and up the road at Wildcat, must be snowmaking. As of Saturday, Attitash had just 31 percent of its terrain open; Wildcat was idling at 18 percent. Cannon and Bretton Woods, meanwhile, were more than half open, and Loon had 65 percent of trails running. Vail has only been in the east for five years – I’m not certain that they’ve yet grasped how crucial snowmaking is to providing a minimal viable product for skiers that have absolutely no shortage of options (there are 87 ski areas in New England). They need to closely study Boyne, which has absolutely flooded its Maine and New Hampshire ski areas with snowmaking arsenals that ensure Loon, Sugarloaf, and Sunday River are among the first ski areas to open and last to close nearly every season.
Is it time to reconsider the Riblet?
On Saturday, Jan. 8, a chair carrying a 22-year-old snowboarder on the Snowcat triple at Wildcat Mountain, N.H., detached from the haul rope and fell nearly 10 feet to the ground. The guest was taken to a nearby hospital with serious rib injuries.
According to state fire marshal Sean Toomey, the incident began after the chair was misloaded—meaning the guest was not properly seated on the chair as it continued moving out of the loading area. The chair began to swing as it traveled uphill, struck a lift tower and detached from the haul rope, falling to the ground.
The lift is a 1974 Riblet. The defunct brand has proven problematic in recent years, with several loaded chairs detaching from lines. Per Lift Blog:
Chairs utilizing Riblet insert clips have fallen on occasion in recent years including last season at Indianhead, Michigan and 49 Degrees North, Washington. Within Vail Resorts, a Riblet triple chair fell from Heavenly’s North Bowl triple in 2016. Approximately 275 Riblet lifts currently operate worldwide, mostly in the United States.
That is a concerning pattern, and one that may be worthy of an OSHA investigation. A Vail spokesman confirmed to me that the lift had passed state inspections and load-testing before the season started, as all of the company’s lifts do everywhere that it operates. New Hampshire state officials are investigating the incident. But the concern here is less with Vail (though the misloading noted above is problematic), than with an antique lift fleet that no longer has a designated manufacturer to blame for its defects. The general manager at Summit at Snoqualmie, which still runs 10 riblets as part of its enormous fleet, told me last summer that the ski area had purchased much of the company’s old machining equipment when it went out of business, and that they service both their own lifts and those of their competitors.
But there is no one really in charge of Riblets, as Doppelmayr absorbed the many remaining Halls. For an industry that entrusts the life of its customers to decades-old machines (four of Summit’s Riblets date to 1967, the year before the moon landing), that is a problem. I’m not sure what the answer is – it would be impractical to remove or significantly modify them, but at the very least, a plane-crash-type investigation – what went wrong, how do we prevent it from happening again – is warranted here. The industry should approach this as a group, in concert with the NSAA, to make sure Riblets are safe to ride for as long as they last.
Maybe keep the beater in the garage just in case the Cadillac breaks down
Following a fire that disabled its North Star quad on Dec. 18, Kimberley conceded in an Instagram post last week that the chair would not spin again this season:
Our other main focus at this time is of course on getting the Northstar Quad Chair up and running as soon as we can. After a huge effort by KAR and RCR technical staff and our industry partners it is becoming clear that due to the extent of the damage and the worldwide availability of parts and components that the Quad chair will not be running again this winter. There will be information coming out this week for anybody looking to defer their pass to next year or to request a refund.
While Kimberley is shuttling guests to its backside lifts with borrowed Snowcats, it’s hard to peak back at the resort’s 2003 trailmap and not say, “oops.”
That version of Kimberley had four front-side lifts, all paralleling one another from base to summit. By 2006, the mountain had shed all but the quad. It wouldn’t have made sense to keep all four, but it didn’t make sense to just leave one, either. Redundancy matters. That’s why Windham, New York, leaves a 50-year-old Hall Double streaming to the summit, even though it parallels a glimmering new six-pack.
Wachusett is open more than 90 hours per week – what’s your excuse?
Of all the operational changes Vail has made this year in the face of labor shortages and challenging weather, none has been more frustrating than curtailed hours at ski areas that already have short seasons. Snow Creek, Missouri, will only be open three days per week – for a total of 20 hours – and will only offer night skiing on Fridays. Alpine Valley will also operate just three days per week, while Boston Mills, Brandywine, Mad River, and Hidden Valley, Missouri have all cut their hours significantly.
