Vail to Upgrade Attitash Summit Triple, along with 5-Chair at Breckenridge and Kehr’s at Stevens Pass
Announcement comes as Epic Pass sales continue to rise
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I’m sad to report that Jon Weisberg, who joined me on the podcast in January to talk about his website and newsletter, SeniorsSkiing.com, passed away last week at the age of 78. A link to his obituary and a link to our interview are below.
Three more lifts, coming right up
Vail dropped its third-quarter earnings release last week. You can read all the impenetrable Finance Bro jargon here. Something called EBITDA, which I think is an acronym for some federal agency in charge of re-insuring re-insurance, increased by around $150 million. Even more exciting, the 2022 EBITDA guidance range is now between $828 and $842 million!
If it sounds like I don’t care, it’s because I don’t. Here’s what does interest me: Vail announced three new lift projects for next year, all replacements of existing lifts:
Breckenridge: A high-speed detachable quad will replace 5-Chair, a 1970 Riblet double.
Stevens Pass: A (probably fixed-grip) quad will replace Kehr’s, a 1964 Riblet double.
Attitash: A high-speed quad will replace the Summit Triple, an 1805 Crapmaster 5000 that is perhaps the most reviled lift in New England.
Here’s a closer look at each lift, and what the upgrades will mean for Epic Pass holders:
Lower your pitchforks: the Attitash triple is scrapheap-bound
Well, if this one didn’t get fixed soon, we were going to start seeing horse heads appear beneath bedsheets. It was time. The current Summit Triple was an abomination, as I detailed in January:
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.
Here, in case you’re interested, is what Attitash looked like before the Top Notch Double came out (this map is from 2015):
The East-West double-double pictured above will be a fixed-grip quad starting this year, but otherwise, this map is relatively unchanged. The point here is that Attitash has been a mess ever since that double came out. Vail never ran the East-West lift last season, and the mountain’s other main lifts – Flying Yankee, Abenaki, and Flying Bear – ran inconsistently. Mechanical issues persisted on the triple. It was time for some serious investment.
With that on the way, we’re left with two big questions: will a high-speed quad overrun Attitash Peak, and will there be anyone to operate the lift?
Let’s start with the second question, which I addressed in an extended post last week. Yes, Vail did a terrible job operating its New Hampshire mountains last year. But the company also committed to a $20-an-hour minimum wage for frontline workers next season. That’s considerably above the state’s minimum of $7.25 an hour, and appears to be slightly below the actual statewide average, according to a variety of sources. Vail is also investing substantial sums in ramping up local human resources departments. If those things don’t work to fully staff the mountains, then we’ll know Vail has a deeper cultural problem.
The capacity question is an interesting one. The Summit Triple can move 1,500 skiers per hour, according to Lift Blog. The hourly capacity for Attitash’s two existing high-speed quads – Flying Yankee and Flying Bear – is 2,800 skiers apiece. Assuming the same capacity for the new Attitash Summit high-speed quad, that would be an 87 percent increase in skiers per hour.
That could be a problem. Only three trails drop off the summit of Attitash Peak, and one of them is the ferociously steep Wilfred’s Gawm (Vail did finally add snowmaking to this trail last season, at least guaranteeing that the run will consistently be open). That’s a lot of Northeast scrape-ity-scrape off blue-square Upper Saco and Northwest Passage. Top Notch – capacity 950 skiers per hour – landed below the summit, spreading skiers out onto the massive spider-webbing trail network that diverges from those three top routes.
So where are all the skiers going to go? That’s Vail’s next big puzzle to solve. My guess is that they simply load the lift with fewer chairs – an easy way to reduce capacity. They may be able to add more trails off the summit, or widen the ones that are there. They have a year to figure it out. But at least – at last – Attitash skiers will have a reliable, fast route to the top of one of New England’s classic peaks.
Up the valley, Vail-owned Wildcat separately announced enhancements to the Bobcat chairlift and the Wildcat Express quad this summer, along with repairs to its snowmaking system. “Our sentiment is to bring the best mountain back to life here at Wildcat,” General Manager JD Crichton says in the video below. “Out priority has to be on the infrastructure. We need to open with 100 percent staffing.”
