A super-nerdy history of the early lifts at Copper Mountain

From the January, 1993 Copper Cable

 

One of Copper Mountain’s best TV ads was the one where they show steam shovels and whatnot trying to make “the perfect mountain.” The point of the ad was that you can’t make a perfect mountain, it just kind of has to happen. Nature, or something, has to do it.

While this is certainly true, Copper Mountain has had a big helping hand from the people who have turned a great mountain into a great ski mountain. Cleared trails weren’t the result of some incredibly fortuitous event of lighting and tree disease, nor were the lifts put up overnight.

Far from it.
When Copper opened in 1972, from the huge efforts of Copper’s founder, Chuck Lewis, five lifts served the public. (Actually, for those factually inclined, the first season was done with snow cats in ’71-’72; lifts weren’t turning until the ’72-’73 season). Those first five were B, C, E, G and F (F was a covered double which was replaced by the American Eagle quad in ’89).

Copper, like most ski areas, works on a “master plan,” meaning that all aspects of further expansion had been thought out long ago. If you’ve ever wondered, for instance, why there’s no “D” lift, the answer lies in the fact that “D” lift, while planned, was never built. Originally meant to be a quad chair from the Center area to somewhere near the top of B1 lift, “D” became a piece of history when the Eagle and Flyer quads came into being, thus making no room for the “D” lift.

One of the first things you learn when hearing about lift construction is that nothing comes easy. Imagine building a mechanism that happens to be on the side of a 12,000 foot mountain. The logistics are nearly impossible, with terrain, weather and the weights involved posing huge obstacles.

For example, when the American Flyer quad was being installed, the construction crew had to deal with an auxiliary engine that weighed over 12,000 pounds. The haul rope itself, on the spool, weighed in at 93,000 pounds.

Accessibility, too, can present some great challenges. “Resolution” lift had no road going to the bottom terminal, resulting in everything having to be flown in by helicopter — which isn’t cheap. Coordinating helicopters and concrete trucks is another thing you may not think of as you’re riding up a lift. Critical planning is necessary to have the concrete ready and in place for the helicopter to pick it up (in a one-yard bucket) and transport it to the tower holes.

One year, while “S” lift was going in, a concrete truck rolled over on the road with seven yards of concret in it (maybe 30,000 lbs). Unable to right the truck with its load, a hole had to be cut in the drum and all the concrete shovelled out.

The first expansion after the original five was done in the summer of ’73, with the construction of “B1” and “I” lifts (where T-Rex is now). “B1,” of course, opened up the top of the west side of the mountain while “I” gave access to the sheltered, intermediate skiing of what some call “Happy Valley.”

The problem with “I” lift was one of color. The five original lifts were painted a Forest Service green, while “I” was painted black, as per the wish of Yan Kunczynski, president of Lift Engineering, who built the lift. (Copper’s first five were built by Heron, a manufacturer which had originally built mining tramways). While the color imbroglio was ironed out, “I” spent its first year two different colors. As history shows, black won out and became the standard color for lifts at Copper.

The next addition to Copper Mountain’s cadre of lifts was the Mighty Mite surface beginner lift. Bought used from Vail, Mighty Mite was originally located about where the bottom of the American Flyer lift is. In ’76, “H” was added, giving the mountain another beginner area. The following year, “J” lift went in right next to “I.” Some have wondered why this area couldn’t be served by one lift. The answer, of course, lies in history.

The area served by “I” lift was pretty popular back then before some of the other lifts serving intermediate terrain went in. It had two mazes at the time which were often full of “blue” skiers. It so happened that Yan had built a lift for Alta in Utah who, for some reason or other, decided it didn’t want. Yan offerred Copper a good deal on the foresaken lift, and thus did “Happy Valley” have the opportunity to increase uphill capacity with “J” lift. (Of course, both were late replaced by the T-Rex quad, and the old Yans were relegated to the Copper Bowl area.)

Up until this time, the folks at Copper had been relying pretty heavily on the input of the lift manufacturers when it came to adding new chairlifts. This changed in ’79 when “A” lift was built, representing the first fully independent lift project for Copper. The mountain’s first true “expert” area was opened with this Yan lift, the longest on the mountain at the time.

That year was also the one in which Pooh Corner’s “C” lift was supplemented by the aptly named “C1” lift. This Heron lift was originally the Molly Hogan lift at Arapaho Basin. Reconditioned by Yan, “C1” offered beginners the opportunity to ride a real chairlift. With only 24 chairs, it’s one one of the shortest chairlifts in the world. Now a little on the quiet side, this lift had a lot of action before “K” and “L” lifts were installed.

Cutting the trails in the summer of ’80, “K” and “L” lifts went in in the summer of ’81. Copper Mountain’s first Poma lifts, they were two of Poma of America’s first lifts to go in after that French company established a base in Grand Junction. Lift mechanics and lift operators alike sing the praises of these lifts as being the easiest to operate, most reliable and trouble™free of just about any lifts on the mountain.

