Over the Christmas break, I took a week off to do a little skiing at the Big Sky Resort in Montana, where there just happened be a piece of high-tech equipment making its debut: The Ramcharger 8, billed as the "most modern chairlift that's ever been built," went into service a few days before my arrival. Naturally, I decided to get some pictures and video of it in action.
What's special about the Ramcharger 8 is that it's an eight-seat lift -- that's eight seats, straight across. There are other eight-seat ski lifts in Europe, but this is the first eight-seater in North America and also the first Dopplemayr D-line Direct Drive chairlift in the world. That new gearless drive system makes the lift more energy efficient, quieter and significantly easier to maintain, according to Mike Unruh, Big Sky's VP of Mountain Operations.
The ride to the top only takes about 5 minutes -- the lift is around 5,000 feet (about 1,500 meters) long -- and the lift line, when there is one, moves quickly because Ramcharger 8 can transport 3,200 skiers per hour or about 25 percent more people than the old Ramcharger four-seater, which was moved to another part of the mountain.
As chairlifts go, it's about as luxurious an experience as you'll encounter. A moving loading carpet, which an operator can raise for smaller children with a press of a button, guides you into the boarding zone. Once in the chair, you'll notice that there are eight individual headrests and footrests and the seats are heated (an operator can adjust the heat level according to the weather).
If you want some protection from the wind and cold -- it is designed to operate in high winds -- you can pull the blue bubble over the chair and make yourself feel like you're in a translucent cocoon. Both the bubble and restraining bar/footrests automatically rise just before you reach your destination.
On the surface, the lift doesn't seem much different from the $6.5 million six-seat high-speed Dopplemayr Powder Seeker lift Big Sky installed in 2017 in a bowl on the upper part of the mountain. But Unruh said the Ramcharger 8 was "quite a bit more technologically advanced." Its seats are also 2 inches wider than the Powder Seeker's.
Except for the giant video display at the base of the lift, most of those tech advancements aren't visible to the rider. Along with the Direct Drive system comes a host of diagnostic tools and programmable lift operations, including everything from lift announcements (that can be piped into the chairs themselves) to automated nightly seat storage in a "barn" at the top station. All the lift's "settings" can be accessed through a touch-screen tablet.
"[The] Ramcharger 8 is the culmination of everything we have learned so far, and incorporates many firsts for the North American market," said Mark Bee, president of Doppelmayr USA, as quoted on Big Sky's web site. "The first eight-passenger chairlift, first direct drive motor, first locking restraint bar, first height-adjustable loading carpet, first high-resolution video display, and the first of our newest-generation detachable lifts, the D-Line."
Michigan-based Boyne Resorts, which owns and operates the Big Sky Resort, wouldn't say how much the lift cost, but Boyne President Steve Kirchner remarked that each 2,262-lb. chair (there are 64 for of them) "costs more than a Porsche."
Big Sky's lift and technological upgrades aren't stopping with this one. Boyne will be dumping a whole lot more money into the resort in the next six years as part of its Big Sky 2025 Plan. Some Montanans may not appreciate the further gentrification of the resort, but it's a huge mountain -- Moonlight Basin, now part of Big Sky, was once its own resort -- that's a bit cumbersome to navigate because it suffers from not only a limited set of properly linked lifts but a handful of slow and outdated lifts that can be a bear to ride on very cold days. The resort also needs to move from a paper ticket system to an RFID card ticket system. That's supposedly in the works.
Next year, a high-tech gondola will be added to the base of the resort, and many of the older lifts will be replaced or upgraded in the coming years along with the 15-person tram (which is really more of a giant gondola). By the time the upgrades are finished, the Ramcharger 8 might not seem so special, but for now it's as cutting-edge as a chairlift gets -- at least in North America.