, based in Carson City, Nevada
and more commonly known as Yan Lifts
, was one of the major ski lift manufacturers
in North America
, before the firm's bankruptcy in 1996.
The company built at least 200 fixed-grip chairlifts, as well as 31 high-speed quads, while becoming one of the most controversial lift firms in the ski industry. Yan fixed-grip chairlifts have an excellent reputation, other than two maintenance-related deaths while the company's high speed quads have killed three people.
Jan K. Kunczynski
, a Polish immigrant and former ski racer, founded Lift Engineering in 1965 after leaving Pomalift, Inc.
, 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 other controls were placed in the standard shipping crate-reminiscent engine room. Finally, besides being easy to operate, Yan lifts are also easy maintain — the setup is allegedly foolproof. Yan's tower designs were also always overbuilt, meaning that it is possible to turn one of his triple chairs into a fixed quad merely by changing the chairs, something that was actually done at Killington, Vermont.
Lift Engineering plunged headfirst into a new market in 1986, the high-speed detachable quad lift
. Whereas the European ski lift firms spent upwards of two years developing these lifts, Yan installed its first in 1987, at Mammoth, California
. Unfortunately, Les Okreglak, the company’s chief engineer who was responsible for making sure Mr. Kunczynski’s innovations were safe, quit during the development of the detachable lift. Les Okreglak is now president of POL-X West, Inc., of Carson City, an engineering firm.
The only Yan high-speed lift ever installed in Colorado was a gondola lift at Keystone, Colorado, which only operated for two years because of recurring mechanical problems. Indeed, Yan only built two gondolas — the other was at Squaw Valley, California, and also had recurring problems. By the late 1980s, Lift Engineering was the 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. The new 7-96 grip was ultimately installed on only one lift — the Friendly Giant at Lake Louise — since torn down.
Lift Engineering also charged 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 synchronism. The lift also developed the grip problems that occurred on the Yan high-speed quads, and was removed in 1997.
Lift Engineering filed for bankruptcy in 1996, after the Quicksilver accident.
Lift Engineering technology in Europe
Some lift builders in France are still using Yan parts, especially the fixed grip. So Skirail
) and Montaval
) still use Yan grips for quad fixed chairlifts. Upper and bottom station design looks like Yan lifts.
Controversies and accidents
Despite questions about safety, Yan managed to sell a total of 31 high-speed quads in the United States
. All 31 Yan high-speed quads have either been retrofitted or torn down. Many of the lifts have been retrofitted by companies such as Poma
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, Colorado
literally fell off its axle. Faulty welding was blamed. Two people were killed and 47 injured. The lift was rebuilt by Yan as the Ruby lift, presumably free of charge. During the late 1980s, the Colorado Tramway 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. Nevertheless, the board continued protesting and managed to keep Yan detachable quad lifts out of Colorado
Whistler, British Columbia accident (1996)
Yan detachable lifts were subject to a series of disastrous accidents, the most famous of which was on the Quicksilver lift at Whistler-Blackcomb Resort
in British Columbia
. The Quicksilver accident killed two and injured eight.. The accident occurred when the emergency break was pressed to help a skier who had fallen while unloading. 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 emergency brake firing was enough to shake the chairs free of the cable. The majority of government safety inspectors were complacent in detecting these problems. It has been proven that the Government of British Columbia
knew about the problems on the Quicksilver lift, and refused to do anything about it.
Las Vegas, Nevada accident (1997)
Shortly after the company filed for bankruptcy, one of its employees, Mr Steward, died during testing of a monorail system being built for Las Vegas casinos (Las Vegas Monorail
) at the Lift Engineering plant in Carson City..
Angels Flight accident (2001)
This was not the end of the accidents for Lift Engineering though. In 2001 one of the cars of the Angels Flight
funicular in Los Angeles suddenly lost cable tension. The standard design is to have emergency brakes so the cars clamp to the rails in the event of a cable failure, but Angel's Flight had no such emergency braking system. This caused one car to collide with another car, killing one and injuring seven. With lawsuits pending, Mr. Kunczynski fled the United States to La Paz, Mexico, where he resides today.