Inside lines

jim darby/the snow biz

There isn’t much about ski lifts that I don’t like.

I like the sounds they make, the way they clank and click through the load stations and judder over the tower wheels. I’m eternally fascinated by lifts of the detachable variety and how they transfer so comfortably between the high-speed cable and the low-speed conveyor and the way the whole thing still manages to keep perfect time. About the only thing I don’t like about ski lifts is when they aren’t going.

With all that in mind, I’d have to say I regard Andrea Doppelmayr as having one of the best jobs on the planet. The daughter of Artur Doppelmayr, a person who revolutionised the lifting game through the 1970s and 1980s, she grew up in the business. From the company base in Wolfurt, in Austria’s Vorarlberg region, her job is customer relations – she visits trade shows and she visits Doppelmayr customers around the globe, including attending the opening of new installations.

Hence her appearance at Mt Buller last year for the launch of its $7 million, six-seater detachable Doppelmayr Holden Express Chairlift, which is where theSNOWbiz caught up with Andrea and Doppelmayr’s Australian agent, Bruce Turner.

Andrea’s grandfather Konrad worked with an engineer to create one of the first T-bars in the world. It was the technical sophistication of the T-bar spring boxes that saw them introduced at Mt Buller just prior to the 1959 winter.

So began the enduring connection with Australian resort operators that has seen this country used for some interesting Doppelmayr developments.

“My grandfather, he never believed in chairlifts,” she said, “he was afraid to put people up in the air, so this was a little bit hard on my father when he took over the company – my grandfather was still in the background. That was why the first (Doppelmayr) chairlift made in the world was in Australia – it was pretty far away!”

That was Mt Buller’s Bourke Street double chairlift which opened for the 1964 season and ran until 1983.

At the time, Doppelmayr was a three-person operation. Now the company has over 2000 employees and product extending beyond snow resorts. They are in the material handling business which brings them customers like BHP Billiton in its mining operations and they also build people moving systems, particularly for airport use.

In ski lifts, their firsts have included the triple chair, then the quad, the six-seater and the eight-seater. Another recent landmark is Whistler’s Peak to Peak Gondola whichit covers a distance of 4.4 kilometres and has just four towers. The biggest gap between towers is just over 3 kilometres. Don’t read this bit if you’re acrophobic – its greatest height above the ground is 436 metres and they’ll even have a cabin with a clear bottom so you can get the most out of that height.

Where to next?

“There are limits made by physical laws, so probably what we will see are refinements, more comfort and more safety,” Andrea said, “Also you can’t put more people on the mountain, there are limits there.”

Over the last 10 years, those refinements have seen changes in the efficiency of operations – with greater levels of automation and safety.

The Holden Express at Mt Buller has the first automatic parking station for a lift in the southern hemisphere. “It’s at the top station,” Bruce Turner said, “you can turn up in the morning and all the chairs are in the shed and you can press a button and it loads them automatically. In reverse, at night time, you can press a button and unload them – you don’t need an operator to touch them.”
The practical side of efficiency lies in reduced infrastructure out on the mountain – the new Buller lift has replaced two old ones, taking 24 towers down to nine.

There are unique challenges for Australian lift operators, particularly when it comes to wind and ice. “In the southern resorts, in Victoria but not so much in New South Wales, icing is a major challenge,” Bruce Turner said.

“We also have strong winds, but with the heavier lifts – the eight-seater at Perisher Blue and the six-seater here, they handle the wind.

“The eight-seater at Perisher we’ve had running in 125 km/h winds, people were getting blasted on the slopes, so they stopped skiing and that’s why they stopped the lift.

“With the new technology, with station foundations getting stronger, we’re able to pull greater tensions and we’re able to put the towers a little bit further apart and reduce tower exposure,” Turner said.

Next on the horizon in Australia could be installations at Thredbo and Perisher Blue. With its year-round operation, Thredbo’s Kosciuszko Express lift is probably one of the best used in the world.

“It will probably have 80,000 hours on it by the time they change it,” Turner said, “on average a lift does about 1000 hours a year, but it probably does about 3600 a year because it’s used year-round. That might be relocated and replaced with a six-seater.

“Perisher are looking at replacing two chairs on Mt Perisher with a six or eight-seater; they’re very happy with their eight-seater,” he said.

At the risk of nagging, theSNOWbiz would also like to see a chair from the Burning Log in Guthega straight up the ridge there to replace the cumbersome Blue Calf and Blue Cow T-bars.

As for Doppelmayr, they continue to innovate, in response to customer needs and sometimes in anticipation of them. Apart from those physical laws, imagination seems the only other limit.

“We have a sauna gondola in Finland,” Andrea Doppelmayr said, “they hop in, it’s heated up and they have a sauna in their bathing suit on the way up. We also have rotating cabins, especially for scenic areas.

“We’re very flexible with what we can do for the customer.”


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There's a lot to like about ski lifts, and the people who make them.

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There's a lot to like about ski lifts, and the people who make them.

Life is full of ironies. The Alps got the snow and Russia got the Olympics.

Meet the fashion victims; a whole winter world of them.