How Does A Ski Lift Work? (Complete Guide)

How Does A Ski Lift Work

Have you ever been on a ski lift and wondered how it works? If so, you’re not alone. Ski lifts are a common sight at ski resorts and are usually operated by a ski resort as a paid service.

Ski lifts are a transport system that takes skiers and their gear to ski runs uphill, with their history going back to 1908.

There are various types of ski lifts and the manufacturers continue to improve them to be faster, safer, have better carrying capacity, and be more comfortable.

In this article, I’ll explain how does a ski lift work in detail and I’ll talk about the mechanics of all the different types of ski lifts.

Types Of Ski Lifts And Their Working Mechanics 

Basically, ski lifts work by either pulling or dragging skiers up the slope using cables. These cables are wrapped around a set of pulleys which help the cable move around in a continuous loop.

The various types of ski lifts used today can be divided into two main categories, aerial lifts and surface lifts.

Aerial lifts move suspended in air, while surface lifts move on the snow. Let’s take a look at how both these types of ski lifts work.

Also read our quick guide on how to get on and off ski lifts safely here.

Aerial Lifts

There are a few types of aerial ski lifts – namely:

  • Chairlifts
  • Gondolas
  • Hybrid lifts 

Here’s how each of these aerial types of lifts works:


Chair lifts are a series of chairs suspended on a continuously moving steel cable looped around two terminals and supported by towers in between. 

The chairs move on the cable in a circular route, moving around the terminals at both ends, and have slow speeds to allow for safe boarding and getting off, as well as loading and unloading gear.

The chairs are securely attached to the cable with a mechanical grip to prevent them from sliding on the cable. There are detachable chairlifts too, designed for more efficient loading and unloading. 


There are pulleys at both terminals, called bullwheels, to keep the cable moving. The bullwheel accountable for moving the cable is called the drive bullwheel, and the other return bullwheel. The drive bullwheel is usually powered by an electric motor or a diesel engine. 

Chairlifts powered by electricity often have diesel or gasoline backup generators to be used in power outages. 

The drive terminal can be on either end. Even though it is more efficient to have the drive terminal at the higher end, it is often located at the lower end due to the practicalities of electric power usage. 

There are three breaking mechanisms, with the primary braking system at the drive terminal, an emergency break acting directly on the bullwheel, and a rollback mechanism. 

Carriers in a chairlift system come designed to carry 1,2,3,4,6, or 8 passengers. Read about ski safety and if they have seatbelts here.


Gondola lifts are enclosed cabin-like carriages suspended on a moving steel cable strung between two terminals, often supported by towers in between, quite similar to chairlifts.

The cable is moved by a bullwheel at the drive terminal, driven by an electric motor or a diesel engine. The cable moves in one direction, so the cabins are in a circulating motion rather than moving back and forth. 

Most gondolas have detachable grips allowing them to detach from the cable and re-attach while slowly moving around a terminal. This allows them to move faster than chairlifts, as they can slow down and detach from the cable at a terminal for passengers to board, get off, load, and unload their gear. 

Hybrid Lifts

A hybrid ski lift is where chairlifts and Gondolas are moved along the same line. The chairlift to Gondola ratio varies according to rider load and weather conditions.

Hybrid Lifts

There are separate areas for the two types of carriages at the terminals for safe boarding. 

Surface Lifts 

Surface lifts move or drag skiers along the snow-covered ground. They are less popular nowadays and are only used for shorter beginner runs and quick transportation from one slope to another. 

The types of lifts that fall under this category are,

  • T- bars
  • Poma
  • Rope tows
  • Magic carpets

Let’s take a look at each of these:


A T-bar lift consists of a T-shaped bar suspended from a cable strung between two terminals and supported by towers in-between.

The cable is moved by horizontal pulleys in one direction, so the attached T-bar moves in the same direction, moving around the towers at the end terminals.

t bar lifts

The T-bar hangs close to the ground. When the skiers mount it the T stays snug behind their bottoms and the skis stay on the snow-covered ground.

It is designed for two people to mount at once, but a single person can ride it too. Learn how to ride a t bar here.


A Poma lift, also known as a button lift or a drag lift is quite similar to a T-bar, but instead of the T, it has a metal pole with a round disk, called “the button” suspended from the cable.

The mechanics that move the cable are similar to other surface or aerial lifts. The skier will have the pole snug between the legs and the button stays behind the legs, immediately below the buttocks, preventing the skier from slipping off, while the cable drags the skier along the snow.


Rope Tows

Rope tow systems use a rope looped around two terminals with pulleys placed vertically on both ends. A pulley at one end is attached to a motor or an engine.

As the motor or the engine spins the pulley, the rope moves in one direction. The skiers have to grab onto the moving rope to be dragged up along the snow. 

Magic Carpets

A Magic carpet is a conveyor belt installed at the snow level. Skiers ski onto the moving belt and stay on it, and ski off at the endpoint.

The friction between the skis and belt is what keeps the skiers in place, so they are not used in steep runs. 

What Did We Learn? 

Ski lifts that take skiers uphill to the starting points of their downhill run come in many forms. They can be divided into two main categories, aerial and surface lifts. Aerial lifts move the skiers suspended above ground while surface lifts drag them along the snow-covered terrain.

Ski lifts take skiers uphill

Chairlifts, Gondolas, and hybrid lifts are the main surface lift types and use chairs, enclosed cabins, or both respectively, suspended from a cable looped between two terminals with support towers between them, moving in one direction, driven by one of the two pulleys, a.k.a. bullwheels connected to a motor or an engine.

The chairs or cabins attached to the cable move with it from one terminal to the other, then around it and back continuously. 

Among the surface lifts are T-bars, Pomas, Rope tows, and Magic Carpets. T-bars and Pomas have cables strung and moved similar to aerial lifts with contraptions for skiers to hold on to and move the skiers along the terrain. 

A Rope tow consists of a rope strung between two vertically positioned pulleys and moved in one direction by one them attached to a motor or an engine and drags the skiers who grab on to it along the terrain while Magic Carpet systems carry skiers uphill on low gradient slopes by a conveyor belt installed at snow level.

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Lisa Hayden-Matthews

An avid Skier, bike rider, triathlon enthusiast, amateurish beach volleyball player and nature lover who has never lost a dare! I manage the overall Editorial section for the magazine here and occasionally chip in with my own nature photographs, when required.
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