Chairlift Chatter Part 3
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All Rights Reserved.
By Bill Fetcher

Dec 95

In 1939, three years after the world’s first chairlift was built at Sun Valley, Colorado’
s first chairlift began operation at the appropriately named Pioneer Ski Area north of
Gunnison. This lift was a converted mine tram, brought from an abandoned mine on
Cumberland Pass south of Tincup. Homemade chairs hung on the cable replaced
the ore buckets. Pioneer served Gunnison and Crested Butte area skiers till 1951
when it was condemned by the USFS. The concern of the Forest Service wasn’t so
much the jerrybuilt lift but a run called Big Dipper. Steep, twisting, narrow and
dangerous, Big Dipper appeared to be the only way down from the top judging
from an early photograph of the area. A skier who happened to overcook a curve
could easily wind up in the trees.  

Skiing resumed on Rozman (rope tow) Hill, about three miles northwest of Crested
Butte, through the 1950s until the present Mount Crested Butte area was developed
in the early ‘60s. In September I visited the site of Pioneer, about three miles up
Cement Creek, just south of Crested Butte. As with most abandoned ski areas, the
old lift line is plainly seen but Big Dipper is nearly grown over.

In 1947 the small ski area atop Berthoud Pass premiered the nation’s first double
chairlift (and the beginnings of “Chair Chat”).  This lift was replaced about 1988,
shortly before the area would close. For the next thirty years or so chairlift
development would concentrate on improving reliability, comfort and safely. Triples
and quads were introduced (in 1963 and 1964 respectively at Boyne Mtn., MI) and
were initially met with trepidation by lift manufacturers and skiers alike; it’s difficult
enough to get just two skiers to agree on the same thing. These were fixed-grip lifts;
chairs are only removed from the cable for repairs or cable replacement. A major
breakthrough came in 1981 when the Austrian firm of Doppelmayr introduced the
country’s first high-speed, detachable quad chairlift at Breckenridge. * The event
was literally greeted with fanfare; Doppelmayr imported an Austrian brass band for
the occasion. With a cable speed of 1000 feet-per-minute these new lifts whisk
skiers up the mountain, while in the terminals the chairs are detached from the cable
and move slowly enough for passengers to board and unload safely.  From ‘81 on
major ski areas have been obliged to install more “express” or “superchair” lifts to
meet skier demand and remain competitive. High-speed quads are not without their
drawbacks that include high initial cost, complex maintenance-intensive machinery,
and a tendency to overload available trails (uphill capacity exceeds downhill
capacity). Skiers can get in more runs for their lift ticket dollars, though as skiers
tend to gravitate toward the high-speed quads it seems any time saved in getting up
the mountain is offset by the time spent moving through a crowded maze. Under
these conditions a trip on an “old-fashioned” fixed-grip chairlift moving at a sedate
and relaxing 500 feet-per-minute isn’t such a bad tradeoff.

*Replaced in 1999 by a Poma six-person ("six-pack") double-loading high-speed
detachable lift.  The original high-speed quad has been relocated to the Owl's Head
area, Quebec.
Pioneer Ski Area
Berthoud Pass' Double
Breckenridge's Doppelmayr High Speed