Air Cranes and Ski Lifts

I recently went out West to Colorado for a skication. I skied at some of the most amazing places I have ever been. The highlight of my trip was Vail Mountain. The sheer size of this mountain is something I have never seen before: Vail starts at about 8,000 feet above sea level and climbs to over 11,000 feet, having a vertical rise of 3,450 feet. Spanning over 3 faces, 5,289 acres of skiable area, 33 ski lifts and almost 200 marked trails, this mountain was unbelievable. Not only is this a ski resort, it’s a 4.5 square mile town with about 5,000 residents. While I was taking in the views at 11,000 feet, I was thinking to myself, how did this all come together?

I was most interested by the ski lifts. How did they construct these lifts in such remote areas with large obstacles and steep inclines? There was no way to get any sort of crane to these locations. How did they get these 30-plus foot-tall lifts constructed at such high elevations with no crane? For most of the lifts at Vail, the only option was to use “air cranes” also known as “helicopters”.

sky crane

Vail’s chair lift Number 5 was completed in only a few months during the off season. The construction of the chair lift started with the clearing of the run. (Which is when they cut down a path through all the trees where the lift will run.) After the run is clear, they are ready to start foundations for the lift towers. Each tower averages 30 feet high and needs roughly 10 to 15 yards of concrete per footing. This is when they begin to utilize the helicopter: for concrete lifts.

They fly the helicopter with buckets up and down the mountains and are able to pour 100 to 130 yards a day. (For reference, 130 yards of concrete would take approximately 13 concrete trucks.) Once all the foundations were in place and cured, they were able to start flying in the lift towers. This took a lot of coordination and planning because many of the towers were different heights, in multiple pieces, and had to be in an exact location. When it was time to install the towers, the helicopter would fly in and lower the rigging to the ground crew, communicating only by hand signals, to hook up the rigging to the towers.

The helicopter would lift the section and fly it to its new location where another crew waits for it. As the helicopter lowers the section, the ground crew guides the tower onto the foundation and secures it with bolts. The rigging is released and the helicopter goes to get the next section.  Meanwhile, the ground crew attaches the rest of the bolts and starts to climb the tower.

At the top of the section, the crew procures all the hardware just as the next section arrives – this is needed to connect the new section to the already installed tower piece. In order to guide the next section into place, they install two cables, called snakes, into specific bolt-hole locations. The crew grabs the snakes and feeds them through the corresponding bolt-holes to help align the tower as it is lowered into place.

cross arm installation

The final part of each tower are the cross arms, which actually carry the cables that carry the ski chairs. These are flown by helicopter in the same fashion as the tower sections. Once all of the towers have been erected, it is time to feed the cables. They first feed a smaller guide line cable through the lift and then use the guide to pull the final cable. They overlap the cable ends about 100 feet and splice the ends together over the 100 feet to create the continuous cable loop.
cable splicing
The cables are tensioned and the chairs are installed. After the chair is up and running, they ensure that it is safe by loading all the chairs with sandbags to simulate a full chair. Once all the systems are checked, the lift is ready to go.

Thanks to the careful planning and coordination at the start of the project, they are able to get the lift erected in a short period of time before the opening of the next season.

If you missed anything, here are some great videos showing the construction of chair 5 and another lift at Mt. Bachelor.

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