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How Does Ski Lifts Work

  • Filip 

Last updated on February 2nd, 2022 at 11:08 am

A ski lift uses an electric motor to drive around a steel cable that is mounted at the bottom, on the way up, and at the top of the slope. Ski lift chairs, gondolas, cable cars, or t-bars are connected to the steel cable and transports the skiers up to the top. The empty chair or gondola then circles around and travels back empty to the bottom of the slope to pick up new skiers.

Some ski lifts like the chair lift, gondola and cable car lets you rest your legs when going up and you can sit comfortable. Smaller ski resorts och facilities with older ski lift systems sometimes have t-bar and button ski lifts, wich pull the skier up hill while the skis is still in contact with the snow. Always apply good behavior in the slopes, ski lifts and in the ski lift queue while waiting for your turn.

How ski lifts work, chair ski lift

If you love skiing and other related sporting activities, it is quite obvious that you will find this article interesting and informative. We will be talking quite a bit about ski lift because it forms an important and indispensable part for all those who like to reach difficult places to carry on with their skiing. Put in simple words when we refer to ski lifts we are talking about a simple mechanism that is extremely effective and useful for transporting skiers up a hill. Ski lifts are therefore an integral part of any skiing expedition and therefore it would make interesting reading to know more about it from various angle and perspectives. Ski lifts have been around for many years now and it is believed that the first ski lift was built in 1908 and therefore it is almost 112 years now since they are being used. Let us therefore straight away get into the various interesting aspects of ski lifts so that our readers and other interested persons.

History of Ski Lifts

Though the first prototype of ski lift was invented in 1909, the first three chairlift types of ski lifts were perhaps invented in 1936. The credit for this goes to George Morton. The lifts were installed on the slopes of Black Mountain. Since then these lifts have gone a long way and gone through many changes and improvements in technology. There are different types of skis though the three major variants are aerial lifts, ski lifts and surface lifts. In some places cable airways are also used. These are used in almost all major skiing areas of the world.

Find out more at Wikipedia:

What Are The Different Types Of Ski Lifts

There is no doubt that some terminologies and phrases used in skiing could be a bit confusing. However, once you are in touch with them, and start making use of them, it will not be long before you are able to have a better understand about the same. We will try and have a look at different types of ski lifts that are commonly used. We are sure that it will be able to give our readers and other interested stakeholders some useful and pertinent information and knowledge.

Poma or Drag Lift

This is suitable for a single person only. You will have to literally ride on these drag lifts with your skis and other accessories. The skiers have to unstrap and face sideways towards the upward moving slope. They are known for the convenience and efficient movement of people. It is perfectly suited for those who are keen on solo riding. It is perfected suited for covering short distances within a very short period of time.

However, it does take some bit of practice to master using a drag lift. The first few attempts may be a bit scary and you should find out ways and means by which you can overcome this fear factor. You cannot be on hands-free mode because it will entail risk of falls and injuries. Though it is for short distances and therefore efficient and less time consuming, it may not be as far as other types of ski lifts that you may come across.


This is a ski lift that has its name taken from Italian word Gondola. This is one of the most common and popular means of cable transport and it also could be considered as a type of aerial lift. It is a complex construction structure and it is propelled and supported by cable from the above. It is made from a loop of steel cable and the same is strung between two different points or stations. It also sometimes comes with intermediate supporting towers.

It works on a simple technology. At the various destination and end stations, you have the clamp passing over a rail. This helps to push the clamp jaws and they open. It allows the gondola to rise off from the cable and it is then clasped and caught by slow moving chain. The chain moves the gondola around and takes it to the end of the main pulley wheel. This is done quite slowly and it is comfortable and safe enough for passengers to alight from the gondola exit and carry on with their skiing expedition and enjoyment.

Chair Lift

As the name itself suggests, chair lift is a kind of ski lift that is used to transport skiers uphill so that they can continues to enjoy their skiing and move downhill on their skis. These ski lifts come in the form of a series of chairs. These chairs are left hanging from a cable that moves. It is mostly used for carrying people up and also down a mountainous terrain. It is convenient, safe and efficient and therefore it is highly popular amongst large sections of skiers.

It basically belongs to the family of looping steel cable and it also comes with a large pulley. The pulley is located at each end also known as the bullwheels. The chairs, also known as carriers are left hanging from the cable. The chairs are firmly held in place with the help of a mechanical grip. The grip is unique and versatile. It works the same way as a vice and it is adequately and perfectly tightened around the cable. This prevents the chair from sliding back when it is on the move or also when it is stationary.

They are also popular because they are considered to be one of the safest as well as efficient modes of travelling from lower to higher heights and vice versa. However, it is important to follow the required safety standards so that even the most minimal chances of accidents and mishaps can be avoided.

Hence, if you are looking for one of the safest, proven, time-tested and efficient modes of moving from point to another in a mountainous terrain, there is no doubt that chair lifts could be considered as one of the best options.

