One of the most common remarks when ski hills announce a new fixed gripped lift is, "Why didn't you put in a high-speed lift instead?"
So I wanted to take some time to discuss the differences between these two types of lifts and why many resorts across the Midwest choose fixed gripped chairlifts over detachable high speeds.
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The Differences Between Detachable and Fixed Grip
Before we begin, the first thing we need to do is quickly go over the general differences between a highspeed lift and a fixed-grip lift. If you already know these differences, you can go ahead and skip ahead or stick around for a quick refresher and a little bit of chairlift history.
In its simplest form, a chairlift consists of two terminals, a haul rope, and individual chairlifts. Now obviously, there are a lot of other parts involved, including tensioners, towers, sheave wheels, auxiliary motors, cable catchers, brittle bars, gearboxes… you get the point - but for this article, you only need to understand those few things.
Fixed Grip Chairlifts
Let's first look at fixed-grip chairlifts - as they are the most common among Midwest hills and for many reasons that we will cover later in this article. Fixed grip chairlifts are relatively simple machines. A motor is located at one of the terminals that spin the bull wheel (the big wheel), thus moving the haul rope and the individual chairs.
Fixed gripped chairlifts get their name from the grip - the name given to the component that connects the chair to the haul line. There are a couple of different grip designs, such as Riblets that are interwoven into the haul line and a conventional style that uses a bolt and tension spring to grip the line. Still, the basic premise is the same - the chair has a fixed position on the haul line.
Now, as you could imagine, since these chairs are fixed onto the line, the faster you spin the lift, the more difficult it becomes to load and unload the chairs, therefore creating a maximum speed, but the introduction of detachable chairlifts would change this forever.
Instead of being fixed onto the haul line, detachable chairlifts have grips that detach while in the terminal. This allows the haul line to maintain speed while the chair is slowed down for loading purposes. And obviously, this enables the lift to operate at a faster line speed while still making loading feasible for everyone.
Many consider Breckinridge's Quicksilver Quad, installed in 1981 by Doppelmayr, as the first modern detachable quad chairlift. Still, several "less-modern" examples pre-date that.
One of the earlier accounts of a detachable chairlift comes from Von Roll. This famous company manufactured amusement park sky rides and used detachable cabins and chairs for their rides dating back to the 50s & early 60s.
Then in 1961, a two-person detachable chairlift called the White Lady was installed in Scotland, and then in 1968, the city of Utica, New York, installed a detachable quad for their community ski hill.
And Although these came well before the Quicksilver lift, they did not move nearly as fast, and most required operators to push the chairs and cabins onto the haul line by hand.
But that's enough history - let's dive into some of the pros and cons of installing a highspeed lift compared to a fixed-grip chairlift.
The first, the probably more obvious element at play, is cost. As you could probably guess, highspeed lifts are much more expensive when compared to their fixed gripped counterparts. How much more expensive? Well, that depends on the installation, but at least double the cost but typically even more than that.
For example, in 2017, Giants Ridge installed two quad lifts, one a high speed and the other quad was a fixed grip. At the time of installation, the fixed-grip cost about 1.4 million dollars to install versus the high-speed, around 3.5 million dollars.
As you can imagine, that's a hard bill to swallow for a small ski resort. Would you rather have two, maybe even three lifts, or just one highspeed?
But that's not where the increased costs stop because high speeds are much more expensive to maintain throughout their service life. Given their more complex terminals and components, high-speed lifts require more expensive parts and maintenance, making them more costly to operate throughout their life.
Giants Ridge Mountain Operations Manager, Benjamin Bartz, estimated that they spend about five times the money to maintain their highspeed lift compared to their fixed-grip quad. But it doesn't even stop there.
Because high-speed lifts are more complex machines, they require more mechanical and electrical knowledge to maintain and repair, which is harder to find in today's labor market. These staff members also come at premium wages.
And you might be thinking, we'll ya, but highspeed lifts move more people up the hill… but what if I told you they didn't.
