How Does A Ski Lift Work? – Available Types And All You Need To Know

Ski Lift Available Types And All You Need To Know

Last Updated on August 3, 2023 By Emma W. Thomas

A ski lift transports skiers uphill. Common types include chairlifts, gondolas, and T-bars. Skiers board the lift, and it moves along cables, supported by towers. The lift’s motor powers the movement, providing access to slopes and a thrilling skiing experience.

How Does A Ski Lift Work?

Ski lifts play a crucial role in transporting skiers and snowboarders up the mountain, making it possible for them to enjoy endless runs and adventures. But have you ever wondered how these impressive contraptions actually work? Let’s delve into the mechanics of ski lifts and uncover the magic behind their operation.

  1. Cable Powerhouse:
    At the heart of every ski lift is the cable powerhouse, which drives the entire system. This powerhouse is usually located at the base of the mountain and contains a large motor that generates a significant amount of power. The motor drives a series of pulleys and wheels, ultimately powering the movement of the lift.
  2. The Bullwheel:
    The massive bullwheel, located at the top end of the lift, is where the cable is wound around. This wheel acts as the anchor point and provides the necessary tension to keep the cable taut. The cable is typically made of steel and can support the weight of multiple chairs or gondolas.
  3. Carriers:
    Ski lifts come in various forms, including chairlifts and gondolas. Chairlifts are the most common type, consisting of a long cable with chairs attached at regular intervals. Gondolas, on the other hand, are enclosed cabins that can accommodate several people. Both types of carriers are securely attached to the cable, ensuring safe transportation up the slopes.
  4. Lift Towers:
    Lift towers are strategically placed along the lift line to support the cables and carriers. These towers act as sturdy pillars, preventing the cables from sagging too much and providing stability to the entire system. The number of lift towers depends on the length and elevation gain of the lift, with taller lifts requiring additional towers.
  5. Grip and Detach Mechanism:
    To ensure the safe embarkation and disembarkation of passengers, ski lifts employ a grip and detach mechanism. This mechanism allows the chairs or gondolas to be easily attached to and detached from the moving cable. Once a skier or snowboarder reaches the desired destination, the grip mechanism released, allowing them to exit the carrier safely.
  6. Lift Operator Control:
    Behind the scenes, lift operations are managed by skilled lift operators. These individuals monitor the lift system from a control room, overseeing its operation and ensuring the safety of riders. Lift operators have the ability to control the speed and stop the lift if necessary, adding an extra layer of security to the entire experience.
  7. Safety Measures:
    Safety is paramount when it comes to ski lifts. To prevent accidents, a range of safety measures is in place. These may include safety bars on chairlifts to keep passengers secure during the ride, emergency stop buttons to halt the lift in case of an emergency, and regular maintenance checks to ensure all components are in proper working order.

Types Of Ski Lifts

Ski lifts exist in different makes and models, and what you choose ought to satisfy your curiosity and desire. The following are the common types of these machines;

Drag Lift Or Poma

A drag lift (also known as Poma) is a ski lift ideal for single skiers or those who love riding solo. Riding on these lifts requires you to unstrap and face sideways toward the slope that is moving upwards. You will also have to ride with your skis and other items. Drag lifts are efficient, convenient, and ideal for covering short distances within a short period. 

Riding a drag lift calls for a lot of practice before you can master the art. You may be scared at first, but with time one can overcome the fear. It is not possible to ride a Poma hands-free as this may result in the risk of falling and getting injured. The skiing adventure of using a draft lift is less time-consuming and efficient than other types of lifts. 

Chair Lift

As its name suggests, this ski lift is a series of chairs that hang from a moving cable. Its purpose is to take skiers uphill and allow them to enjoy the adventure as they move down on their skis. Chair lifts are mostly used to transport people up and down mountainous terrain. The lift is efficient and safe and thus popular among the majority of skiers. 

Chair lifts come with large pulleys normally placed at each end (also known as bull wheels). The chairs (commonly known as carriers) hang from a cable, and they are held in place using a mechanical grip that is unique and versatile. This handle works as a vice, and it is perfectly and adequately fastened around the cable to prevent the seat from sliding back while the lift is moving or when stationary. 

These lifts are popular among skiers as they are considered the most efficient and safest means of traveling from lower to higher grounds. They are also efficient in moving skiers from higher to lower points during an expedition. It is, however, advisable to observe all laid-down safety procedures to avoid mishaps and accidents. 

Gondola Ski Lift

This lift adopts its name from the Italian word ‘Gondola,’ a traditional, flat-bottomed rowing boat. It is among the most popular and common means of cable transport and can be considered an aerial lift. This lift has a complicated construction structure that is propelled and supported by cable from above. The gondola lift is constructed from a loop of steel wires strung between two stations and points. It also has transitional supporting towers. 

