Can you give me a lift?

Feb. 19, 2018

Skiing in one form or another dates back 5000 years. What transformed skiing from a means of hunting and survival, to an amazing winter sport was the development of the ski lift; a vehicle to take us mere humans back up the hill without having to be desperate for our next meal, or be in Olympian level fitness.

The first attempts at making the uphill part of all this easier were “surface lifts” where the skier was pulled uphill sliding on ….”the surface”, hence the name. The first of these was the Rope Tow, and the first of those was installed in 1934 on Gilbert’s Hill in Woodstock, Vermont. The rope tow can be described as a continuous, big hairy, scratchy rope that that ran through a bull wheel, or car tire rim at the top and bottom of the hill. The skier stood next to the rotating rope, facing uphill, then grabbed hold and was pulled up on her skis until she got to the top, let go, fell off, or her wooly mittens knitted by her grandmother unraveled. Okay, the “big, hairy, scratchy” part is my description and experience from  the wrecked homemade mittens. The rope tow was actually very fun and worked great, but was also exhausting and ripped up the arm pit of my favorite jacket.

Next up was the T-bar and J-bar. The first T bar showed up in 1940 at Pico Mt., Vermont. These were very similar in that there was a continuous rope or cable, but overhead, and from it a vertical pole hung down with a T at the bottom that the skier propped under his or her backside and was pulled up the slope. The important difference was that this old T-bar, when it was good and cold out, would freeze and not extend or retract. On a typical sub-zero New York state ski day this T would remain at a constant distance from its cable regardless of the dips and gullies in the ski track. The result was, it would lift the skiers in the air, (not the intended means of conveyance), as a good chair lift would but with none of the safety or stability of an actual chair. I remember clearly riding with friends when we were lifted off the ground, slowly spinning so we were facing sideways and sometimes backwards, still moving uphill. As a kid, while we were trying to balance and stay on this now precarious “T”, this was pretty exciting and funny, until it was time to unload!

Along with these lifts came the Pony lift (a small bar hanging from the rope/cable tow that seemed to only catch me behind the knees and flip me flat on my back). I was an instructor at the time and this was not my finest moment, making the Pony lift my least favorite lift. After this came the Platter lift, a nice improvement on the T-bar. The most recent Surface lifts are “Magic Carpets”, big conveyor belts we stand on until we reach the top, something like a conveyor belt escalator. These are wonderfully easy for new skiers and riders to manage, giving them access to a progression of learning terrain.

Next up, finally, the chair lift. The first of these I rode was a single chair at Mad River Glen in Vermont. The last I heard, the group of skiers and riders who own that area have vowed to maintain this iconic lift. Winter in the northeast can be ridiculously cold but I loved that as you loaded this single chair the lifty would toss a big heavy wool and canvas blanket over your lap for the ride up. Overtime the chairlifts have gotten bigger, carrying 4 or 6 riders and greatly improving the uphill capacity at our ski areas. Now, at Vail on our “6-Packs”, with soft cushion seats, foot rests and built in trail maps on the chair bar, you can happily ride up with a small wedding party all at once. On even our biggest days we can still get everyone uphill at an amazing rate.

Gondolas were developed as well and are now at a point of true luxury. Our newest gondola at Vail, “Gondi One” boasts Wi-Fi and a feature I have to admit I love: the heated seat. On a colder day, riding in the warmth and comfort of the gondola is a real treasure and can save a perfectly great ski day. The best feature, from the Children’s ski school perspective, is this Gondola’s now famous “Golden Gondola”. The story is that when this lift was made for Vail it was a highlight of Vail’s 50th Anniversary celebration. The manufacturer thought it would be a nice surprise gift to make one car, just one, gold in color and paint on it the logo for Vail’s big 50th. The normally antsy, impatient kids in ski school will stand for 15 minutes if necessary, repeatedly letting other riders load the lift ahead of them, just so they can ride on the Golden Gondola! The lure of the Golden Gondola is still developing but so far it is lucky and somehow magical in the mind of our youngest skiers. Who knew that would be the winning feature?

Ski lifts are absolutely improving as they are developed and even so I feel some pity for our youngest skiers who won’t have some of the lift riding adventures I grew up with. Who knows what type of lifts will be next, maybe futuristic flying cars or Star Trek like “Transporters”. Time will tell. In any case, whether we climb uphill, or use Jeanie’s magic and cross our arms and blink ourselves to the top, we will get up there and find the magic of sliding back down.