The Outsider: When one too many 6-packs isn’t a good thing
Seems like everywhere I look at Breck or Keystone this season there’s a big, bold, bright-as-the-sun billboard for Leitner-Poma, the French-born chairlift manufacturer with national offices just west of us in Grand Junction.
“Coming in 2017! Six-person chairlift! Increases uphill capacity! Reduces wait times!”
Next to these exclamations (pulled from memory, not verbatim) are renderings of gorgeous six-packs set against bluebird skies with very smiley, satisfied and generic-looking skiers on the chairs. If you haven’t seen one of them yet, I’m kind of surprised. They’re legitimate billboards, and they’re popping up like weeds all across the mountain. Someone in the Leitner-Poma sales department ought to be enjoying a fat bonus right now.
Earlier this month, the Summit Daily reprinted a Vail Daily news article about the six-pack renaissance. It’s led by Vail Resorts, which operates 17 of the 74 six-person chairlifts across the world and plans to add three more during the offseason: one at Vail Mountain, one at Breckenridge and one at Keystone. At all three sites, the billboards have the same tone: new, fast, convenient, timelier, better.
But is it true? Six-packs are said to increase uphill capacity by 30 percent, or roughly 3,600 people per hour, and yes, it’s been proven. When Breck replaced the old Peak 8 high-speed quad with the Colorado SuperChair six-pack in 2014, it really did improve wait times at the resort’s busiest base-area lift.
Pause. The sales pitch is that six-person chairlifts ultimately reduce wait times, which means more skiing and more value for your $169-per-day lift ticket, or $809 Epic Pass (as of Labor Day pricing).
But a chairlift will never make a ski run itself larger, and that’s where I start to question the corporate pitch.
Last season, Vail Resorts reported a 14-percent increase in skier visits, and despite ho-hum snowfall before December this season, traffic on Interstate 70 during the holiday rush hit record highs: 54,000 vehicles through the Eisenhower Tunnel on Sunday, Jan. 3, with the majority of those travelers heading to ski destinations along the interstate corridor.
Like I-70, ski runs can only get so wide. Breckenridge and Keystone are as big as they’ll ever get, and Arapahoe Basin is the only local mountain with approved plans for terrain expansions. Again like I-70, with more people comes more traffic, and with more traffic comes the potential for more accidents and injuries and even deaths — particularly when that traffic is concentrated on greens, blues and other major arteries. The Vail remedy for this has been more baffles and more snow safety patrollers, which vaguely smells of a police state on the slopes.
Pause again. In light of the recent tragedy at Ski Granby Ranch, where a 40-year-old mother died and her two children were injured after an aging lift malfunctioned, I have to swallow my adversity to aggressive change and think this one through.
For Summit locals, bashing Vail Resorts is a favorite pastime. But even as the corporation continues to sanitize, package and sell the skiing experience, they’re taking appropriate steps to protect clients (not to mention avoid major lawsuits). It’s good to see Vail enhancing the infrastructure at their marquee resorts, and when those billboards say we’re getting brand-new, state-of-the art chairlifts, that’s exactly what they mean. These won’t be retrofitted machines — they’ll be the latest and greatest.
So. It’s a double-edged sword to hear about the invasion of the six-packs. I’m not in the business of moaning and groaning and fear mongering, but I like to think I’m in the business of common sense. I’m already mourning for the reasonably sized quads I grew up riding: Montezuma Express at Keystone, Falcon Chair at Breck, Chair 11 (aka Northwoods Express) at Vail.
And to think, just a few short seasons ago locals balked when Vail Mountain replaced the rickety three-person Chair 5 with a quad. Now, no one thinks twice about what used to be. Crotchety locals will keep on balking, and with any luck for the ski corporations, a whole new generation of skiers and snowboarders will crowd the slopes knowing no different.
But a ski area isn’t an interstate highway, and resorts only have a finite amount of space. It makes me wonder: What’s the next solution for overcrowding on the slopes? Maybe it’s the same solution for I-70 congestion, or the estimated 9.7 billion humans expected to populate earth in 2050 — we just don’t know.
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