|Copyright © coloradoskihistory.com
All Rights Reserved.
By Bill Fetcher
Colorado’s first gondola lift, The Sunrise Peak Aerial Tramway (1907-1914) for sightseers was
covered in my series a year ago. Skiers in Colorado would wait till the early ‘60s for their first
gondola rides. The country's first gondola was installed at Wildcat, NH in 1958. Others would follow.
These European imports were primitive affairs with small cabins for no more than two or three
passengers. They nevertheless offered something chairlifts and T-bars couldn’t; protection from New
England’s legendary bone-chilling weather. This feature, along with their ability to move lots of people
swiftly to the top of, or at least part way to the top of a large ski area would endear them to skiers
and sightseers alike.
Colorado’s first gondola for skiers opened at Vail on 15 December 1962 along with the rest of the
area, then consisting of only a few runs and a couple of chairlifts. Vail had been racing Crested Butte
to see whose gondola would be up and running first. Vail’s gondola was built by Bell Engineering
Works of Lucerne, Switzerland; it’s four-passenger cabins, once loaded would be pushed down a
ramp to accelerate them to haul-rope speed. It ascended from Vail Village to Mid-Vail. Crested
Butte’s gondola, a second-hand Telecar system by Carlevaro & Savio of Italy, opened in late January
of 1963. (Also during that month Steamboat’s first chairlift began rolling.) I know little of Crested
Butte’s gondola except to say it was later replaced by a chairlift.
The late ‘60s saw three more Bell installations in the U.S: Mammoth, CA in 1967, Vail in 1969 and
Steamboat in 1970. These used six-passenger cabins and were bi-cable systems, the prevailing
technology already in use in a number of European installations. That’s right, folks, stationary track
rope, moving haul rope, and long, high spans between towers. Steamboat’s gondola had a world
record distance of 3,300 feet for a span of cable between Tower One near the base and Tower Two
at the top of Christie. (Total length was 9,027 feet.) The high span of 252 feet above ground over
Heavenly Daze run between Towers Two and Three was breathtaking in more ways than one. Such
dizzying heights made the system prone to closure whenever the wind kicked up. In January 1972 an
empty, descending cabin was dislodged from the cables by gale-force winds at Tower Three, landing
at the side of Heavenly Daze. Because the winds threatened other lifts, much of the area was forced
to close for the day leaving skiers with little to do but watch the evacuation of 140 people from the
gondola over the next six hours.
Vail’s Lionshead (Bell) gondola faired worse, suffering a tragic accident on 26 March 1976 with four
deaths and eight injuries and resulting in a thorough investigation into operating, inspection and
maintenance procedures. The outcome of this was Steamboat’s gondola underwent modifications and
Vail’s first (1962) gondola was removed, deemed an accident waiting to happen. Its right-of-way
was later taken over by the Vista-Bahn high-speed quad chairlift. Steamboat’s gondola was replaced
in 1986 by a Doppelmayr eight-passenger mono-cable system offering higher capacity, more towers,
and being closer to the ground is less prone to wind shut-downs. (Also that year Aspen Mountain’s
Silver Queen (Poma) gondola opened.) The Lionshead gondola is being replaced as I write this. Built
by Garaventa CTEC of Salt Lake City, Vail’s new gondola will feature lighted, heated 12-passenger
cabins. (Not being a Californian I can’t report on Mammoth’s Bell gondola or whether it’s still in
Nowadays gondolas are taken for granted at large four-season resorts, some sporting more than one.
Thirty or so years ago it was a different matter. Back then the ski area that put in a gondola was
making a bold statement to the skiing public. The message went something like this; we’re a big
mountain, literally on the up-and-up with room to grow and can therefore justify this large, complex,
expensive piece of machinery. Our customers are worth the financial outlay; they’ll appreciate the
speed, capacity and comfort offered them and will prefer to ski at our area. We’re no longer a little
backwoods mom-and-pop-ski-area-with-a-few-chairlifts. Our new European designed-and-built
gondola will give our area some much needed European style and panache. Such was the
transforming effect Steamboat’s first gondola had upon the area. The gondola, more than new hotels,
air service, or anything else was the major attraction for skiers. In later years gondolas have allowed
resorts to offer such attractions as on-mountain dinning after the other lifts have closed for the day.
Telluride’s new gondola, opening this season, was built more for public than skier transportation and
will offer a safer, non-polluting alternative to driving one’s car between downtown and Mountain
Besides protection from the elements, gondola cabins offer something extra, privacy for the lucky
couple that has a cabin to themselves. Wherever there are (or have been) gondolas various “clubs”
have sprung up. To qualify for membership one must consummate a sexual act with another person
before reaching the top. Referring to Steamboat’s first gondola, it was the Tower Three Club after
Tower Three located part way down Heavenly Daze run, not far from the terminal. When your cabin
rumbled through Tower Three that was your signal to get your clothes on.