A stairlift is sometimes called a "chairlift".
Hunter Mountain chairlift
A chairlift in Bad Hofgastein, Austria

An elevated passenger ropeway, or chairlift, is a type of aerial lift, which consists of a continuously circulating steel cable loop strung between two end terminals and usually over intermediate towers, carrying a series of chairs. They are the primary onhill transport at most ski areas (in such cases referred to as 'skilifts'), but are also found at amusement parks, various tourist attractions, and increasingly, in urban transport.

Depending on carrier size and loading efficiency, a passenger ropeway can move up 4000 people per hour, and the swiftest lifts achieve operating speeds of up to 12 m/s (26.8 mph; 43.2 km/h). The two-person double chair, which for many years was the workhorse of the ski industry, can move roughly 1200 people per hour at rope speeds of up to 2.5 m/s (8.2 ft/s). The four person detachable chairlift ("high-speed quad") can transport 2400 people per hour with an average rope speed of 5 m/s (16.4 ft/s). Some bi and tri cable elevated-ropeways and reversible tramways achieve much greater operating speeds. Fixed-grip lifts are usually shorter than detachable-grip lifts due to rope load; the maximum vertical rise for a fixed grip chairlift is 300–400 m (984.3–1,312 ft) and a width of about 1,200 m (3,937 ft), while detachable quads and "six-packs" can service a vertical rise of over 600 m (1,969 ft) and a line width of 2,000 m (6,562 ft).


Design and function

The Short Cut fixed triple chairlift at The Canyons in Park City, Utah

A chairlift consists of numerous components to provide safe efficient transport.


Especially at ski areas, chairlifts are referred to with a ski industry vernacular. A one person lift is a "single", a two person lift is a "double", a three person lift a “triple”, four person lifts are “quads”, and a six person lift is a "six pack". If the lift is a detachable chairlift, it is typically referred to as a “high-speed” lift, which results in a “high-speed quad” or “high-speed six pack”.

rope speed
the speed in feet per minute or metres per second that the rope fares
[load] interval
the spacing between carriers, measured either by span or time
the number of passengers the lift transports per hour
the ratio of fully loaded carriers during peak operation, usually expressed as a percentage of capacity. Because fixed grip lifts move swifter than detachables at load and unload, misloads (and missed unloads) are more frequent on fixed grips, and can reduce the efficiency as low as 80%.
fixed grip
each carrier is fastened to a fixed point on the rope
detachable grip
each carrier's grip opens and closes during regular operation allowing detachment from the rope and travel slowly for load and unload. Detachable grips allow a greater rope speed to be used, usually twice that of a fixed grip chair, while simultaneously having slower loading and unloading sections. See detachable chairlift.

The capacity of a lift is constrained by the motive power (prime mover), the rope speed, the carrier spacing, the vertical displacement and the number of carriers on the rope (a function of the rope span). Human passengers can load only so quickly until loading efficiency decreases; usually an interval of at least five seconds is needed.


The rope is the defining characteristic of an elevated passenger ropeway. The rope stretches and contracts as the tension exerted upon it increases and decreases, and it bends and flexes as it passes over sheaves and around the bullwheels. The fibre core contains a lubricant which protects the rope from corrosion and also allows for smooth flexing operation. The rope must be regularly lubricated to ensure safe operation and long life.

Various techniques are used for constructing the rope. Dozens of wires are wound into a strand. Several strands are wound around a textile core, their twist is oriented in the same or opposite direction as the individual wires; this is referred to as Lang lay and regular lay respectively.

Rope is constructed in a linear fashion, and must be spliced together before carriers are affixed. Splicing involves unwinding long sections of either end of the rope, and then winding each strand from opposing ends around the core. Sections of rope must be removed, as the strands overlap during the splicing process.

