In with the New
By Alesha Damerville
Images courtesy of Larry Pierce
By Dan Greeson
We’ve all heard the phrase, “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” When the destination is the top of the Steamboat Gondola, most would probably agree that the destination does, in fact, matter, specifically getting there as quickly as possible on a powder day.
Alterra, Steamboat Ski Area’s parent company, announced its plan in 2018 to invest more than half a billion dollars in its resorts over the next five years. The company deemed that the best place to start in Steamboat would be its gondola.
“Here in Steamboat, out-of-base capacity is one of our issues, being a single-portal base area,” says Dave Hunter, vice president of mountain operations for Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. Crews spent most of the last offseason removing the old eight-passenger gondola and replacing it with a new 10-passenger one.
Larger drives and more horsepower allow the new gondola to run at six meters per second as opposed to the old one’s five meters per second. This might not seem like much, but it cuts the typical 12-minute ride down to nine minutes, and, coupled with the fact that 12 additional cabins were added to the new gondola line, overall carrying capacity has been increased by 1,000 people per hour.
Improvements to efficiency extend beyond speed and capacity.“We looked at the whole system with more of a holistic approach,” Hunter says. The gondola building at the base area has been rearranged to allow more space for crowds to access and board the gondola. “It used to be, after you went through the overhang – the open area in the gondola building – there was a resolution center smack-dab in front of you. That pinched everyone at the worst possible point, so what we’ve done is moved the resolution center so that immediately as you come off of the plaza you will be RFID’d (have your ski pass scanned) right there.” The renovation also removed the glass wall and sliding doors from the building’s entrance to allow for more space as crowds enter.
Loading efficiency for the gondola cars themselves is another major factor. New cars are taller and roomier, with level walk-ins as opposed to the crouch-down-and-step-up walk-ins Steamboat skiers had grown accustomed to. This reduces the number of slows and stops for people who have trouble boarding.
On the mountain operations end of things, improved car design allows a massive increase in efficiency when moving freight up the mountain. “In the past, we had three specific cabins for moving freight,” Hunter says. “Now, every cabin can essentially be used as a freight cabin, because of that level walk-in. What once took four-to-six hours to move now takes only about an hour and a half. We’ll be able to load them on without slowing the gondola down. If there are no guests in a cabin, we can use it to load freight up.”
Great care was put into redesigning the upper terminal too. The stairs exiting the building, which can be a tricky spot for new skiers, now have a more gradual decline and a landing halfway down.
For the digitally inclined among us, the addition of WiFi to the gondola cars might be the most enticing addition.
Replacing a gondola is no easy task, and Hunter attributes the success of the project to two main factors. “The fact that we’re on schedule with such a complicated project speaks to the planning of Alterra, Steamboat and Doppelmayr (the company that manufactured the new gondola). We had a team of five or six people who lived and breathed this project starting in February 2018. That’s the number-one thing that’s paid off with us being on schedule. The second challenge was making sure everything is sequenced appropriately, and Doppelmayr has done a fantastic job finding efficiency through the project.”
During construction, the ski area enlisted a Black Hawk helicopter from Timberline Contracting to fly out the old towers, fly in loads of concrete, and finally to install the new towers on steep slopes.
Alterra’s overall capital investment plan for the Steamboat Ski Area, which includes an expanded terrain at Pioneer Ridge and additional beginner terrain, is still on the resort’s agenda. For the time being, less time on the gondola and more time on the slopes translates to happy skiers in Steamboat this winter.