Lifts critical to building a world-class resort

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— Before there were high-speed quads with detachable chairs for easy loading and unloading and an eight-passenger gondola, there were two 12-foot diameter bullwheels, a flatbed farm truck and a whole lot of determination.

The year was 1962, and the fledgling ski area in Steamboat Springs wanted a chairlift. But the bullwheels -- a necessary ingredient for the proposed lift -- were stuck in California and the dead of winter was approaching quickly.

So Clark rancher and Harvard-educated engineer John Fetcher, along with a friend, hurried out to California in Fetcher's truck.

The wheels had to be loaded at an angle so the truck could squeeze through underpasses and tunnels, and needless to say, maneuvering through freeway traffic was a struggle in itself.

"That was terrible," Fetcher said of the experience. The wheels made it safely to Steamboat and a couple weeks later, the ski area had its first chairlift, which was named Bear Claw.

But opening day temperatures of 40 degrees below zero posed another problem.

"We couldn't get the lift started because the oil was so stiff," Fetcher said. "So, we had to start a fire under the gear box."

The fire did the trick, and the first of Steamboat's many chairlifts, which was later renamed Christie, became a special part of local history.

In the six years following the completion of Bear Claw, the Thunderhead, Four Points, Headwall and Burgess Creek lifts were erected.

Then, in 1970, the completion of the six-passenger Stagecoach gondola put Steamboat Springs on the international ski map. And once again, Fetcher was the key figure.

Fetcher had visited numerous European ski resorts, where he studied the latest gondola technology. At the time, most of the European gondolas required a drive station between the base of the gondola and its summit because of the great distance between the two points, Fetcher said.

However, a Swiss company was able to construct gondolas that spanned great distances without the need for a drive station. The bi-cable system used by the company was what Fetcher was looking for.

"The advantage of the bi-cable system was that we only needed four towers," Fetcher said. "The disadvantage was that we had to be high above the ground because of the sag."

The gondola's highest point above ground soared to more than 250 feet and the distance between two of the towers surpassed 3,300 feet. The effect of the gondola on Steamboat was unquestionable.

"It put Steamboat on the map," Fetcher said. "That was the thing that really made people sit up and take notice. That's when people really started to come in."

Priest Creek, Elkhead and Christie II double chairs were installed in 1972, followed by Bashor in 1974 and Bar-UE and WJW in 1977.

Triple chairs began to replace some of the older double chairs in 1979, with the construction of Christie III, Arrowhead and Southface. Christie III replaced Christie I, and Southface replaced the ski area's first lift, the Poma.

Four years later, Sundown and Storm Peak triple chairs were erected. In 1984, South Peak and Preview were built and Elkhead was converted to a quad chair. The Sunshine triple chair was built in 1985.

The 1986 completion of the Silver Bullet gondola, later renamed the Steamboat gondola, once again thrust Steamboat to the forefront of the ski industry.

The world's first eight-passenger gondola was capable of transporting 2,800 skiers each hour, which was unheard of at the time, according to Doug Allen, director of mountain operations for the Steamboat Ski Area.

The Rough Rider lift was finished in 1989. In 1992, Storm Peak Express and Sundown Express -- both high-speed covered quads -- were completed, once again transforming skiing in Steamboat.

"It was a neat change of the mountain design," Allen said of the Storm Peak Express lift. "We really changed how that whole pod skies. That was a great improvement to the mountain."

The Morningside Park triple chair was installed in 1996.

Thunderhead Express, finished in 1997, replaced the parallel-running Thunderhead double chair and Arrowhead triple chair.

The latest lift addition to the resort is the Pony Express high-speed quad, completed in 1998. The Pony Express, like the gondola, Sundown Express, Storm Peak Express and Thunderhead Express, represent the latest in lift technology -- detachable lifts.

Detachable lifts allow for a fast, smooth ride with a slow, comfortable unloading speed because individual chairs detach from the main cable and are transferred to separate load and unload systems, Allen said. "You're able to get tremendous capacities out of them and the ride time is cut in half," Allen said.

Converting the Sunshine lift into a detachable lift is the ski area's next major project, but no timetable has been set for the conversion, Allen said. A standard, high-speed detachable quad lift costs about $2.5 million, he said.

And maintenance on such lifts is a project of its own, according to Allen.

"It does take quite a dedicated team of mechanics and operators to keep these lifts running," Allen said.

The ski area employs almost 200 lift operators and 21 lift mechanics.

Forty years can make quite a difference -- five people built that first Christie lift, and not one of them sat at the top of the lift to help a downed skier.

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