Terminals and towers

A chairlift's upper terminal with the return bullwheel in Italy. This type of terminal is usually used for non-detachable chairlifts.
The lower terminal of a Leitner-Poma detachable lift, the Canadian Rockies Express quad chair and the Doppelmayr CTEC detachable lift, Eagle Express quad chair at Marmot Basin near Jasper, Alberta, Canada

Every lift involves at least two terminals and—usually—intermediate supporting towers. A bullwheel in each terminal redirects the rope, while sheaves (pulley assemblies) on the towers support the rope well above the ground. The number of towers is engineered based on the width and strength of the rope, worst case environmental conditions, and the kind of terrain traversed. The bullwheel with the prime mover is called the drive bullwheel; the other is the return bullwheel. Chairlifts are usually electrically powered, often with Diesel or Otto engine backup, and sometimes a hand crank tertiary backup. Drive terminals can be located either at the top or the bottom of an installation; though the top-drive configuration is more efficient,[1] practicalities of electric service might dictate bottom-drive.

Braking systems

The drive terminal is also the location of a lift's primary braking system. The service brake is located on the driveshaft beside the main drive, before the gearbox. The emergency brake acts directly on the bullwheel. While not technically a brake, an anti-rollback device (usually a cam) also acts on the bullwheel. This prevents the potentially disastrous situation of runaway reverse operation [2]. Many chairlifts have a braking system in the sheaves.[2]

Tensioning system

The rope must be tensioned to compensate for sag caused by wind load and passenger weight, variations in rope width due to temperature and to maintain friction between the rope and the drive bullwheel. Tension is provided either by a counterweight system or by hydraulic rams, which adjust the position of the bullwheel carriage to maintain design tension. For most chairlifts, the tension is measured in tons.

Prime mover and gearbox

Chairlift in Praz de Lys-Sommand, Haute-Savoie, France

Either Diesel engines or electric motors can function as prime movers. The power can range from under 10 hp (7.46 kW) for the smallest of lifts, to more than 1,000 hp (745.70 kW) for a long, swift detachable eight-seat up a steep slope. DC electric motors and DC drives are the most common, though AC motors and AC drives are becoming economically competitive for certain smaller chairlift installations. DC drives are cheaper than AC variable-frequency drives and were used almost exclusively until the 21st century when costs of AC variable-frequency drive technology dropped. DC motors produce more starting torque than AC motors, so applications of AC motors on chairlifts is largely limited to smaller chairlift installations, otherwise the AC motor would need to be significantly oversized relative to the equivalent horsepower DC motor.

The driveshaft turns at many RPM, but with less torque. The gearbox transforms high-RPM/low-torque rotation into a low-RPM/high-torque drive at the bullwheel. More power is to pull heavier loads, or hold more rope speed.

Secondary and auxiliary movers

In most localities, the prime mover is required to have a backup drive; this is usually provided by a Diesel engine, which can operate during power outages. The purpose of the backup is to permit clearing the rope to ensure the safety of passengers; it usually has much lesser power and is not used for normal operation. The secondary drive connects with the drive shaft before the gear box, usually with a chain coupling.

Some chairlifts are also equipped with an auxiliary drive, which can be used to continue regular operation in the event of a problem with the prime mover. Some lifts even have a hydrostatic coupling so the driveshaft of a snowcat can drive the chairlift.[citation needed]

Carriers and grips

Carriers are designed to seat 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, or 8 passengers. Each is connected to the cable with a steel cable grip that is either clamped onto or woven into the cable. Clamping systems use either a bolt system or coiled spring to provide clamping force. For maintenance or servicing, the carriers may be removed from or relocated along the rope by loosening the grip.

Restraining bar

A 6-year old skier is not concerned about falling

Also called a retention bar[3] or safety bar, these may help hold passengers in the chair in the same way as an automotive seatbelt or safety bar in an amusement park ride. If equipped, each chair has a retractable bar, sometimes with attached foot rests. In most configurations, a passenger may reach up and behind one's head, grab the bar or a handle, and pull the restraint forward and down. Once the bar has swung sufficiently, gravity assists positioning the bar to its down limit. Before disembarking, the bar must be swung up, out of the way.

