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Climbing Into Winter

In the photo at left, Paul Kreider, left, and Diane Hamilton get ready to exit the Agassiz chairlift at the Arizona Snowbowl Wednesday afternoon. Four inches of fresh snow greeted visitors at 11,500 feet.

The more than 30-year-old Agassiz Lift at Arizona Snowbowl will get replaced with a new chairlift-gondola hybrid under a proposal the ski resort has submitted to the Forest Service for environmental approval.

If it gets the go-ahead, construction would begin on the new high-speed lift in the summer of 2019 at the earliest, said J.R. Murray, general manager of the ski resort.

Agassiz has long been the workhorse at Snowbowl, Murray said. It runs almost year-round, serving skiers in the winter and shuttling an average of 40,000 visitors in the summer up to the top of the mountain.

Referred to as a “chondola” or a “telemix,” the new lift would be twice as fast, cutting the ride time to the top of Agassiz from 14 minutes to 7 minutes or 8 minutes, Murray said.

Enclosed gondola cabins would be placed about every fourth or fifth chair, he said.

The six-person chairs would also detach from the cable at the lift’s beginning and end terminals allowing them to slow down at loading and unloading. That makes it easier for people to board, especially summertime visitors without skis and snowboards, which helps reduce slows and stops on the lift, Murray said.

Though it would have the capacity to move faster, the new lift would have fewer chairs, so it wouldn't be able to shuttle more people to the top of Agassiz every hour, he said.

But if operators don’t have to slow and stop the lift as often, that alone will increase capacity, especially in the summer when wait times can get up to an hour long, Murray said. The design also allows operators to adjust the speed, so if a monsoon storm rolls in, for example, they could quickly get riders down, he said.

The addition of gondola cabins will accommodate people who may otherwise be hesitant to take the chairlift in inclement weather, Murray said.

Though the combination lifts are common in Europe, there are only four in the United States, with one more going up at a Colorado resort this summer, he said.

A new Agassiz lift would be Snowbowl’s fourth new lift since 2015 and its most expensive, Murray said. It would follow the same alignment as the existing lift but the width of the corridor would have to be doubled, requiring additional tree clearing, according to Snowbowl’s application to the Forest Service. Additional disturbed acreage is expected to total 3 acres.

The project wasn’t included in Snowbowl’s master plan, approved by the Forest Service in 2005, which is why it needs to get separate approval from the agency.

The Forest Service is currently accepting public comments on Snowbowl’s new lift proposal. The agency has stated that due to the minimal disturbance associated with the chairlift proposal, it is considering categorically excluding the project from two more extensive environmental analysis processes.

The public can submit comments to comments-southwestern-coconino-flagstaff@fs.fed.us.

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Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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