New Master Plan Previews Vail Mountain Lift Upgrades

With one of the largest lift fleets in the country and a dozen recent additions, Vail Mountain could probably stop building lifts for awhile and be fine. However a new 2024 Master Development Plan, accepted by the Forest Service last month, suggests investment will continue at Vail Resorts’ flagship mountain. The new plan is a collaboration between Vail, SE Group and the Forest Service and replaces a 2018 MDP. It’s important to note that resort master plans are conceptual in nature and don’t constitute approval of specific projects. But Vail has big plans, or at least big ideas.

Today Vail operates two gondolas, 21 chairlifts, four surface tows and seven conveyors designed to accommodate 23,690 guests on the mountain. However the resort is managed to a capacity of 19,900 skiers per day, a planning target that won’t change as lifts are upgraded and reconfigured. “Vail desires to maintain certain capacities, particularly the lift network capacity, in excess of the manage-to threshold in order to ensure a high-quality guest experience,” the plan notes. If implemented completely, it would increase lift network capacity by about seven percent to to 25,420 guests. “The goals of Vail are to continue operating at less than full capacity, but add lifts and lift capacity where needed in order to improve circulation, ease congestion, spread skiers out, more fully utilize underutilized terrain and keep wait times at lifts at a comfortable level and, therefore, maintain a high level ski experience for guests,” notes the MDP.

A major focus of the upgrade plan is moving guests up and out of Vail’s base areas. When Vail occasionally makes headlines for an epic lift line, it’s often at a gondola base first thing on a powder morning. To address this, five new egress lifts are planned. First the Eagle Bahn Gondola at Lionshead is earmarked for replacement. “Given its year-round, day and night operations, freight hauling duties, and limited capacity, the gondola will need a major overall or potentially an upgrade during the life of this plan,” notes the MDP. Built by CTEC in 1996, Eagle Bahn is technically a twelve person gondola; however, Vail has operated the gondola effectively as an eight passenger gondola. A new Lionshead gondola will likely feature 12 passenger cabins and move 3,200 riders per hour.

On the Vail Village side of the valley, the Riva Bahn Express is planned to become a third gondola extending all the way to Two Elk Lodge. The new lift would continue to feature a mid-station on Golden Peak but the top terminal would move thousands of feet up the mountain. “Due to the extended alignment, it will have an enhanced role in transporting guests to the back bowls rather than having guests access this terrain using Northwoods Express #11,” the plan notes. This eight passenger gondola would be a beast, stretching more than 16,000 linear feet and rising nearly 3,000 vertical feet from base to summit.
Also envisioned for Vail Village is a completely new lift with the working name Trans Montane. This 8,400 foot long six pack would start adjacent to the workhorse Gondola One and rise to mid-mountain, providing much-needed capacity and redundancy out of Vail Village. The top station would sit where the Riva Ridge and Trans Montane runs merge and provide access to Northwoods Express. Trans Montane would carry 3,000 guests per hour with a vertical rise of 1,829 feet.

Another new out-of-base lift in Lionshead has already been approved by the Forest Service but not constructed. Once known as Ever Vail and now called the West Lionshead lift, this would be either a detachable chairlift or 10 passenger gondola with a capacity of 2,400 skiers per hour. A couple possible alignments are under consideration with approximately 1,200 feet of vertical unloading near the base of Pride Express #26. Also at Lionshead, Born Free Express #8, is slated to become a six pack while continuing to run parallel to the Eagle Bahn Gondola. This lift is the only original CLD-260 detachable left on the front side, dating back to 1988.

Finally on the out-of-base egress front, the longest fixed grip lift at Vail, Cascade Village #20, would also go detach. This one would be a quad, either following the existing alignment or running further up the mountain to Eagle’s Nest. The lengthened option would include a mid angle station with the lift totaling 2,272 feet of vertical rise. Once all new lifts are in place, guests could choose from seven different gondolas and chairlifts capable of moving 21,000 skiers each hour.

Numerous chairlift replacements are also envisioned on the upper mountain. Even relatively new lifts may be replaced with more modern and larger capacity versions. The first is Avanti Express #2, which would go from a six to an eight place (Vail Resorts just this season opened its first eight place chairlift in North America at Whistler and apparently sees more possibilities in the future.) Mountaintop Express #4 also could be up-gauged from a six to an eight. If either of these projects happen, existing equipment would likely be reinstalled on Vail Mountain or elsewhere in the Vail Resorts portfolio.

Wildwood Express #3 and Pride Express #26, both aging CTEC detachables, would be replaced by newer technology high speed quads or six packs. Little Eagle #15, another one of the three remaining fixed grip chairs at Vail, would be replaced with a detachable quad to create an improved beginner experience. The alignment would move slightly as well and increase in length.

Vail’s Back Bowls are the other location where viral lift line photos occasionally originate. In China Bowl, the 1988 build Orient Express #21 is slated for retirement. “This chairlift is the only access to Mongolia, and Siberia bowls, so reliable service is critical to access the back bowls of the resort,” notes SE Group. The new lift would become the first six pack in the Back Bowls. Nearby, Teacup Express #36 could also go from a quad to a six seater. Finally, a completely new Mongolia Express quad is proposed to run from near Two Elk Creek to the ridgeline above the existing Mongolia Platter. This would create a direct route up Mongolia Bowl and become the sixth detachable lift in the legendary back bowls.

No lift upgrades are planned in Blue Sky Basin, however a variety of trails remain in Vail’s plans. The MDP also contains plans for snowmaking improvements, new lodges and summer activities across the mountain.

The full plan is available on the Forest Service website here >>>>

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