A Deeper Dive Into The Heaven’s Gate Lift Replacement

After teasing this project dating back to last spring, we’re excited to finally get underway with our big Heaven’s Gate Replacement Project. As most of you already know, we will be replacing the current Heaven’s Gate Triple with a new fixed-grip Heaven’s Gate Quad to open for the 2024-25 winter season. It’s been a good run for the triple, with 40 years of service under its belt, and it’s time for a well-deserved retirement.

You can think of the new Heaven’s Gate Quad as similar to our Valley House Quad in how it operates. It’s fixed grip but will have a loading conveyor, which allows the lift to be run at a faster speed than a lift without one. And although we are going from a triple to a quad, the overall uphill capacity will remain similar due to fewer chairs on the line, preserving the downhill experience without overloading the trail infrastructure with too many people. The heavier chairs will also endure the wind better, and increased spacing between them will give guests additional time to clear the unload area onto the newly graded summit.

You might have seen our social posts a couple days ago detailing some operational changes that we need to make including closing Heaven’s Gate after this weekend for the remainder of the season, and we wanted to take the time to elaborate further on why those changes need to happen, why they need to happen now, and then expand on all the moving parts that go into a lift project of this nature so everyone can better understand what an undertaking this is.

But before we do, we’d be remiss not to mention that this weekend is shaping up to be the perfect sendoff with plenty of sunshine and temps in the lower 30s and 40s. We have a great lineup of events this weekend with Retro Sloshwicking, our Wall of Fame Celebration, Throwback Après Party at Castlerock Pub, and Late Night Music with The Grift all on Saturday and an Easter Service, Easter Egg Hunt, and Cowbell Champagne Party on Sunday. That’s not even to mention the next couple weekends of fun including Pond Skimming, Pride Weekend, our Totality Celebration, and Spring Fling headlined by G Love. Also, don’t forget, starting this Monday, we’ll be moving to spring hours, where Super Bravo will run 10 AM – 5 PM on weekdays and 9 AM – 5 PM on weekends (other lifts 10 AM – 4 PM).

But back to Heaven’s Gate: let’s look at what operational changes we’re making for the rest of the season. Beginning Monday, April 1st Heaven’s Gate will be closed for the remainder of the season as we begin the work to install the new quad. As that area of the resort and some of the trails surrounding it will now be a work zone, there will be trail closures including  Downspout, Domino, Lower Domino, Gondolier, and parts of Heaven’s Gate Traverse and Lower Jester. What’s left of the Castlerock trails will also close if we can keep them open through Sunday.

Why all of that terrain? Well, beginning April 1st mobilization begins. And with the top of the project happening way up on the mountain, we will be using Gondolier, Castlerock Runout, Header, Lower Jester, Heaven’s Gate Traverse, the top part of Valley House Traverse, and Jester as a work road to  move up and down vehicles and construction materials. Believe it or not this route actually preserves the most skiable terrain for the longest period of time, leaving our typical spring skiing terrain like Stein’s, Snowball, Spring Fling, and even trails like Murphy’s Glades and Birdland still accessible.

But naturally the bigger question is why does this need to start now? Why can’t we wait a couple weeks to get this project going? After all, we have all summer to get it done. Unfortunately it’s a little more complex with that. The biggest immediate time constraint revolves around the Bicknell’s Thrush. Those familiar with ski industry operations have probably heard of this bird since ski resorts often operate in their habitats. Bicknell’s Thrush is classified as a High Priority Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Vermont. It is classified as a Regional Species of Greatest Conservation Need for the Northeast US. It is listed as Threatened in Canada under the Species at Risk Act. And globally it is classified as Vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

In Vermont, and specifically here at Sugarbush, the Bicknell’s Thrush is found at high elevations along the northern Green Mountains. So as part of this lift project we’re required to avoid, minimize, and/or mitigate work between May 15th and August 1st to limit impacts to this bird, which breeds and nests in dense forests in northeastern North America between May and August and heads south to the Greater Antilles for the winter. What that really means is we need to get going on the more impactful parts of this project like blasting, drilling, and excavating at upper elevations from tower 7 up to the top terminal. If we don’t get things done before May 15th, it means no new Heaven’s Gate.

That’s just one piece of an incredibly complex project, one we need to coordinate across multiple teams including Sugarbush, Maine Drilling & Blasting, G.W. Tatro, Doppelmayr, Royal Electric, Radio North, helicopter operators, concrete suppliers, environmental consultants, and regulatory agencies. Here’s a quick list at what a project of this scale includes:

  • Mobilize excavation equipment, drill rig, haul vehicles, etc. and get them to the top of the mountain while there’s still snow to minimize impact to ski terrain and the ground.
  • Remove old lift – top terminal and foundation, bottom motor terminal and foundation, 14 towers and foundations, chairs, haul rope, communication lines, and two operator huts.
  • Temporarily relocate and protect the Heaven’s Gate patrol hut, Sugarbush radio building and equipment, snowmaking pipes and hydrants, high voltage power lines, and telecom lines., while maintaining power to the Radio Vermont and Vermont Electric Power Company communication facility at the top of Lincoln Peak (the antennas you see at the very top of the mountain).
  • Remove trees at the top terminal and along the lift line.
  • Drill and blast the top terminal area for trail regrading, new top terminal, and new tower bases. This includes blasting the existing top terminal and three upper tower foundations.
  • Winch an excavator down Ripcord to dig, drill, and blast new tower foundations while also chipping old bases to below ground level.
  • Prep for and install/assemble new lift – excavation and site work, top terminal and foundation, bottom motor terminal and foundation, conveyor and foundation, 14 towers and foundations, chairs, haul rope, communication lines, and two operator huts.
  • Fly in concrete via helicopter, deliver new towers (poles and cross arms), terminal components, and fly out old towers and cross arms.
  • Install electrical equipment, test and commission.
  • Reinstall summit patrol hut.
  • Relocate a small stream, install stormwater infrastructure and complete final grading.
  • Pre-check new lift followed by testing, commissioning, and acceptance test.
  • Open for the season!

What makes all of this that much more complicated is its location. This isn’t like when we replaced say the Village Double or Sunshine Double, this is an environmentally sensitive high elevation site with snow and limited off road mountain access. It’s not easy to get to! Plus we need to always be mindful of mountain weather and safety. For example if there’s a thunderstorm, we have to transport everyone down off the mountain to a safe location.

This is all to say that while we’re thrilled to be getting this project underway, we’re also cognizant of how complex this project is and how long it might take. And that’s assuming everything goes according to plan. With so many moving parts it would be naïve to assume there won’t be various delays and hiccups along the way. That’s the nature of construction.

We know there’s the potential for more snow next weekend and that we are only days away from the Totality, but we need to ensure we have enough time to properly get this lift installed in time for next winter. And while extending Mt. Ellen’s operation would be nice, the international staff that made up a large part of Mt. Ellen’s operations team this season have left to return to their home countries and we simply don’t have the staff at this time of year to keep two mountains operating simultaneously. We do plan to keep the North Lynx and Gate House areas open, which typically would close next weekend, as long as possible to keep extra terrain open for everybody. We promise saying goodbye now will be worth it come next season with a new lift. Oh, and stay tuned for some potential chairs for sale too. Until then, come get a couple last laps, and we look forward to seeing you throughout the rest of spring.