Read more about Dos and Don’ts of the Chairlift.

Hybrid Gondola & Chair Lift

They are also known as hybrid lifts. This is because it is a combination of chair lift and gondola lift. It was introduced for the first time by a famous name Poma and they would like to all these lifts as Telemix. However, today apart from Poma there are many others who build these types of hybrid chair lifts. For example, there is a company by the name Dopplemayr who calls these lifts by the name combined lift. In many areas of North America, hybrid lifts are also known as telecombi or chondola (combination of chair and gondola).

These types of lifts are quite popular amongst thousands of skiers across the world and there are obviously many reasons for the same. They combine the advantages and benefits that both gondolas and chair lifts offer. Gondolas are popular because they can offer protection from the element of nature. They come in handy during cold weather conditions or when the skies have opened up.

On the other hand chair lifts are preferred by many because they are convenient and easier to board when compared to other ski lifts. In fact there are many chair lifts that are also known as bubble chairs. This is because they come with a unique acrylic glass dome. This protects the users from the elements of the weather. They also fall under the category of hybrid ski lifts.

They come in different capacities and sizes. While some have a capacity to transport almost 3,220 people per hour, there are others that can transport around 2,400 people per hour. A few of them are capable of reaching the mountain top in around 5 minutes while others may take around 4 minutes and something more to reach the top.

Cable Cars/Aerial Tramways

Aerial tramways are also considered to be one of the most common and easiest forms of transporting people from lower heights to higher reaches and also for bringing them down. They are also useful for transporting material that is required by people who live in higher reaches where conventional means of road transport may be difficult to reach. They are also known as aerial tramways, sky tram, ropeway and a few other names.

This is basically a form of air lift that makes use of one or a maximum of two stationary ropes. These are used for supporting. You also have a third rope that provides the required propulsion. This is unique because this form of grip comes with some advantages. The tramway cabin is fixed to the propulsion rope and therefore cannot be separated or decoupled when the entire thing is operations. This makes it quite safe when compared to other means and modes of transportation.

However, when they are compared to gondola lifts, they do have some short comings. They may not be able to offer the kind of carrying speed and capacities that gondolas offer. Secondly, they may not be able to negotiate and turn corners. The wait time during peak season is usually high as far as these aerial tramways are concerned. The technology of these ski lifts have changed and improved with time. Today you have aerial tramways that come with double deck cabins. They are capable of carrying 200 people at a height of around 1,300 feet. Both the upper and lower decks can be occupied and travelling in these ski lifts is certainly a wonderful experience to say the least.

T-Bar and Button Lifts

These are perhaps a bit outdated. This is another form of ski lifts that make use of cables. The skiers remain on the ground and on their feet while the t-bar or button lifts pull them up hill. The skier place the ski lift between their legs or behind the butt and hold on to the bar connection to the cable. The cables moves up and this ensures that you are able to move uphill without too much of an effort. Without this facility, the skiers may have had no other option but to climb uphill in thick snow. This could be energy sapping and may not leave them with the required energy that is needed for undertaking the skiing expedition and other related activities.

Read our guide: How To Ride The T-Bar Lift With Skis.

However, it would be pertinent to mention here that in most skiing destinations and locations, Button Lifts and T-Bar lifts have been replaced with gondolas and chairlifts. However, they continue to be used in beginner slopes and other such small skiing areas where the elevation is not very steep and where it does not extent for long distances. There are some disadvantages compared to other forms of ski lifts. It requires some bit of skill and beginners and children may find it a bit uncomfortable. Getting back to the piste could be a problem for many. Further, the snow surface must be smooth and continuous. They are slow and have lower capacity.


Heliskiing is an off trail form of skiing and is also common for those who are looking for excitement and adventure as far as downhill skiing is concerned. Helicopters or choppers are used for such form of ski lifting. Hence, it is quite possible that many people do not want to classify it with the conventional ski lifts as we have understood them. They were first used in 1950s in Europe and Alaska with the purpose of accessing terrains that were remote and difficult to reach.

The whole activity of Heliski was commercialized in Canada in 1965 by Hanser Gmoser and they made it into an attractive tourist proposition. They added lodging, guiding and transport along with this form of ski lifting and since then it has become quite popular amongst quite a few scores of people across the world.

It also is referred to as another type of backcountry skiing or free riding. However, since choppers and helicopters are used, it could be an expensive proposition and therefore not many people may be able to afford it. If you want to be a good helskiing professional, you need to be quite fit medically and physically. You will have to tackle challenging red turns. If you are good at piste skiing and also would love to try out a different form of ski powder skiing then heli skiing could be a good option for you.

How Does Ski Lift Slow Down?