An upgrade to what is “generally the least-crowded lift” at Stevens Pass
To get the lowdown on the Kehr’s upgrade, I reached out to Marc Galt, founder of Ski The Northwest:
Kehr’s chair (formerly known as Big Chief), dutifully serviced by OG liftie Frank Del Rio, is one of two remaining Riblet chairlifts at Stevens Pass, alongside the iconic Seventh Heaven chair.
On powder days, long lines typically form at Kehr’s due to its being the fastest route to the back side of the mountain - and thus the best pow stashes - via the Double Diamond chairlift.
On non-powder days, Kehr’s services the Showcase run, commonly used by the Stevens Pass Alpine Club for racing.
To a beginner, Showcase looks imposing. Many are surprised to discover that it is, in fact, a blue run and not the black diamond it appears to be from the base. While much of the run is wide-open, there is some respectable tree skiing off to skier’s right. Word of warning, however: if you go down the hill too far without cutting back, you’ll find yourself in the parking lot.
Given that Kehr’s, despite only being a two-seater, is generally the least-crowded liftline at Stevens, it may baffle some as to why Vail has chosen to invest in a quad to replace it. To answer this, one need only look to the resort’s master plan, which proposes a chairlift originating in the parking lot and terminating on the Showcase run. This second chair will provide easier access to the aforementioned tree skiing off of that run, and will therefore increase the popularity of the Kehr’s chair lift in the process.
Lift Blog broke down the masterplan in 2017, and explained that parking-lot chair and its associated trails in this way:
An even larger addition called Northern Exposure would add a detachable quad and stage skiers out of the eastern parking lots with six new trails. As the MDP notes, “Northern Exposure is more than an extension of the existing trail network. It would be a new direction, a contrast, providing an attractive alternative to the traditional offering at Stevens Pass.”
Here’s a look at the masterplan - Kehr’s is the red-and-black dotted line called “Big Chief” toward the lower-left below:
And the current trailmap - Kehr’s is to the left - coming out of the base:
Vail bought the resort a year later, and the fate of Northern Exposure and two additional terrain expansions is unclear. But the company has invested substantially in the ski area, and this will be Vail’s third new lift at Stevens – in 2019, the resort upgraded Brooks from a Riblet double to a high-speed quad and the daisy triple to a fixed-grip quad. Whether Kehr’s is the first step in a larger set of integrated moves to expand terrain, or simply a replacement of a 58-year-old chairlift, remains to be seen.
I’d like to be more excited, but this is just a beginner lift
It’s hard to get super revved up about 5-Chair, a 711-vertical-foot Riblet double that serves mostly beginner terrain. My guess is that most of you ignore this chair altogether as you approach Breck’s sprawling peaks, and an upgrade is unlikely to change that. 5-Chair is in the center of the resort, between Rip’s Ride and Colorado Superchair:
From an experiential point of view, however, this upgrade makes a ton of sense. Fixed-grip lifts are tough for beginners, and an upgraded 5-Chair will run adjacent to (and a step up from) Rip’s Ride, which is making the transition from Jurassic-aged double to high-speed quad this summer. This will be Breck’s 13th high-speed chairlift and its eighth active high-speed quad (North America’s first high-speed quad, Quicksilver, debuted at the ski area in 1981). Plus, think of the park kids Brah.
So what else you got?
After last year’s $300 million-plus, 21-lift bonanza-ganza glossed as – of course – Vail’s Epic Lift Upgrade, this three-lift announcement may seem a bit underwhelming. But Lynch noted that these were just “the first projects from [the 2023] plan.” Expect more in Vail’s next earnings report, which ought to drop sometime in September. In the meantime, here’s a spiffy video summarizing the planned 2022 projects, which, outside of the two spite-delayed Park City lifts, ought to be ready for the coming ski season:
Below the subscriber jump: Epic Pass sales are up, a new ski area joins the Powder Alliance, a Tahoe resort will cease selling lift tickets, a New England ski area will re-open, a Montana resort adds new trails, and an environmental catastrophe is unfolding in Utah.