The physics of a passenger sitting properly in a chairlift do not require use of a restraining bar. If the chairlift stops suddenly (as from use of the system emergency brake), the carrier's arm connecting to the grip pivots smoothly forward—driven by the chair's inertia—and maintains friction (and seating angle) between the seat and passenger. The restraining bar is useful for children—who do not fit comfortably into adult sized chairs—as well as apprehensive passengers, and for those who are disinclined or unkeen to sit still. In addition, restraining bars with footrests reduce muscle fatigue from supporting the weight of a snowboard or skis, especially during long lift rides. The restraining bar is also useful in very strong wind and when the chair is coated by ice.

Some ski areas mandate the use of safety bars on dangerous or windy lifts, with forfeiture of the lift ticket as a penalty. Vermont and New Jersey state law also requires the use of safety bars.[4] as well as most provinces in Canada

Restraining bars (almost always with foot rests) on chairlifts are more common in Europe and also naturally used by passengers of all ages. Some newer chairlifts have restraining bars that open and shut automatically.


Some lifts also have individual canopies which can be lowered to protect against inclement weather. The canopy, or bubble, is usually constructed of transparent acrylic glass or fiberglass. In most designs, passenger legs are unprotected; however in rain or strong wind this is considerably more comfortable than no canopy.

Control system

To maintain safe operation, the chairlift's control system monitors sensors and controls system parameters. Expected variances are compensated for; out-of-limit and dangerous conditions cause system shutdown. In the unusual instance of system shutdown, inspection by technicians, repair or evacuation might be needed. Both fixed and detachable lifts have sensors to monitor rope speed and hold it within established limits for each defined system operating speed. Also, the minimum and maximum rope tension, and speed feedback redundancy are monitored.[5]

Many—if not most—installations have numerous safety sensors which detect rare but potentially hazardous situations, such as the rope coming out of an individual sheave.

Detachable chairlift control systems measure carrier grip tension during each detach and attach cycle, verify proper carrier spacing and verify correct movement of the detached carriers through the terminals.[citation needed]

Safety systems

Aerial lifts have a variety of mechanisms to ensure safe operation over a lifetime often measured in decades.


As mentioned above, there are multiple redundant braking systems. Turning off the main drive will normally bring the rope to a stop in installations where it is transporting passengers uphill. A service brake and emergency brake on the bullwheel as well as drum brakes in the sheaves can stop the ropeway quickly.

Brittle bars

Example of a brittle bar within a cable catcher beside a sheave train. Wiring connected to the brittle bar is visible immediately to the right of the closest sheave. An anti-derailment plate is visible at top.

Some installations use brittle bars to detect several hazardous situations. Brittle bars alongside the sheaves detect the rope coming out of the track. They may also be placed to detect counterweight or hydraulic ram movement beyond safe parameters (sometimes called a brittle fork in this usage) and to detect detached carriers leaving the terminal's track. If a brittle bar breaks, it interrupts a circuit which causes the system controller to immediately stop the system.[6]

Cable catcher

These are small hooks sometimes installed next to sheaves to catch the rope and prevent it from falling if it should come out of the track. They are designed to allow passage of chair grips while the lift is stopping and for evacuation.[7] It is extremely rare for the rope to leave the sheaves.

In May 2006, a cable escaped the sheaves on the Arthurs Seat, Victoria chairlift in Australia causing four chairs to crash into one another. No one was harmed, though 13 passengers were stranded for four hours. The operator blamed mandated changes in the height of some towers to improve clearance over a road.[8]


Passenger loading and unloading is supervised by lift operators. Their primary purpose to ensure passenger safety by checking that passengers are suitably outfitted for the elements and not wearing or transporting items which could entangle chairs, towers, trees, etc. If a misload or missed unload occurs—or is imminent—they slow or stop the lift to prevent carriers from colliding with or dragging any person. Also, if the exit area becomes congested, they will slow or stop the chair until safe conditions are established.


The lift operators at the terminals of a chairlift communicate with each other to verify that all terminals are safe and ready when restarting the system. Communication is also used to warn of an arriving carrier with a passenger missing a ski, or otherwise unable to efficiently unload, such as patients being transported in a rescue toboggan. These uses are the chief purpose for a visible identification number on each carrier.