You have to understand that old fashioned ski lifts don’t have the facility to slow down. They are capable of moving only at a constant speed. Hence when they reach the bottom especially downhill, the impact at times can be painful and uncomfortable. However, the modern day ski lifts, more specifically the big sized ones have the capacity to change gear. Therefore these chair lifts and even gondolas have the capability of switching to a lower speed. This helps in disembarking and boarding. Once all the passengers have disembarked or boarded, the vehicle will be able to switch back to the faster and main cable.

You also have high-speed chairlift or detachable chairlifts. These fall under the category of aerial lifts. They come with a number of chairs attached to a wire rope that constantly moves. This rope also is referred to as haul rope. The rope is strung and connected to two or even more than two terminals and they could be situated over intermediate towers. These are becoming the most commonly used ski lifts except for the small sized ski resorts.

There are a few things that are interesting as far as detachable chairlift technology is concerned. They are capable of attaining decent speed and they can handle higher capacity and numbers of passengers. They are capable of covering 1000 feet per minute compared to fixed grip lifts that can move only at a maximum speed of 500 feet per minute.

Since these cables move much faster than what passengers can comfortably handle for embarking and disembarking, these detachable chairs have a unique technology. They are connected to a unique cable with the help of a powerful and strong cable grip. This grip is spring loaded. It detached at each and every terminal and this slows down the chair considerably. This makes it convenient for skiers to load, unload, embark and disembark. The typical speed at this stage is around 200 feet per minute which translates to around 2 miles per hour. This speed limit is slower than any fixed grip bunny chairlifts.

Can You Take A Ski Lift Down?

In the most cases you can take the ski lift down. While ski lifts are considered useful when moving uphill because of obvious reasons, they also have the capability of moving downhill also. However, you have to ensure that you move off the chair skis while it is on the move. The ski lifts do not generally come to a complete stop unless somebody has fallen off. However, as mentioned earlier, the speed of these lifts even when they are travelling downhill can be controlled. The speed can come down to as low as 2 mph and this make it highly convenient to get of the ski. If you do not want to get down, you can sit tight till the chair lift reaches the final destination where it will slow down or come even to a grinding halt depending on the needs and requirements of the end users.

What Powers Ski Lifts?

Modern day ski lifts make use of electric motors. While old ski lifts may have used pulleys and other forms of energy generation methods to move them. These motors are used to turn and activate the bull wheels. In most cases the ski lifts also have backup diesel power motors also in case the main electric power supply fails for some reason or another. The motor and the powering devices may be located on the top or at the bottom of the chair or other types of ski lifts. They are located taking into account the type of ski lifts and the various engineering requirements and needs that are associated with them.

Electric motors are considered to be less expensive when it comes to operation when compared to diesel systems. Of course they are more eco-friendly and compatible as far as the environment is concerned. However, both the motors and the controls need regular maintenance and upkeep. The carbon brushes and electrical contacts in the controls need to be cleaned and maintained on a regular basis. While computer technology is used in some ski lifts, the time tested and proven electrical components are used. These include contactors and motors.

How Much Electricity Does A Ski Lift Use?

The total cost of running a ski lift would depend on a number of factors. These include size of the lift, the capacity, the weight that it has to haul and other such factors. However, if we are to go by average any modern day ski lift would require a daily running expense of around $2,200 to $2,500 and a significant portion of it would go towards electricity costs.

While the consumption would vary depending on the factors mentioned above here are some figures that might be interesting to the readers. A fully loaded gondola or chair lift or even double-decker lift would require a power of around 1400 to 1600 amps for a period of 10 seconds. This is for a car with a weight of 450 lbs. When running at full speed it would require anything between 1000 and 1200 amps when it is running at full speed. When the lift stops and starts again you would need additional power to start the motor. Hence, the above would perhaps have given the readers a rough idea about the total electricity that would be required. The power consumption for a ski lift can range from 7.5 KW or 10 HP to around 750 KW or 100 HP depending on various factors mentioned above.

What is The Longest Ski Lift In The World?

There are quite a few ski lifts that are categorized as being one of the longest in the world. The longest ski lifts start from 9,403 feet to an astonishing 11,012 feet. According to experts and based on inputs and research findings, the Slide Brook Express is arguably the longest ski lift in the world. It is located in Sugarbush, Vermont and it uses a 1995 Detachable Quad (Dopplemayr) version of ski lift.

Why Are Ski Lifts So High?

There could be many reasons for answering the question as to why ski lifts are so high. However, there are some common reasons that are applicable across all types of ski lifts. They need to be in a position to maintain a set and safe distance from the ground at all point in time. If they are not at the right distance from the ground, people may have the tendency of hopping off it when the lift is moving at a reasonable speed. It could lead to accidents and secondly, the necessary height is required to ensure that the ice and snow do not touch the lifts as they move up and down at high speeds.


We are sure that the above would have given our readers a reasonably enlightening and useful insight into the various aspects of ski lifts. It could be useful to have some idea about the different types and variants of ski lifts and how they can be used in different conditions, situations and circumstances.