Alf Alderson’s takes another look at the engineering delights that take us up the hill so we can come down again. This time the focus is on Aerial Lifts:
The first funitel was installed in 1990 in Val Thorens; the peculiar name is characteristically bizarre French combination of ‘funiculaire’ and ‘telepherique’, and despite the fact that funitels offer a fast way to gain altitude there are not that many scattered around the world’s ski resorts, but you will find them in St. Anton, La Plagne and Verbier, for instance.
Funitels have the advantage of performing better in high winds than the regular gondolas they resemble because they’re clamped to two cables rather than one.
Who knows what a traditional, flat-bottomed Venetian boat and a ski lift have in common, but for our purposes a gondola lift (or télécabine) is a small cabin supported and propelled by cables from above. The system consists of a loop of cable that is strung between two or more stations, usually over intermediate supporting towers, from which cars are suspended.
Less common are open-air gondolas, or cabriolets, which are often exposed to the elements, slow and somewhat irritating until you consider that without one, you’d be walking.
And then there’s the infamous La Grave gondola, which is a ‘pulse’ lift. What this means is that the cabins are arranged in discrete groups, or ‘pulses’, and the entire lift system slows down for loading and unloading as a pulse reaches top, bottom or mid-stations. La Grave – it just has to be different…
What we’re talking about here is ‘chondola’, ‘telecombi’ or to use Poma’s terminology, ‘Telemix’, whilst Doppelmayer call them ‘combined installations’.
The names may be pretty horrid, but hybrid lifts offer lift operators the advantage of combining the technology of chairlifts and gondolas with their individual advantages; gondolas provide protection from the weather and allow pedestrians, mountain bikers etc. to use them, whilst chairs are lighter, operate better in high winds and don’t require users to remove skis or board.
Combine the two on the same lift – as, for example, on Le Chaux Express in Verbier – and you can change operations as the rider load, season and weather conditions demand.
The first chairlifts date back to the late 1930s and were installed at Sun Valley, Idaho – they were based on a banana boat hoist. The first in Europe were installed in the Czech Republic in 1940.
Early chairlifts were rickety old single- and double-seat affairs, and some are still in use today – one of my favourites is the old fixed double chair at Red Mountain, BC, because it’s like a trip back in time as well as providing access to some fine skiing.
Triple-, quad-, six- and even eight-seater affairs are common today, with the Jochbahn at SkiWelt Brixen im Thale being the fastest eight-seater in the world at six-metres per second, and some even have heated seats, such as the new Pre St. Esprit six-seater in Les Arcs, which is apparently the longest chairlift in France and thoughtfully features wi-fi for the terminally dull.
‘Detachable’ chairlifts are much faster than ‘fixed’. Detachable chairs are connected to the cable by a powerful spring-loaded cable grip which detaches at terminals, allowing the chair to slow considerably for loading and unloading – without this, the cable moves faster than you can safely load and unload.
Detachable chairlifts move at an average speed of 1,000 feet per minute (12 mph), whereas a typical fixed-grip chair may travel at only 500 ft/min (5.6 mph), which can be highly frustrating on a powder and/or cold day.
Cable cars are perhaps everyone’s idea of a ‘real’ ski lift, and are amongst some of the most spectacular ski lifts in the world – think Chamonix’s Aiguille du Midi (the biggest vertical ascent in the world, from 1,035-metres to 3,842-metres), Paradiski’s double-decker Vanoise Express (capacity in excess of 200) or Whistler’s glass-bottomed Peak2Peak Gondola, at 436-metre above ground the highest cable car in the world.
A cable car is basically any of a variety of transportation system relying on cables to pull vehicles along, up or down at a steady rate. The cable cars themselves have neither engine nor motor but are moved by a cable that is rotated by a motor at the top or bottom of the mountain.
Cable car systems can be divided into aerial tramways, which consist of a cabin suspended from a cable, pulled by another cable, on top of which spies, villains, WW11 resistance heroes and Nazis frequently fight to the death, and gondola lifts (see above), which are too small for rooftop fisticuffs but offer a nice alternative to getting up into the mountains on cold, snowy days since you’re inside all the way.
This one is a bit specialised; a funifor is a cable car type lift system patented by Doppelmayr, which consists of two reversible cabins running on parallel tracks. There are not too many of these around, although if you’re skiing in Arabba in Italy the Porta Vescovo lift is a funifor, but most people other than ski lift geeks probably wouldn’t recognise a funifor even if they were riding in one.
If you’re a mathematician, this, apparently, is a funicular:
Don’t ask me…
If you’re not, it’s a cable railway such as the funky little trains you see all over Switzerland; more utilitarian examples include the Funiculaire Arc en Ciel from the centre of Bourg St. Maurice to Arcs 1600 and the Funiculaire Du Perce-Neige just up the road in Tignes.
Funiculars are far from being a specialised form of ski transport, however; the first cable railway dates back to at least 1515, and was a private line providing goods access to Hohensalzburg Castle in Salzburg, Austria.
The basic idea of funicular operation is that two cars are always attached to each other by a cable, which runs through a top pulley. The cars are counterbalanced as one goes up and one goes down, minimising the energy needed to lift the car going up (which is why, when you pass the train coming in the other direction, you know you’re half-way up or down). Winching is normally done by an electric drive that turns the pulley.
Funiculars are probably the best ski lifts for lazy skiers as they allow you to travel in comfort, eat your pie, read the paper and announce “I’m on the train” when your phone rings, all en-route to getting in a few turns.
Used for heliskiing. Enough said.
In case you missed it, here is part one of Alf’s look at the lift systems.