Aerial ropeways always have several backup systems in the event of failure of the prime mover. An additional electric motor, Diesel or Otto engine—even a hand crank—allows movement of the rope to eventually unload passengers. In the event of a failure which prevents rope movement, staff may conduct emergency evacuation using a simple rope harness looped over the aerial ropeway to lower passengers to the ground one by one.[9]


A steel line strung alongside a mountain is likely to attract lightning strikes. To protect against that and electrostatic buildup, all components of the system are electrically bonded together and connected to one or many grounding systems connecting the lift system to earth ground. In areas subject to frequent electrical strikes, a protective aerial line is fixed above the aerial ropeway. If you see a red sheave, that means it is a grounding sheave. Any electrical current will go straight to ground.[citation needed]

Load testing

In most jurisdictions, chairlifts must be load inspected and tested periodically. The typical test consists of loading the uphill chairs with bags of water (secured in boxes) weighing more than the worst case passenger loading scenario. The system's ability to start, stop, and forestall reverse operation are carefully evaluated against the system's design parameters.[10]

Rope testing

Frequent visual inspection of the rope is required in most jurisdictions, as well as periodic non-destructive testing. Electromagnetic induction testing detects and quantifies hidden adverse conditions within the strands such as a broken wire, pitting caused by corrosion or wear, variations in cross sectional area, and tightening or loosening of wire lay or strand lay. [11]

Safety gate

A safety gate at the top terminal detects passengers failing to unload. An open restraining bar is also visible.

If a passenger fails to unload, one's legs will contact a lightweight bar or line or, in newer lifts, pass through a laser beam which stops the lift. The lift operator will then help one disembark, reset the safety gate, and initiate the lift restart procedure. While possibly annoying to other passengers on the chairlift, it is preferable to strike the safety gate—that is, it should not be avoided—and stop the lift than be an unexpected downhill passenger. Many lifts are limited in their download capacity; others can transport passengers at 100 percent capacity in either direction.[12]


Early precursors

Aerial passenger ropeways were known in Asia well before the 17th century for crossing chasms in mountainous regions. Men would traverse a woven fiber line hand over hand. Evolutionary refinement added a harness or basket to also transport cargo.[9]

The first recorded mechanical ropeway was by Venetian Fausto Veranzio who designed a bicable passenger ropeway in 1616. The industry generally considers Dutchman Wybe Adam to have built the first operational system in 1644. Alpine regions of Europe developed the technology; progress rapidly advanced and expanded with the advent of wire rope and, especially, electric drive. World War I motivated extensive use of military tramways for warfare between Italy and Austria.[9]

A metal chair, painted green, with footrest and wooden seat suspended above a grassy area by a metal pole on the right side
Early single chair on Ski Lift No. 1, Aspen.

The first ski chairlifts

The world's first ski chairlift was created for the ski resort in Sun Valley, Idaho in 1936, then owned by the Union Pacific Railroad.[13] It was installed on Proctor Mountain, two miles (3 km) east of the more famous Bald Mountain, the primary ski mountain of Sun Valley resort since 1939. The chairlift was developed by James Curran of Union Pacific's engineering department in Omaha during the summer of 1936. Prior to working for Union Pacific, Curran worked for Paxton and Vierling Steel (, also in Omaha, which engineered banana conveyor systems to load cargo ships in the tropics. (PVS manufactured these chairs in their Omaha, NE facility.) Curran reengineered the banana hooks with chairs and created a machine with greater capacity than the up-ski toboggan (cable car) and better comfort than the J-bar, the two most common skier transports at the time—apart from mountain climbing. His basic design is still used for chairlifts today. The patent for the original ski lift was issued to Mr. Curran along with Gordon H. Bannerman and Glen H. Trout (Chief Engineer of the Union Pacific RR) in March 1939. The patent was titled "Aerial Ski Tramway,' U.S. Patent 2,152,235. W. Averell Harriman, Sun Valley's creator and former governor of New York State, financed the project.[14][15] The original 1936 chair lift was later moved to Boyne Mountain, Michigan (USA) where parts of it are still in use.[16]

The second was the Riblet Magic Mile chairlift on Mount Hood, Oregon in 1938 which was also the farthest in the world. Other chairlifts preceded the Mile, but were originally built as mining ore tramways and converted to chairlifts; a Bleichert mine tramway at Park City was reconfigured for people and skiing in 1939.[17][18]

The first chairlift in Europe was built in 1940 in the Czech Republic (former Czechoslovakia), from Raztoka, at 620m, to Pustevny, at 1020m, in the Moravian-Silesian Beskids mountain range.


