I still remember the first time I rode a chairlift. Following a few years of honing my skills on Red Mountain Resort’s T-bar as a toddler—where making it up the daunting pitch from tower three to six was a big accomplishment for someone so small—it was time to go to “the top.” The liftie, a long-haired, knitted-skullcap-wearing hippie (although those of us who lived there for some reason referred to them as “budgies” back then), flashed a quick glance at me before hastily grabbing a wooden box for my tiny legs to stand on, so I could easily plop my butt down on the fastly approaching lift. Shortly after the chair whipped around the bull wheel at a seemingly breakneck speed, I felt the cold, un-cushioned metal edge of the seat aggressively slap my calves, and as my skis left the ground, everything changed. Gone were the days of me gazing at the top of the mountain, or the trail map at its base, and using only my imagination to wonder what the runs, terrain and surrounding mountains looked like from up there. That very first chairlift ride is what truly opened my eyes to skiing, the power and beauty of the mountains, and what was possible in them. And I never looked back.
The chairlift is a highly unappreciated invention, and when you really think about it, kind of a comical one. The idea of a mobile couch that ascends through thick clouds, howling winds and pounding snow to the cleft of an improbable summit is somewhat strange, and must have seemed logic-defying to early-day skiers. But more so than any other technological advancement in the sport’s history, it has without question made skiing what it is.
Since the Union Pacific Railroad erected the first chairlift at Sun Valley Resort in 1936, it’s become so much more than a convenient mode of transportation in the mountains—it’s an experience. In addition to being an apparatus that offers a unique perspective of nature that you wouldn’t otherwise get outside of hiking or flying in an aircraft, it’s an intimate social gathering place for skiers. Whether there are one to five seats next to you, it provides you with a tranquil opportunity to catch up with old friends, or prompts you to converse with someone you wouldn’t otherwise meet. It’s an ever-moving perch that continuously evokes smiles as you watch other skiers hoot, holler and show off beneath you, while putting you in a position to be inspired by their exploits. And best of all, it tirelessly carries you, again and again, to the goods.
Over the years, we seem to have taken these upward chariots for granted as we’ve developed different ways to access the mountains. But with respect to the comfort and efficiency of modern-day gondolas and trams, and those who prefer to cat- or heli-ski, or earn their turns, the next time you take a seat, remember that there’s nothing on earth quite like the chairlift. —JEFF SCHMUCK, EDITOR