Gondola lift operates on a simple technology where a clamp passes over a rail at several end stations and destinations. This mechanism helps to push the clamp jaws open and allows the lift to move up from the cable. A slow-moving chain catches and clasps the cable, and the chain propels the gondola around and takes it to the end of the primary pulley wheel. 

The gondola lift movement is slow, comfortable, and safe enough for skiers to get out of the machine and continue their skiing adventures and fun.

Hybrid Gondola & Chair Lift

This lift is a combination of a gondola and chairlift, and it is also known as a hybrid lift. The ski lift is known in many parts of North America as a gondola (a combination of chair and gondola) or telecom. Chondola lifts combine the benefits and advantages of both chair and gondola lifts, making them popular amongst several skiers worldwide. 

Gondola lifts are safe to use during cold weather conditions or heavy storms, and they provide maximum protection against all-natural elements. Many people also prefer using chair lifts for their convenience and ease of boarding compared to other ski lifts. Most chair lifts are known as bubble chairs since they have a unique acrylic glass dome. The lift offers users adequate protection against severe weather elements. 

Hybrid lifts come in different sizes and capacities. The lifts can carry between 2400 and 3220 people per hour. Some of this equipment can reach the mountain top in between 4 and 5 minutes. 

T-Bar And Button Lifts

T-bar and button lifts are outdated, and they use cables. In this kind of lift, the user remains on the ground and stands on their feet as a button or t-bar lifts pull them uphill. You will place the ski lift behind the butt or between your legs while holding onto the bar connecting to the table. Since the cables move up, you can move uphill with little or no effort. 

Chairlifts and gondolas have since replaced button and t-bar lifts, but they are still used in beginner slopes and other skiing areas whose elevation is not steep and short. One of the main disadvantages of t-bar and button lifts is that children or beginners cannot use them since they are uncomfortable and a person needs to be skilled.

These ski lifts could also be disadvantageous to use because many people will have difficulties getting back to the piste. The snow surface must also be continuous and smooth, and the machines have a low capacity and are also slow. 

How Does A Ski Lift Slow Down?

Old-fashioned ski lifts have no facility to slow them down and can only move at a constant speed. When these machines get to the bottom, especially when moving downhill, their impact is sometimes painful and uncomfortable. 

Modern ski lifts, especially those that are big, can change gears and switch from a higher speed to a lower one. These machines can switch back to the main cable which is faster once all passengers have boarded. Examples of these ski lifts are chairlifts and gondolas.

There are also detachable and high-speed chairlifts that are classified as aerial lifts. These lifts have several chairs linked to a wire rope (also known as haul rope) that constantly moves. The cable is strung and joined to two or more terminals that could be situated over intermediate towers. Detachable chairlifts can attain higher speeds and carry many skiers. These machines can cover 1000 feet per minute compared to fixed-grip lifts whose maximum speed is 500 feet per minute. 

Detachable chairlifts have a unique mechanism in which a special cable is attached using a strong cable handle that is spring-loaded. The grip is detached at each terminal, which helps to slow down the lift. This unique technology enables the passengers to embark and disembark, as well as load and unload. 

How Ski Lifts Are Powered

Modern ski lifts have electric motors, while old models used pulleys and other energy-generating methods for their operation. These motors activate and turn the bull wheels, but in most cases, the machines have backup motors that use diesel if the main power supply fails. The motor and the powering tool can either be placed at the top or bottom of the ski lifts depending on the lift type and other engineering needs.

Electric motors are less expensive when used to operate the lifts as compared to diesel devices. They are also eco-friendly and compatible with most environmental issues. The equipment, however, needs regular upkeep and maintenance. One also needs to clean and maintain the carbon brushes and controls for proper operation. Some ski lifts may also use computer technology to operate them.

What Amount Of Electricity Does A Ski Lift Use?

The amount of electricity a ski lift uses depends on several factors, including the lift’s capacity, size, and weight it hauls, among others. However, on average, a modern ski lift requires a running expense of between $2,200 and $2,500 per day, most of which goes towards electricity costs. For example, a fully-loaded double-decker, chairlift or gondola lift requires between 1400 and 1600 amps of power for 10 seconds if its weight is 450 lbs. 

Depending on the factors mentioned above, a ski lift consumes from 7.5kw or 10Hp to 750 or 100 HP.


If you love sporting adventures such as skiing, then a ski lift is one machine you will enjoy using. This equipment is not only effective but also useful when you want to reach difficult places. Understanding how it works and the different types available will go a long way to make your skiing expeditions more interesting since you will get what you want.