Other city-adjacent ski areas are finding ways to offer a full ski season. Snow Trails, Ohio, which is a bit farther from Columbus than Mad River, is open 79 hours per week. Pats Peak, not far from Crotched, is running more than 80 hours per week. Wachusett, the king, is open 90 and a half hours per week. Mountain Creek, an hour outside of New York City, is open 86.
I don’t know how Vail is screwing this up so badly, but Cleveland.com noted that the company was offering starting pay of $11.25 per hour at Boston Mills, Brandywine, and Alpine Valley. The article went on to draw comparisons to Cedar Point, a Six Flags-esque mega-rollercoaster park that’s also in northern Ohio:
Cedar Point, which hires seasonal workers similarly to the ski resorts, upped pay to $20 an hour in the face of staff shortages last year.
The move shocked some other businesses in the tourism industry and business professors, but it seemed to work. Cedar Point restored normal operating hours after the pay increase attracted workers.
So I don’t know but maybe Vail can solve this baffling mystery and fully open its ski areas.
These challenges … “are 100% my fault”
Berkshire East and Catamount have had better seasons. The two Berkshires resorts, both owned and operated by the Schaefer family, have struggled with snowmaking, staffing, and mechanical issues and parts delays that have prevented their lift fleets from cranking at full force. The two proud mountains are, atypically, behind their nearby competitors in terms of open terrain. The headline, though, has been a pair of stalled lift replacements at Catamount.
On Monday, Jon Schaefer, who is general manager at both mountains, itemized the resorts’ struggles over the past several months:
With a little self-inflicted wound of trying to do too much, and a healthy dose of COVID and all that comes with it, we’ve experienced a myriad of parts delays, from rams which were a four-week lead time when they were ordered to an indefinitely-delayed item 20 weeks in (we ultimately found parts from another lift to replace these parts), to electronics, to transformers.
The full note is a sobering read, a case-study in the travails of operating complex machinery plugged into antique infrastructure and Rube Goldberged together by successive owners over the course of decades. Ice storms, power outtages, inadequate electrical systems. And then there were the crowds.
Berkshire East had a busy Sunday day that far exceeded our expectations for crowds on a busy day. We will take a look at the implications of the crowds and are reviewing our operations for these holiday days.
But the clincher comes at the end [emphasis mine]:
Anyway, we will persevere through these challenges, which I must say are 100% caused by working through upgrades to the systems and are 100% my fault for pushing ahead on and we are not going to stop. 2022 will see improved snowmaking upgrades at both resorts, but you will see more staff, stability and the completion of this first phase of effort.
So let’s reset this: the snowmaking has been lousy – here’s what happened and here’s how we’ll fix it. Our new lifts aren’t in place, compounding crowding – here’s why, and here’s how we’ll fix it. Our mountains are getting too crowded – we’re going to figure out why, and fix it. And by the way, this is all my fault.
Schaefer, like Geoff Hatheway at Magic and Win Smith at Sugarbush before them, has made a habit of owning his problems. While this frank and humble communications style does not alone explain the loyal followings behind these three mountains, it perhaps explains why the online peanut gallery takes it easier on them when everything does melt down.
Tickets and passes: L.L. Bean, which offers $15 Thursdays and $25 Fridays at Black Mountain of Maine, will offer $49 Thursday lift tickets at Saddleback. Pats Peak now requiring reservations for Indy Passes. Powderhorn “relaunches” free beginner-lessons program – skiers are eligible for a discounted season pass upon completion.
Business: Indy Pass partner White Pine, Wyoming, will soon have new owners. The local county purchases Mt. Crescent, Iowa. Here’s who owns every ski area in Vermont. Hunter sues local lodge owner over name. Attitash GM Greg Gavrilets resigned and will be the new GM at Mt. Rose, taking over for Paul Senft, who has been running the mountain since 1992. More on the meltdown at Stevens Pass. Heavenly GM Tom Fortune takes over as interim GM of Stevens Pass as Tom Pettigrew departs. Vail skier visits are down slightly over last year and significantly from 2020. New Jersey, home to four current ski areas, may have had up to 60 over time. Why does Liftopia link directly to Vail Resorts’ lift ticket pages?
