Most Colorado residents are aware of the conflict between ski resorts and the corporations that own them, but most are unaware of the massive scale of each of these companies. There are six ski industry companies in the Americas that account for one-fifth of all the lifts in North America, ranked in order of size: Vail Resorts, Boyne Resorts, Intrawest, Peak Resorts, Powdr Corporation, and Mammoth Mountain. The combined 589 lifts owned by these companies are responsible for almost a third of the vertical transport feet per hour in North America.
So what is vertical transport feet per hour, and why is it so important for these companies to measure? Simply put, VTFH measures the volume of people going up the mountains on chairlifts. Anyone can obtain this metric by multiplying the vertical rise of a lift by passengers per hour. Ski areas use this data to look at how successful their resorts are each year, and which lifts need to be replaced.
The top operator in the industry is—no surprise—Vail Resorts. If you put each lift at each of Vail’s resorts end to end, the total length of the lift cables would be 115 miles. Vail’s resorts account for 11.4 percent of all the vertical transport capacity on the continent, with a total VTFH of 353 million. While 11.4 percent may not sound high, it does when compared to, say, Powdr Corporation, the fourth largest lift operating corporation, which accounts for only 3.6 percent of North America’s total VTFH.
There is a huge disparity between Vail Resorts and the other five companies that own and operate ski areas. Surprisingly, VTFH has a lot to do with it. For a lift to score big, it has to have a high hourly capacity (high speed) and large vertical rise. Usually it’s gondolas, not lifts, that give each company the biggest chunk of their VTFH. For example, Gondola One at Vail Mountain, a 10-passenger gondola, has over 7.1 million VTFH (1,996′ vertical rise x 3,600 passengers per hour = 7,185,600 VTFH). The largest lift at Vail Mountain, the high-speed six-chair Avanti Express, has over 5.2 million VTFH (1466’ vertical rise x 3,600 passengers per hour = 5,277,600 VTFH).
Even at Breckenridge—a highly popular resort in terms of skier visits per year—the vertical feet traveled does not come close to Vail Mountain. Breck’s Gondola One, while transporting 2,800 people per hour, only has a vertical rise of 391 feet, putting its VTFH around 1 million. Yet Breck’s largest lift, the high-speed six-chair Colorado SuperChair, has a VTFH of over 4.7 million. In this instance, it’s Breckenridge’s volume of lifts that raises its resort’s total VTFH and the VTFH of Vail Resorts company.
By the end of the 2016 season, Vail Resorts was operating 15 gondolas and tramways, 75 detachable chairlifts, and 83 fixed grip chairlifts. Despite their already large number of lifts, Vail Resorts continues to grow. The new Northwoods lift is Vail Mountain’s 10th new lift in 11 years.
Together, Vail, Breckenridge, and Keystone resorts have the youngest average age of lifts compared to any other top ski company. While both Intrawest and Powdr Corporation plan to update lifts at their Winter Park and Copper Mountain resorts, Vail Resorts is way ahead of the pack in terms of VTFH and continues to dominate the ski industry.