How Does a Ski Lift Work?

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Chairlifts at ski resorts make skiing much more enjoyable because you can spend more time skiing instead of trekking up the hill on foot. Before the invention of the lift, you might have been able to make one run a day. With lifts that can carry you to the top of a mountain in minutes, you can repeat your run several times. Chairlift operation seems complicated because of the machinery involved, but at its heart, a lift is just a cable traveling in a circuit between two end stations.

Basic Operation

  • The basic design of a chairlift uses two stations, one at the bottom of the hill and one at the top. Posts or supports form a line between the two and hold up sections of a cable that encircles the stations and posts, making a continual circuit. The cable runs along bullwheels at each station, and these propel the cable around. Counterweights or hydraulic systems ensure the cable and chairs remain steady and balanced.

Fixed Vs. Detachable Grip

  • A fixed-grip lift chair has a clamp at the end of its arm that grabs onto the cable and doesn’t really move, though it can migrate a bit over time. Ski lift operators also manually shift the chairs around to prevent one section of the cable from wearing down more quickly. These lifts travel rather slowly to let people get on and off the chairs safely. Detachable-lift chairs are not clamped onto the cable in a fixed position for the entire ride. When the chairs reach the stations, they unlock and let the cable continue to turn while each chair remains behind. Detachable-lift cables can travel more quickly than the fixed-grip type, because the chairs themselves slow down when they detach from the cable.

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  • Photo Credit Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Getty Images
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