Infrastructure: Bousquet opens its new lodge.
Lifts: Red is live again at Magic. Cascade will replace the Mogul Monster triple with a quad. Powder Ridge will replace the Powder Puff double with a quad. Alta looks to drop the first six-pack into Little Cottonwood Canyon with a replacement of Albion and Sunnyside. Lift Blog reports that Windham will replace the Whiteway triple with a D-line detachable lift, while Montana Snowbowl wants to build a lift “from the base area up TV Mountain.” I mean is this a cartoon?
Terrain: Terrific reviews of Beaver Creek’s new McCoy Park beginner area.
This week in skiing
Friday, Jan. 7 – Butternut and Otis Ridge
My ski day is tightly organized: alarm set early, gas tank prefilled, kit layered on the couch in the order I’ll gear up, food prepped on the counter with the various pots and containers laid out for a seamless morning pack job. That’s the only way to day-trip to New England from NYC, streaming north out of the city while the highways run empty.
Sometimes it all melts down anyway. A 4 a.m. alarm to hit a 9 a.m. Wachusett opening – normally a three-and-a-half-hour drive - met the I-95 parking lot in snow-bound southwest Connecticut. I sat there for an hour and then turned north, puttering up secondary roads that moved slowly but at least they moved.
Butternut: $35 lift tickets, two lifts spinning, lines of skiers drawn by the overnight snowstorm. Much of the mountain open. The trails narrow, gentle. A small park grinding. Guns erupting everywhere. No one rode the Highline Quad and so that’s where I spent my day. Or a few hours of my day. I skied every run twice and there was no need to belabor the thing and so I drove down the highway 20 minutes to Otis Ridge.
Drive to Otis Ridge from the west and its existential problems are clear: it sits along a twisting, backwoods section of state highway 23, 400 vertical feet 12 miles past 1,000-foot Butternut, which is 10 miles past 1,000-foot Catamount. It lives on only because Butternut owner Jeff Murdock bought the joint in 2017. Still the place is vibrant in its rough-hewn, edge-of-the-world way, a collection of compact buildings bunched across the road from the parking lot. Its sole chairlift is an ancient Poma that flies improbably toward this ramshackle summit terminal:
The place was filled with shitbag teenagers and there were only three trails open. Still it was wonderful in a how-does-this-still-exist kind of a way. My lift ticket was $25. The aesthetic was fuck-you cityfolk without pandering to the hipster quest for authenticity. It’s just a ski hill on the side of a highway. And good goddamn that can be an amazing thing.
Sunday, Jan. 9 – Mount Peter
Like everyone else skiing Mount Peter on any weekend day for the past 40 years, we are a family in a minivan spending all day to organize 10 minutes or less of actual skiing. It’s all part of the experience, I guess. Ninety-five percent of the skiers were bunched around the carpets, so I stuck the kid in a lesson and lapped the empty lifts. Peter is a 200-foot bump but the terrain far-skier’s left has a good pitch and the snow was still prime from lack of traffic and I lapped this and picked up the kid and left.
Wednesday, Jan. 12 – Snow Ridge and Woods Valley
Snow Ridge got 10 inches overnight Monday. Woods Valley got 15. Both were closed Tuesday. I cleared my calendar.
At Ridge on a weekday you park right in front of the lift. Even on a powder day. The lifts are old, the grooming minimal, the crowds at work. It’s a magnificent place, the 500 feet of vert irrelevant. This is real skiing. I hit the trees off north on all-natural snow with long grass poking up through the incline, lapped empty untracked lines on South, buoyed down the abandoned T-bar line parallel to the Ridge Runner double.
I pulled up to Woods Valley with the summit chair standing idle in earlydusk. For a nearly 50-year-old fixed-grip lift it moves at amazing speeds and I lapped the new snow and half-open mountain until a freezing-rain storm materialized to crush the snowpack. Such waste.
Sunday, Jan. 16 – Catamount
Six below when we stepped out of the van along the Massachusetts-New York State line. Of course it was the first day in three seasons I forgot my boot heaters. I brought my buddy who hadn’t skied in two decades so we ripped the greens far skier’s right off the pair of triples and damn it the guy remembered how to do it: