The snow started flying last week at Crystal Mountain Resort and, on Sunday and Monday, 29 chairlift towers were, too.
A powerful Boeing-made helicopter spent the two days flying towers into place to replace two Crystal lifts that have a combined 87 years of history.
An avalanche on March 10 wiped out the iconic High Campbell lift, the highest at Crystal, forcing the resort to replace the experts-only lift a few years earlier than it had planned. The 49-year-old Quicksilver lift, which services beginner terrain, is going through a planned upgrade.
There is still about a month of work remaining on the $3.8 million project, said resort spokeswoman Tiana Anderson.
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Crystal typically opens in mid- to late November. The resort got its first dusting of snow Sept. 29-30, but it was nothing worth waxing the skis for. Anderson said the resort needs at least two feet of snow to open.
High Campbell and Quicksilver typically aren’t among Crystal’s first lifts to open. High Campbell needs more snow than most areas of the resort because it’s so steep. And as one of the lower lifts on the mountain, Quicksilver sometimes doesn’t get enough coverage for opening day.
The lifts are being installed by Skytrac, a Salt Lake City company. Anderson said Crystal chose Skytrac because it liked the idea of using a domestic company, and Skytrac was able to manufacture and install the lifts at a lower cost than if Crystal installed the lifts itself.
During the two-day tower installation, the helicopter typically needed about 20 minutes to fly each tower into place, Anderson said, though some were more complicated than others.
“It got really tricky when you added a little more elevation and weight,” she said.
As workers moved up the mountain Monday, they found the towers were too heavy. Thinner air and taller towers forced workers to remove the cross arms to make lighter loads.
The highest tower on Chair 6 (the name longtime Crystal skiers and snowboarders still use for the High Campbell lift) took 1 hour and 45 minutes to install.
Workers assembled the first half of the High Campbell lift Sunday and finished Monday, Anderson said. She estimated the Quicksilver towers would be in place by nightfall Monday.
She said the new lifts will provide different kinds of upgrades for the upcoming ski season.
The new Quicksilver lift, a fixed-grip quad, will finally live up to its name. The lift that opened in 1965 — the fourth installed at the ski area — was notoriously slow, taking more than 15 minutes to access easy terrain.
Now, beginners and intermediates will need only 7.6 minutes on the lift. It will move 1,800 skiers per hour — about 68 percent more than its predecessor.
Quicksilver was moved, and the slope below it was regraded. The new lift will deposit riders at 5,277 feet, about 150 feet lower than the old lift. This eliminates an intermediate pitch and makes the lift more beginner friendly, Anderson said.
The High Campbell lift will be very similar to its predecessor, which opened in 1976. It will remain a fixed-grip double, and the uphill capacity will stay about 980 riders per hour.
Crystal officials chose not to upgrade to a faster or higher-occupancy lift, Anderson said, to help prevent the area from being over-skied. Also, because the terrain is advanced, it doesn’t lure overwhelming traffic, Anderson said.
The lift does have noticeable improvements, however. The 85 seats are about twice as heavy as the previous lift, Anderson said.
“That should mean fewer days where we have to close the lift because of high winds,” Anderson said.
Replacing Chair 6 was already high on Crystal’s priority list before the March 10 avalanche, but the project had not yet been scheduled.
Anderson said moving the work up to this year didn’t delay any other projects. This summer, the ski area also added an electric diesel Snowcat, a remote avalanche control system and a second back-up generator system. The Puget Sound Energy backup generator failed several times last season.
The ski area hopes to start working on a new hotel, perhaps as soon as 2016, and it also has approval to install two new lifts. Timelines for those projects aren’t set.