New chairlifts built since the 1990s are infrequently fixed-grip. Existing fixed-grip lifts are being replaced with detachable chairlifts at many bigger ski areas. However the relative simplicity of the fixed-grip design results in lower installation, maintenance and—in many cases—lower operation costs. For this, they are likely to remain at small fare and community hills, and for short trips, such as beginner terrain.

See also

Ski and snowboard transport

Ski industry related

Other lift technology

  • Aerial tramway (synonyms Cableway,
    Téléphérique and Seilbahn)
  • Basket lift[19]
  • Cable car (disambiguation)


  1. ^ Greater top-drive efficiency assumes the chairlift predominantly moves passengers uphill."Glossary entry for Drive Terminal". Archived from the original on 2006-07-07. Retrieved 2006-11-30. 
  2. ^ "Service Bulletin #2003-141" (pdf). Riblet Tramway Company. February 14, 2003. Retrieved 2006-11-28. 
  3. ^ "Glossary for Retention Bar". Archived from the original on 2006-07-07. Retrieved 2006-11-30. 
  4. ^ (4th article, 6th graf)
  5. ^ "Service Bulletin #2000-137" (pdf). Riblet Tramway Company. December 18, 2000. Retrieved 2006-11-28. 
  6. ^ "Glossary entry for Drive Terminal". Archived from the original on 2006-07-07. Retrieved 2006-11-30. 
  7. ^ "Poma Omega Series Chairlift". Poma.!!.htm#4/Sheave%20Trains. Retrieved 2006-12-21. 
  8. ^ "Arthurs Seat chairlift owner hit with fine". Mornington Peninsula Leader. Leader Community Newspaper Group. 18 August 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-18. 
  9. ^ a b c Information Center for Ropeway Studies (2006-03-17). "About Ropeways". Colorado School of Mines - Arthur Lakes Library. Archived from the original on 2006-09-04. Retrieved 2006-11-30. 
  10. ^ "Glossary entry for Load Test". Archived from the original on 2006-07-07. Retrieved 2006-12-05. 
  11. ^ W. A. Lucht (2000). "Handbook of Oceanographic Winch, Wire, and Cable Technology, chapter 1: 3X19 Oceanographic Wire Rope" (PDF). University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System. pp. 1–29–1–36. Retrieved 2006-12-06. 
  12. ^ [1]
  13. ^ The "first known chairlift" depends on definition: Miners in Kennecott, Alaska used a mining tram to ski in the 1920s. There were other non-ski "chairlifts" in British Columbia at the turn of the century: Grass Valley (California) in 1896; Aspen (Colorado) in 1890; and British Columbia in 1874.
  14. ^ Don Hibbard (July 1977). "Sun Valley Ski Lifts" (PDF). Idaho State Historical Society. Retrieved 2006-11-21. 
  15. ^ "Sun Valley History". Retrieved 2006-11-21. 
  16. ^ Boyne USA Resorts - Company History
  17. ^ Thomas P. Deering, Jr. (1986). "Mountain Architecture: An Alternative Design Proposal for the Wy'East Day Lodge, Mount Hood Oregon". Master of Architecture Thesis, University of Washington. Retrieved 2006-11-30. 
  18. ^ "Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project, Compendium of Northwest Skier Magazine". 2004-09-07. Retrieved 2006-11-30. 
  19. ^ " list of Basket lifts". Retrieved 2006-11-30. 
  20. ^ " list of Funifors". Retrieved 2006-11-30. 

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