When the Bretton Woods Skyway gondola took public flight for the first time, Chris Ellms, resort’s director of ski operations, wasn’t in it.
Instead, Ellms watched the eight-person cabins fly from a grounded cabin inside a groomer on the mountain.
“I was in a grooming machine blading out the last piles of snow and watched,” he said. “That’s how it is this time of year, all hands on deck.”
On Nov. 13, Bretton Woods was the first ski area in New Hampshire to open for the 2019-20 ski season. The gondola went online Nov. 14.
“It was a longtime coming,” he said. “But it was worth it to watch the happy skiers. It is something we can be proud of.”
It was a day that was supposed to come last ski season.
Construction began on the gondola in the fall of 2018 but was eventually slowed when tower deliveries were delayed a few weeks followed by 5 feet of snow dumping in November.
“We decided to pull back until April 2019 and that’s what we did, working in the warm weather,” he said. “We had that machine built in less than two months.”
The lift, which uses about 2¼ miles of cable, is comprised of 17 towers, the highest lifting passengers some 90 feet in the air. More than 500 cubic feet of concrete was poured for the foundation and pads.
With an uphill speed of some 13 mph or about 1,200 feet a minute, ride time is just under five minutes. The state-of-the-art Dopplemeyer lift will run slower in summer and fall to maximize the scenic Presidential Range views.
To prepare for the 36-car Skyway, the Fabyan’s Express Triple Chair was shortened and the “B” Double chair was decommissioned. The new line passes over the Bethlehem High Speed Quad before reaching its final destination near the summit of Mount Rosebrook where a new 16,000-square-foot on-mountain restaurant and event venue is under construction with a projected summer 2020 opening. There are views of the Presidential Range, the Omni Mount Washington Resort hotel and Mount Stickney with its cabin.
“We weren’t simply building a ski lift,” Ellms said. “We were building a conveyance to the high alpine zone to enjoy the functions and activities that make this a four-season resort.”
According to Marketing Director Craig Clemmer, the mountaintop facility, which will be a wedding venue, will have three different food and beverage outlets — a coffee/bar area, a bistro with indoor/outdoor seating and a restaurant — as well as skier services.
“I think this sets us apart,” Clemmer said. “We are an elevated boutique ski experience. We want to make sure we are giving everything our customers need and luckily our owners continue to reinvest in that proposition.”
The project, which also included purchasing 40 new snow guns, adds to the state’s skiing cache.
“Lifts like this new gondola are the kind of element that I think can make or break a person's experience not only at a particular ski area, but with skiing in general,” emailed Ski New Hampshire Executive Director Jessyca Keeler. “A warm ride to the top of the lift can make a big difference in someone's perception of how their day of skiing went and whether they think they'll continue skiing in the future.”
Clemmer says the gondola will elevate the ski experience.
“This gives you a little bit more creature comfort with the enclosure and I think it’s go big or go home to a certain extent,” he said. “Why not get state-of-the-art. Why buy a previous generation of the gondola.”
The gondola and mountaintop space is another way Ellms has been uplifting the resort during his tenure, leaving his imprint on several lifts and trails. He’s the man behind designing the trails at West Mountain and creating the glades and T-bar on Mount Rosebrook.
Ellms grew up on his family’s Canaan apple orchard and got his skiing career start with a construction company that bought Whaleback in Enfield.
A guy who says he has the best job in the world, he remembers taking some runs as a teenager at Bretton Woods when the mountain first opened in 1974.
“Fast forward all those years to be part of the history is pretty special,” he said. “I consider myself pretty lucky. I’ve had a pretty special run for a New Hampshire kid.”