When the Chairs Stop Spinning

Running a ski resort can be a fickle business. When weather conditions are too warm or too cold, too windy or too dry, it can affect a ski hill’s ability to stay open. But nothing throws a wrench in a ski area’s operations like a chairlift that suffers a mechanical breakdown. That’s a lesson that a couple of local resorts found out the hard way this season.

A Quirky Pre-Season Issue

Whitewater Ski Resort located in Nelson, British Columbia, operates three chairlifts that service 1,184 acres of skiable terrain. The first chairlift issue at Whitewater arose before this winter’s season even began. During pre-season safety checks in early December, the staff discovered an issue on their “Silver King” chairlift that required repairs. Silver King is a double chairlift, originally built at Whistler in 1972. It was purchased by Whitewater and installed at its current location in 1993.

“A small leak had occurred, which is a complete anomaly outside of annual maintenance projects and repairs that you do on chairs,” says Rebeckah Hornung, General Manager of Resort Experience at Whitewater. “So we were really grateful to have caught it.”

Taking the Silver King chairlift offline effectively closed about 15 percent of Whitewater’s skiable terrain. What made the shutdown even more detrimental was that Silver King services all of Whitewater’s beginner runs. Facing opening day on December 9, 2022, with an out-of-work lift, the resort offered discounted daily lift tickets and worked hard to get the chair back up and running as soon as possible. On December 24, just in time for the holiday rush, they were able to reopen the Silver King chair and return to full-mountain operations.

Creative Responses to Continued Trouble

The chairlift ran just fine for a few weeks until mid-January, when another routine maintenance check on Silver King revealed a worn bearing that needed to be replaced. That repair would require shutting down the chairlift again, potentially for several weeks. To navigate another long shutdown, the staff at Whitewater knew they had to get creative. “When we found out that we would have to do this extended repair, we thought, how do we revamp our business in light of this?” says Hornung. “How can we do the best that we can with the tools that we have?”

The resort extended the hours of their other two chairlifts, expanded grooming on easier routes, added additional signage, and increased on-mountain staff to support beginner skiers who might have otherwise stuck to the Silver King chair. They also opened the Silver King terrain to uphill touring, catering to the active backcountry skiing community in the Nelson, BC, area. To ensure the area remained safe for skiing, they continued to groom and perform avalanche safety, even though the terrain was no longer accessible via chairlift.

And, of course, they dealt with guests and season passholders who were irritated by the repeated shutdowns. “Obviously there was frustration,” says Hornung. “We are frustrated ourselves. It’s not ideal, but a lot of people are very supportive. They know that it’s not something we anticipated having to happen in the operational season and we’re doing our best to modify our operations to give the best experience.”

Then, a little more than a week into the Silver King repair, maintenance crews discovered a defect in the haul rope on a different chairlift, the Glory Ridge Chair, which services Whitewater’s back side. Now, Whitewater faced the prospect of shutting down two out of their three chairlifts in the middle of their operating season.

Again, they pivoted, offering shuttle buses from the back side’s Glory Lodge to the front, which allowed skiers to still access the back side terrain from the top of Whitewater’s Summit chair. They also made the decision to extend their ski season into April, hoping to help season passholders recoup some of the ski days they may have lost.

Finally, on February 1, Whitewater reopened the Silver King chairlift. Just three days later, they brought Glory Ridge back online as well. When asked about lessons learned from the shutdowns, Kirk Jensen, Whitewater’s Vice President of Development, was frank. Maintaining a piece of equipment that is over 50 years old is no easy feat. Frustrating as they may be, breakdowns and repairs come with the territory.

“That’s why you do daily maintenance checks during operations. And when things are discovered, that’s when you have to deal with it,” Jenson says. “It’s the nature of the industry. Things happen and things need maintenance. You want to maintain a high level of safety and that sometimes means operational impacts.”

Looking to Future Expansion

Whitewater isn’t letting this season’s challenges get in the way of their long-term plans. Already, they’ve cut a path for a new quad that will extend beyond the current top of the Silver King chair. The new chairlift is expected to open in December of 2023 and will give access to an additional 200 acres of skiable terrain. The existing Silver King chair will continue to operate as a beginner lift. Whitewater also has a master plan in place, which, over the next few years, is expected to bring a second back side chairlift, a new lodge and RV sites near their Nordic ski area, and an increased focus on making Whitewater a four-season destination for outdoor recreation.

Like any complex piece of machinery, chairlifts require constant maintenance, upkeep, and yes, occasional shutdowns to keep them running safely. As a skier, I feel grateful to the men and women at all our local resorts who work hard to keep the chairs up and running for all of us to enjoy.

Chris Maccini is a writer, editor, audio producer, and skier living in Spokane. He wrote about the Northern Spirit Express, the new high speed quad chair at 49 Degrees North, in the Nov/Dec 2022 issue of Out There.

Share this Post

Scroll to Top