Someone asked me recently to summarize how the season has been going so far. My gut response rose and fell like a rollercoaster. There’s been plenty of variability interlaced with lots of fond memories. Upon a little further reflection I understood the juxtaposition of those two thoughts. It really has been a bizarre year so far.
Snow and Weather
Another mild start to November left us with a small window of snowmaking temps ahead of Opening Day. The snowmaking teams managed to take every advantage, and we were once again skiing the weekend before Thanksgiving. But temps stayed mild, and not a lot changed until that first big storm in late November when we were able to open a good chunk of terrain at Lincoln Peak. That storm, another in early December, and the hard work of the snowmaking team, saw us even hiking to Castlerock early season.
Of course, then the rain came. Well, more like a deluge. Multiple inches of rain saw flooding throughout the state and wiped away much of our open terrain. And that was just one of the rain storms. It certainly had an impact on our snowmaking pond, stirring up a ton of silt that can damage the overall snowmaking system. But we knew we needed to keep refreshing and expanding terrain, so we bit the bullet and kept on making snow. The steady stream of snowmaking fought against the lack of natural snowfall, and we continued to open new terrain throughout the month, often leading the north east in open terrain.
Then January hit, and with it an historically incredible amount of snowfall. 71″ so far in fact, the snowiest January since 2010/11. Life’s been good ever since, even with the deep freeze we saw this past weekend. Our current snowfall totals sit at 138″, an amount we didn’t hit last year until March 4th. Whatever sort of snow dances you started doing as a new year’s resolution, keep it up.
Snowfall or not, one topic that circulates every year is lifts. It’s probably the area that sees the most churning through the rumor mill on any given season with why a lift is or isn’t spinning. So let’s talk about how the lift experience has been going so far, and yes I will get to this past weekend at Mt. Ellen.
For starters, we couldn’t be more excited to get our first new chairlift in several years. As you’ve heard us talk about throughout the fall, we’ll be replacing the Heaven’s Gate Triple this spring and summer with a new fixed grip quad. The new lift will be slightly realigned to lower wind exposure and have slatted seat backs to help minimize the opportunity for wind holds. Construction on the new lift should start later this spring and be ready for the 2024/25 winter season.
But in the meantime how have things been going this season on the lift front? If we look at the big picture, pretty darn well. Lift efficiency, which looks at lift downtime compared total operating hours, is in the high 90s% range. That number doesn’t factor in wind holds, which overall haven’t affected lifts too much yet this season. Think about how many hours lifts run in a winter. So far, our lifts have already spun for over 3000 total hours. To only have a fraction of that be downtime is an impressive feat and a testament to the hard work of our lift maintenance teams. These are complex machines after all, and it’s no easy task operating them, maintaining them, and keeping them spinning on a daily basis for all of us to enjoy.
How about specifics?
Zooming in from that macro perspective does lead us to a couple lifts that have had more downtime than usual, for multiple reasons.
The first of these is North Ridge. Many know the ongoing story with this lift. In fact, it’s why this is our next planned lift replacement after Heaven’s Gate. When a timeline is more clear we’ll be sure to share more. Aside from being struck by lightning multiple times this summer, the main ongoing issue with that lift was the chair spacing. When the chairs detach and reattach in the terminals, sometimes the chair spacing can get off. This can be a result of many things including icing, tire pressure, wind, and drive belts among others, all of which can trip faults. This is what happened this past Saturday. Our teams have worked tirelessly to fix this: in the summer, in the winter, even delaying the opening of the lift a few days to try and resolve. It’s not a safety issue, but it is mighty inconvenient for our team and for you as the guest. The lift maintenance team spent Sunday and Monday working on this again and feel the problem is fixed. But if you ever see our maintenance team in the base terminal pushing chairs around, now you know.
But to be fair, wind holds also played a large roll this past weekend. North Ridge and Summit were both down for a while on Sunday due to winds unrelated to lift malfunctions. On that note, we try and make it quite clear on our snow report, either through the narrative or lift statuses, when something is on wind hold vs. maintenance. We’ve also begun utilizing P.A. announcements with our snow reporters. Those have been working great at Lincoln Peak and should be up and running at Mt. Ellen soon. The other piece that affected this past weekend was icing, Summit in particular on Monday.
GMX also ran into a pretty rare issue on Sunday when a gust of wind blew a chair in sideways to the top terminal. Fixing and inspecting the lift left it down for an hour and a half. Otherwise, GMX has been running quite well all season long. We made major maintenance upgrades to that lift over the summer and eliminated some of the issues we used to face with it in the past. On that note, it’s worth reminding everyone that each lift undergoes extensive maintenance each summer, above and beyond what is required of us. Lifts are inspected by a state inspector before operating for the season. Our maintenance and lifts ops teams check lifts each and every day before and during operation. This summer’s capital maintenance projects included replacement of all the electronic switches that monitor the rope position along the sheave wheels. We also replaced a fiber line along the whole line, which brought telecommunications up to our mid mountain buildings.
I’d also be remiss to not point out when Super Bravo stopped running earlier this month on January 8th. What many thought might have been a lift malfunction was actually an unseated passenger incident. When something like that happens, and we subsequently evacuate a chair, we are required to clear the lift and reassess before reopening. All of those things take time yet are unrelated to any lift malfunctions. More recently, this past Friday saw Bravo cleared on diesel and closed for about an hour and a half. Essentially, we received a fault that ended up being a bad reading, but in an abundance of caution, decided to do a full diagnostic before reopening.
Finally, Inverness has been experiencing an issue that has caused us to run it at a reduced speed this season. That lift was actually already in the plans for this summer to be overhauled, so it’s fortuitous that we’re already set to fix this issue. Unfortunately, it’s not something that can be fixed mid-season. To answer the question of why the lift hasn’t run more for the public this season, the reduced speed issue combined with the fact that it’s a redundant lift with GMX spinning, makes it unnecessary many days. We still clear the lift every day in case something happens to GMX, but similar to Valley House, which is also a redundant lift, we try and focus on operating it when it can enhance the experience (for example reduce lift line times on weekends).
Lift issues can often feel magnified when multiple lifts go down in the same day, as happened this past weekend, but in the bigger picture, things have actually been in a pretty good space. We continue to hire for new lift mechanics (we have three more spots we’d like to fill), as are most ski resorts. Right now we have ten mechanics on staff. Then factor in days off, illnesses (of which there seem to have been a lot this winter), and other circumstances and you can see how hard these people work to keep all of our lifts running on a daily basis. In a cool piece of news, we also had the opportunity to send a couple of our mechanics to a new lift maintenance training program through Alterra Mountain Company. It’s always great to have the chance to provide our staff new training and growth opportunities.
We’re Not Even Halfway
As writing this we’re sitting at day 68 of winter operations, well under halfway for the winter season. If you’ve been out here, you know the wild, and mostly fun, ride we’ve had so far. If not, there’s plenty of time to get out and enjoy this special place. More snow storms, a potential Slide Brook Express Quad Opening in the near future, and plenty of fun events celebrating Mt. Ellen’s 60th Anniversary are all in the cards. See you on the mountain.