The first sign of trouble for Alta Ski Area’s Sunnyside lift arrived in Mike Maughan’s inbox in late August.
The message, which came from lift-manufacturer Leitner-Poma of America, said the ski area’s new six-person, high speed lift likely wouldn’t be done by Nov. 20 as anticipated. Parts ordered from third-party manufacturers and distributors weren’t arriving on time and their delay was creating a backlog. So, Maughan, the resort’s general manager, reset his expectations for Christmas. And then New Year’s. And then Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Finally on Saturday, three months after the resort opened and two months after it was scheduled to start turning, the time will come for Alta to fire up its newest lift.
“There is a lot of excitement,” Maughan said, “from people that are finally going to be able to ride this lift.”
Sunnyside is far from the only lift to not open on schedule this season. Delays caused by supply chain disruptions and exacerbated by an unusually snowy winter have stalled lift installation from eastern Canada to Colorado. As of Dec. 19, according to Jason Blevins of the Colorado Sun, barely half of the 60 “new and replaced lifts” planned for the 2022-23 ski season in North America were ready for skiers.
By last week, though, LiftBlog.com reported just five remained. Two of them are in Utah: Alta’s Sunnyside and Deer Valley Resort’s Burns Express.
The chairs on the Burns Express were hung Thursday and resort spokesperson Emily Summers said it is expected to be up in running in a couple of weeks. As with Sunnyside, Summers said setbacks for the Burns Express were a result of supply chain issues and “significant snowfall.” Deer Valley reports receiving 295 inches of snow this season, far surpassing its average of 229 inches, according to the forecasting website OntheSnow.com.
As of Thursday, Alta had the most snow it’s ever had by Jan. 19, Maughan said. It’s also on the verge of breaking its record for snowfall between October and January. Yet while that much snow is great for drought-stricken Utah and for business at the ski area, it wasn’t great for getting a lift up and running.
Maughan said crews were constantly having to plow routes to the top and bottom terminals so they could be accessed by cranes, which would set parts as they came in. Once the cranes finished their work right before Christmas, Maughan said, the ski area threw as many people as it could spare at the project to help the Leitner-Poma workers get the lift up and running as soon as possible.
“It just took time,” Maughan said.
For Alta, the delay to Sunnyside was particularly frustrating because it provides the only access to the ski area’s beginner terrain. For most of the past four decades, the milder terrain in the lower east side of the resort has been accessed by two lifts, the two-person Albion lift and the three-person Sunnyside. The new Sunnyside was supposed to take the place of both. Without it running, beginners and ski school instructors had little to work with.
“It’s just our whole half of that side of the mountain,” said Andria Huskinson, Alta’s communications manager. “That’s why it’s caused a lot of problems.”
It could have been a lot worse, though.
The Albion lift was scheduled to be removed in the spring at the same time the old Sunnyside lift came out. At that time, however, whispers of supply chain issues — ones that caused delays numbered in days, not months — were already floating around the industry. So Alta decided to let the 60-year-old “unicorn,” as it had come to be called because of how rarely it ran, hang around a little while longer.
A few weeks into the delay, Albion was up and running again.
“We were very fortunate and grateful that we had Albion, and Albion has been running great. It’s been full of people almost every day due to this and it’s been allowing people to come up and enjoy skiing,” Maughan said. “So yeah, we’re grateful to have Albion provide that experience for people but [we’re] looking forward to turning everything over to Sunnyside.”
Alta has one other two-person, fixed-grip, no-bar chairlift: The Wildcat, which services some of its most difficult and iconic terrain. While rumors have abounded through the years that the ski area plans to replace it, and an upgrade has previously appeared on Alta’s master plan, Maughan said he doesn’t expect that to happen anytime soon. That has to do with the lift’s low-tech nature, he said, and the ease and quickness at which ski patrol and avalanche crews can get onto it and up the mountain compared to lifts with more gadgetry and technology. In addition, Alta just replaced several parts on it. It is not, Maughan added, because lift manufacturers are asking resorts to place orders at least two years in advance to avoid another season like this one.
“It’s kind of revered by people, too,” Maughan said. “So no plans [to replace it] in the next few years.”
According to Liftblog.com’s tally, four Utah resorts plan to add or upgrade one of their lifts next year. They include Big Cottonwood Canyon neighbors Brighton and Solitude as well as Snowbasin and the private Wasatch Peak Ranch, both of which are located near Ogden.