A faster way to ride

Sunshine lift improvements cut ride time in half

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Crews attach guidelines to the top section of a lift tower on the new Sunshine Express at the Steamboat Ski Area this summer.

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Heavy equipment and flowers dotted the slopes of Mount Werner this summer as Steamboat Ski Area improvements were made.

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A special high-powered helicopter was used to place the new lift towers that will support the new Sunshine Express at the ski area.

Length? One mile.

Elevation gain? About 1,300 feet.

Speed? Tops out at 1,000 feet per minute, or about 5 meters per second. Time spent riding to Sunshine Peak on the new, high-speed Sunshine express lift, opening this winter at Steamboat Ski Area?

Five-and-a-half minutes.

"The new Sunshine lift will cut ride time in half," said Doug Allen, vice president of mountain operations for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. "Perhaps even better than that."

Allen said the new lift, part of $7 million in capital improvements at the ski area this year, will be able to carry 2,400 passengers to Sunshine Peak per hour. The old Sunshine lift could handle a maximum of 1,800 passengers per hour and would occasionally leave lift riders stalled in the air while ascending the south face of Mount Werner.

Because the old lift operated on a "fixed-grip" cable system, lift chairs would move at the same speed while loading and unloading passengers as they would while ascending the mountain, Allen said.

"That would sometimes cause interface problems with low-level skiers," Allen said diplomatically.

In other words, when bumbling novices - such as the author - would trip and fall over their skis while trying to get on or off a chair, the entire lift would stop, from top to bottom.

Allen said that, like all express chairs at the ski area, the new Sunshine lift will drastically reduce such stoppages by operating at two speeds and slowing chairs down at loading and unloading terminals.

"A comfortable loading speed is about 150 feet per second," said Allen, who has worked at the ski area for 21 winters.

The easier loading will help not only novice skiers, but also families with young children, a major draw of the Sunshine area.

"It's a great place for families to hang out," Michael Lane, public relations director for Ski Corp, said of the group of wide, intermediate trails commonly known as Sunshine Bowl. "You don't see a lot of family terrain (at ski resorts) where you get to go all the way to the top of the mountain."

To further benefit families and novice skiers or snowboarders, maintenance crews at the ski area this fall are creating a new trail called Sundial, which will loop around the initial steep section of the Tomahawk run and provide an easier option from the top of Sunshine Peak.

Other upgrades on the mountain this year, Lane said, are renovations to food courts at the Thunderhead lodge and Rendezvous Saddle; "significant" snowmaking improvements; and a new, 18-foot super-pipe cutter for the snowboard half-pipe.

"The experience on the mountain will be very different this year," Lane said.

Ski Corp. will purchase alternative energy certificates from Three Phases Energy, Lane said, to use solar and wind power produced elsewhere to power the new Sunshine lift.

The ski area's Burgess Creek lift uses a similar program to purchase wind power certificates. Lane said that, appropriately, the new Sunshine lift will be the only lift he knows of in the country to use solar power for its operation.

"We're trying to find another one, but we haven't yet," Lane said.

Change is nothing unusual these days at the ski area, which as of late September was up for sale, surrounded by commercial and residential building projects, and undergoing plans for redevelopment at the base area.

Allen said the upgrades on the mountain are part of Ski Corp's long-range plan for the resort and are not involved in producing a better product for a potential buyer.

"This is a project I've been wanting to see happen for 10 to 12 years now and part of our ongoing mountain improvement," Allen said.

Allen said he is "very excited" about the growth and development around the ski area.

"Not only are we making improvements on the mountain, but we're also creating a vastly improved base area."

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