The fall of ’80 also saw the introduction of “T” lift, another beginner surface lift over by Union Creek.

Yan’s Lift Engineering came back in full swing in ’82 with the construction of “R” lift. Now a nice beginner lift with a tremendous view at the top, “R” was originally conceived to be a dual ability lift that would have crested Union Peak and continued down into Copper Bowl, loading skiers both ways. At the time, no permit was available for that terrain and “R” became another great area for beginners.

Coupled with “R” is “S” lift, which expert skiers love to go to when new snow is on hand or conditions are crowded at the rest of the mountain. Taking a trip up “S,” it’s not hard to imagine that this lift was no cinch to put in. The steep terrain, combined with the fact that no roads go up to it made for a particularly tricky feat of lift engineering. The top station had to be dragged on a makeshift sled while snow was still on the ground.

1984 saw another big year for the summer lift construction crew when “E” lift was replaced. Originally a double Heron ending below patrol headquarters, “E” was done over with a Yan triple that went just above PHQ while greatly increasing uphill capacity. Most of the original towers were used while the original motor room of “E” is now a lift mechanics workshop known as “the bunker.” If you look just below where you load “E” lift now and see a lot of snowmobiles hanging out, you know some important meeting is going on.

As a footnote to those of you who think “E” is a faster lift than the other fixed-grip chairs, it’s not true. “E,” like most fixed-grip lifts, goes 500 feet per minute — about six miles per hour and six seconds between each chair. Quads go twice as fast — 1000 feet per minute or about 12 miles per hour.

Perhaps one of Copper’s hairiest summer was 1985, when Resolution and Storm King lifts went in. Both Pomas, Resolution has the dubious distinction of being the only lift whose motor room tumbled into a stand of trees when the road gave out.

All 27 tons of Reso’s motor room fell over with the truck and it took five days and all order of heavy equipment to get things straightened out. The next time you go over to Storm King, take a look at the stand of trees there and you’ll see a reminder of that summer when those trees were the only safeguard against what might have been quite a trip. As it happened, Reso’s motor room suffered little damage in the slow roll it took and it was put in place in plenty of time for the next season.

Storm King, that breezy Poma surface lift that accesses some of Copper’s best skiing, has a history of its own. All from France, this lift didn’t arrive until late August, giving the construction crew a very small window of time to put it in. Early autumn snows conspired against them, as the holes dug for the towers continually filled up with snow. Hard work and incredible perseverance resulted in Copper opening the ’85-’86 season with some great new expert terrain in Spaulding and Resolution Bowls.

What was originally meant to be a summer spent installing Copper’s first detachable quad chairlift — The American Flyer — resulted instead in the expansion now realized as “Reso-Storm King.” Plans changed, Reso-Storm King wemt in and ’86 saw the introduction of what was then North America’s largest ski area expansion.

Surpassing “A” lift in terrain covered, The American Flyer Poma quad (known also as O-1, stealing the monniker from another never-built master plan lift) was installed in ’86. One of the first quads, the Flyer was a big project not only because of the fairly new technology but also because of its great length (requiring two electric motors). Originally designed to be a covered “bubble” lift, the Flyer came to being as an open chair, earning the name amongst some Copper skiers as “The American Freezer.”

The next and most recent lift to go in at Copper was, of course, the American Eagle detachable quad, replacing the old covered “F” chair in 1989. Quad technology had come a long way since ’86, as did the experience of the people who put them in at Copper.

Not all expansions at Copper Mountain have to do with lifts. Last year, Copper Mountain’s new addition was the Copper Commons building; a five million dollar enterprise that created a bigger day lodge as well as additional conference space. What lies ahead is still in the planning stage, but some of the things in store for Copper skiers could include the following:
Copper Bowl. Bowl skiing is the “next big thing” at ski areas these days and, while Copper already boast four areas of bowl terrain, opening up Copper Bowl (the other side of Union Peak atop “S” lift) would seem to be a priority. The Copper Bowl expansion idea encompasses thoughts of one to three lifts to access this incredible terrain.

B Lift quad. While its construction and mere presence might present some conflict with the golf course, a detachable quad, along with snowmaking up that side of the hill, is another major project under consideration. Replacing “B” and “B1” with two fixed-grip triples is also a possibility.

A2 — Graveline Gulch. This lift, if done, would open up the east side of Copper Mountain which is now only accessible through the “Extreme Experience” guided skiing program. The lift would run between Graveline and Spaulding Bowl.

Guller Creek. Another area west of the Union Creek area served by K and L lifts would open up another area.

These areas, while not in the current ski area boundary defined by Copper Mountain, are still in the permit boundary allowed by the U.S. Forest Service. Were Copper Mountain ready to expand in this direction, permission to do so from the Forest Service would probably not be a big obstacle.

Which is to say: stick around, it will only get better here at Copper Mountain.

 

 

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