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Carson City, Nevada, United States
|Headquarters||Carson City, Nevada, United States|
|Jan K. Kunczynski
|Products||Ski lifts, Rails (Funicular, Monorail)|
Lift Engineering, more commonly known as Yan Lifts, was a major ski lift manufacturer in North America. Founded in 1965 and based in Carson City, Nevada, the firm came under scrutiny by state safety officials after a fatal accident in 1985, and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July 1996.
The company built at least 200 fixed-grip chairlifts, as well as 31 high-speed quads, while becoming one of the most successful yet controversial lift firms in the ski industry. The company's high speed quads have been involved in the deaths of five people and the injury of 70, the worst record of any ski-lift maker operating in North America. Yan fixed-grip chairlifts however, continue to have an excellent reputation.
After a series of accidents, Yan Lifts were outlawed in certain states including California and Colorado. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1996. Eventually, Yan Lifts manufactured new track and cables for the Angels Flight funicular, but the company, now called YanTrak, went out of business in 2001 after a major accident.
Lift Engineering was founded by Janek Kunczynski, a Polish immigrant and former ski racer who initially worked at Poma. He left Poma in 1965 and founded Lift Engineering to build his own ski lifts. One of his first customers was Squaw Valley. The name "Yan" is the English spelling of his first name, and the brand under which Mr. Kunczynski sold his lifts.
The company grew through the 1970s and 1980s. Mr. Kunczynski was known for dining with prospective clients (après-ski) instead of just simple negotiating, and would sketch plans out on paper napkins. Another attractive feature to buyers was the price. Mr. Kunczynski sold his lifts at prices well below those of larger manufacturers. Mr. Kunczynski is also credited with being the first manufacturer of ski lifts to incorporate aesthetics into the design of his equipment, creating sleek designs that were popular with ski resorts.
The company is most noted for its achievements in designing fixed-grip chairlifts. Mr. Kunczynski created a standard system that served the company well. The design was simple and easy to operate and maintain. For example, rather than put all the control panels in the operator's booth, and thus potentially confuse whoever is operating the lift, Yan operator booths contain only two switches: a switch that stops and starts the lift, and one that selects its speed. The main controls were placed in the standard shipping crate-reminiscent machine room. Lift Engineering was the first (and only) company to design and build a DC motor control tailored specifically to the ski lift industry (System 4200 and later Base 10). From the company's beginnings, it always designed and built its own low voltage controls. Finally, besides being easy to operate, Yan lifts are also easily maintained — the setup is allegedly foolproof - both mechanically and electrically. Yan's tower designs were also always overbuilt, meaning that it is possible to turn one of his triple chairs into a fixed quad, or double into a triple, merely by changing the chairs, something that was actually done at Killington, Vermont and Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia, respectively.
Lift Engineering plunged headfirst into a new market in the 1980s, the high-speed detachable quad lift. Whereas other ski lift firms spent as much as four years developing these lifts, Yan installed its first after only a year of development, at Mammoth Mountain in California.
By the late 1980s, Lift Engineering was one of the largest suppliers of ski lifts based in North America. POL-X West developed a new version of the YAN-7 detachable grip, the one that was used on the majority of the high-speed lifts, replacing the marshmallow springs with high-tension springs. The redesign was ordered by a group of British Columbia and Alberta ski resorts that included Silver Star and Lake Louise. This grip also proved unsatisfactory.
Lift Engineering also moved into the funitel market in the early 1990s. The quad mono cable, or QMC funitel, was invented by Mr. Kunczynski (US Patent 4,848,241). The lift consisted of four separate loops of cable, strung between the upper and lower stations. Two cables were run in the uphill direction, and two were run in the downhill direction. The cabins would be mounted between the cables. But, because the cables were looped, once the cabins reached the upper station, the cables would loop back downhill not carrying a load. Only one of these lifts was ever built, at June Mountain, California. Apparently, the owners had difficulty getting the cables to run in synchronicity. The lift also developed the grip problems that occurred on the Yan high-speed quads, and was removed in 1997.
Controversies and accidents
Keystone, Colorado accident (1985)
Potential problems with Yan lifts began to surface as early as 1985, when the upper bullwheel on the Teller lift at Keystone Ski Resort in Colorado disconnected from the main gearbox shaft. Faulty welding was blamed. Two people were killed and 47 injured. The Teller lift, and its twin lift, Santiago, were two triple chairlifts constructed in 1984 as part of Keystone's North Peak expansion. Teller was rebuilt by Yan and renamed the Ruby lift, free of charge. Santiago was replaced by a Doppelmayr high speed quad in 1998 and relocated to Big Sky, Montana, while Ruby was replaced by a Poma high speed six pack in 2000.
During the late 1980s, the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board began to question the safety of Yan’s lifts. They learned that Mr. Kunczynski, in his drive to build affordable ski lifts, regularly sent steel parts to be welded together in ski area parking lots. The Board alleged that Mr. Kunczynski’s lifts were unsafe. The ski industry blasted the Board and continued to install Yan lifts.
Whistler, British Columbia accident (1995)
Yan detachable lifts were subject to a series of accidents, most notably the Quicksilver lift at Whistler Mountain in British Columbia, Canada. The Quicksilver accident killed two and injured eight on December 23, 1995. The accident occurred when the emergency stop was used repeatedly. A chair started sliding downhill and struck the next chair which got stuck on a tower. This continued several times before a total of four chairs fell. The main problems with the Yan high-speed lifts were the chair grips. These were designed so that in order to stay connected to the cable, the chair had to be subject to gravity. The grips, unlike most operating today, did not have high-tension coil springs, but rather rubber "marshmallow" springs that exerted much less force on the cable. The repeated emergency brake application was enough to shake the chairs free of the cable. The majority of government safety inspectors failed to detect these problems.
- "The History of Yanek Kunczynski". Colorado Ski History. The Wall Street Journal. 16 January 1997. Retrieved 30 July 2010.
- Markels, Alex (1997-01-16). "The Rise, Fall and Return of a Ski-Lift Entrepreneur". The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company. Retrieved 2008-02-29.
- "Faulty Weld Is Blamed For Ski Lift Accident". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. 1985-12-18. Retrieved 2008-02-29.
- Johnson, Brad (2010-12-14). "Keystone lift accident was 25 years ago this week". Summit Daily. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 2015-03-22.
- Nixon, Emily (April 2004). "Disaster and Emergency Management: The Quicksilver Chairlift Incident" (PDF). University of Victoria, Geography Department. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-04-08. Retrieved 2015-03-17.
- Pyn, Larry (2008-02-09). "Minimizing the risks on B.C.'s ski lifts". The Vancouver Sun. Canwest Interactive. Retrieved 2008-02-29.