Pros/Cons: Uphill Capacity
Uphill capacity is a term used to measure how many skiers a lift can move up the hill in a given hour. This figure assumes perfect loading and no stoppages. But believe it or not, a highspeed quad can move just as many people uphill in an hour as a fixed gripped quad.
And this might seem like it doesn't make any sense, but it all starts to come together when you think about it logically. Although highspeed lifts move almost twice the speed as fixed grip chairs, they cannot fit as many chairs on the line due to the increased speed.
For example, at Giants Ridge, their fixed-grip quad has 100 chairs versus their highspeed, which has only 50 chairs. That said, the uphill capacity of both of these quads is the same at roughly 2400 skiers per hour.
Now, this assumes full lift speed, perfect loading, and no stoppage, and as we all know, this is more common among fixed-grip chairlifts, but you get the idea - highspeed lifts don't necessarily move more people up the hill, but they do more them faster. And this can be both a pro and con.
Pros/Cons: Moving Skiers Faster
This speed is a massive benefit to skiers and riders on the less crowded days. They can lap chairs in roughly half the time of a fixed-grip chairlift, gaining more laps and vertical feet. But on really crowded days, the increased speed creates more crowds in line and on the hill.
These crowds form because high-speed lifts have fewer chairs but move the same amount of people per hour - meaning skiers are spending more time waiting or on the hill instead of riding the chairlift.
For example, if we had 400 skiers skiing the fixed-grip quad at Giants ridge, we would be able to fit roughly 200 of them consistently going uphill on the lift, which would leave about 200 skiers waiting in line or on the hill.
If we compare that to having 400 skiers skiing the highspeed quad, we would be able to fit roughly 100 of them consistently going uphill on the lift, leaving 300 waiting in line or on the hill. So 100 extra skiers compared to the fixed grip lift.
Now to counter-argue this point, it's rare that ski hills are cranking out maxim uphill capacity outside of just a couple of days a year, but when you look at this from an owner's standpoint - you can start to see why fixed grips make a little more sense for smaller hills.
Pro/Cons: Terminal Size
And speaking of smaller hills, one thing many don't realize is that the terminals of a highspeed lift are much larger when compared to a fixed grip lift. The increased size is due to the added components needed to remove the chairs from the haul line in the terminal.
Swinging on back over to Giants Ridge - if we look at their lower terminal for their fixed-grip quad, it measures about 35ft in length with the lift shack and about 32ft wide. Riding over to their highspeed quad, this measures about 70ft long and 50ft wide. This means the Highspeed terminal is almost three times the square footage per terminal. Given how tight a lot of our smaller ski hills can be - highspeed terminals would sometimes just not fit or dominate the top of the hill.
If a smaller were to install a highspeed, they might even have to level off land at the top of the hill to make room for the unloading terminal, possibly knocking off some critical vertical feet. Hey, every foot counts!
This is not a concern for some of our larger resorts, but it is something many people don't think about when they see high speeds.
Pro/Cons: Impact of Installing a Highspeed
Another element that many skiers forget about is how installing a highspeed can change the dynamic of a ski hill. For example, if a ski hill has just one highspeed lift or receives its first highspeed lift - this will naturally cause more skiers and riders to ski that lift and the area it services. This would then cause other areas to be less skied, and the area with the high speed will see increased traffic.
This increase in traffic could be good, but it could also be bad. A few things ski areas have to consider are; do we have enough snowmaking on those runs that will see more traffic? Do we need to widen runs to accommodate a more significant flow of skiers? Are our buildings and infrastructure able to handle that increased flow?
And even as silly as this sounds, will this base area highspeed make the ski hill look more crowded than there is? Because I mean perception is everything.
So as you can see, there is a lot more that goes into choosing a lift than many of us think about. High speeds are incredible for high-traffic ski areas that have the space and financials to justify them, but the truth is - a lot of Midwest ski hills wouldn't gain enough to justify such an investment.
But there you guys have it, a few reasons why Midwest hills tend to install fixed grip lifts over highspeed detachable. Massive shoutout to Bennijmain at Giants Ridge for helping me throw this together. But until next time, I hope all of you have a great week, pray for snow, and we'll see you out there!