The Gemini chairlift in operation at Big Rock Mountain in Mars Hill on March 8. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star-Herald

MARS HILL, Maine — Nonprofit ski area Big Rock Mountain is slated to receive a new $2.9 million chairlift next summer.

Staff at the Mars Hill ski area recently signed a contract with Doppelmayr USA to purchase the four-person lift.

The lift will carry more skiers faster to the top of the mountain and make Big Rock more appealing to a larger market, staff said. It’s part of a $5.4 million project, aided last summer by a $2.5 million federal tourism grant, that will also upgrade the electrical system and snowmaking capacity. The improvements will extend the ski season and enable activities like leaf-peeping to draw more tourists to central Aroostook County.

The contract locks in the price of the lift, according to Aaron Damon, assistant general manager at Big Rock.

“This is huge for us, and when you look at the price of a chair lift we saw the price of that go up by nearly $400,000,” Damon said. “People are stoked about it.”

The ski area launched a capital campaign in December 2021 to replace the double lift, a 1969 model that it has used for nearly 30 years.  

The Gemini chairlift in operation at Big Rock Mountain in Mars Hill on March 8. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star-Herald

They’ve raised all but $1.15 million of the $2.9 million for the chairlift through donations, and will seek further contributions and possible grants for the remainder, Damon said.

The four-seater lift will be 3,495 feet long, with a vertical rise of 929.05 feet. The ride to the top of the mountain will take about 8 minutes. The equipment will allow skiers better access to all the trails on Big Rock, combined with the mountain’s other conveyors, Damon said.  

The chairlift will run over Uncle Bud’s trail, parallel to the Comet Trail. Skiers will be able to unload close to where higher trails begin, instead of getting off the lift at the Comet and skating uphill, he said.  

Doppelmayr crews will erect the towers for the system over the summer of 2024, and the lift should be in place by summer’s end.

“They’re going to be working on some of the pieces to get it ready when it comes to construction, prior to the lift actually arriving,” Damon said.

Big Rock will also install equipment to quadruple its snow-making power and expand water reserves, which will allow the ski season to start at the end of November or beginning of December. Seasons have generally started around Christmas vacation.

S.W. Collins Co. presented a $50,000 check to Big Rock Mountain’s capital funding campaign. From left are: Evelyn Holabird, Brad Holabird, Nick Plourde, Clara Collins, Mike Chasse, Sam Collins, Travis Kearney, Adam Collins, Travis Levesque, Leslie Jackson and Devin Martin.  Credit: David DiMinno / The Star-Herald

At 1,748 feet tall, Big Rock Mountain is the largest ski area in northern Maine and the eastern Maritimes with 27 trails, two chair lifts, two surface lifts and snowmaking on 60 percent of the terrain, Big Rock officials said.

This will be the second time Big Rock and Doppelmayr have partnered to install a new chairlift on the mountain. In 2004 a triple chairlift expanded the beginner skiing area.

The mountain sees an average of 19,000 visitors in a season. Once the quad chair lift is installed, Big Rock hopes to see a 30 percent increase in visitors within five years, Damon said.

“We see the chairlift installation as an investment in the sustainability of our operation,” said Darrell McCrum, president of Big Rock’s board of directors. “The campaign’s impact will be felt by generations of County residents.”