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Gimme a Faster Chairlift, Dammit

The conspiracy theory that swift lifts tarnish the ski experience is bull-wheel bullshit

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This was first published in print in October 2004, when the world was still black and white. 

I officially joined the dark side last February. It was a cold, snowy day and I felt compelled to speak evil about a chairlift. Never mind that it was a lollygagging fixed-grip triple with a broken gear: Insulting old lifts is the moral equivalent of bilking grandmothers or hunting kittens. I’m a crass, soulless philistine with no regard for ski culture.

Like many skiers at Telluride at the time, I was spinning laps on Chair 9. A must on powder days, Chair 9 rises to a lofty summit at 11,890 feet and its runs fall away steeply, keeping you moving in the deepest accumulation. Face shots waited below…and waited some more. Chair 9 takes 12 agonizing minutes to ascend 2,125 feet, and it feels like half an hour when a foot of fresh beckons. Instead of spending most of the day skiing, I found myself monitoring the sounds of firs as they groaned under quilts of new snow. There I was, listening to wood—a phrase that sounds wrong on so many levels.

The chair moved as deliberately as the little hand on a grade-school clock. It plodded into a permanently shaded ravine called the “Freezer. And that’s when I lost not just circulation in my extremities, but also any remaining affection for dinosaur lifts.

This is heresy. Skiing’s assorted talking heads have long opined that slow chairs deserve our utmost respect. They preach that creaky doubles and triples lend context and character to our otherwise unripe resorts. Such conveyors, they say, bind us back to skiing’s early days, before focus groups and America’s holy war on inconvenience decided everything. It’s always and automatically a shame when another warm-and-fuzzy fixed-grip surrenders its towers to a cold-blooded, detachable quad.

What a load of hooey. Spare us, retro grouches. The conspiracy theory that swift lifts tarnish the ski experience is bull-wheel bullshit. When resorts open this late autumn, several spanking-new high-speed chairs will debut. And I’m betting that somehow, some way, skiing will survive.

The most-watched opening will occur at Alta, where a new 6,300-foot detachable quad will replace the Collins and Germania lifts. Full mountain laps will no longer require 45 minutes and up to four separate lift rides. In many industries, this would be known as “progress.

At Alta, however, change is about as welcome as a dry December. Among other beefs, Little Cottonwood grumblers cry that the new lift kills the tradition of racing down Stimulation from the top of Wildcat to Germania. So what? Stimulation is a short, absurdly crowded run that always necessitates, but rarely rewards, the hassle of buckling boots.

Fear not the Doppelmayr lift company. Quads won’t affect the resort’s homey lodges, low prices, unpretentious service, and deep apathy toward real estate sales and snowboarding—the qualities that invariably get Alta described as “funky.

Note that “funky doesn’t mean “slow. If it did, James Brown would have sung more ballads. Instead, he threw down with pleas to “git up, git on up. Which is ultimately all we ask of our ski lifts. Alta’s effort to expedite the “git up hardly makes it some corporate purveyor of McSkiing. The mountain will keep funking like Soul Brother No. 1 because sluggard chairs are not what make Alta great. As its general manager, Onno Wieringa, explains, “We work every summer to improve various aspects of the terrain—from trails to lifts, et cetera. Alta has never been about not improving.

The I-word, alas, is damn-near profanity to skiing’s curmudgeons. High-speed quads spark ridiculous debate and incite trolls who’d rather bitch than ski. It seemed like happy news when Loon Mountain, New Hampshire, announced that a new detachable quad would serve North Peak in 2004—2005, reducing ride time from 9.5 to 4.8 minutes. Yet a disgruntled local on a Web forum responded this way: “Why don’t they leave North Peak alone? North Peak is crowded enough. Any resort that installs a high-speed quad to service two trails (OK, three if you count Sunset) needs to hire better decision makers. Mee-yow.

There’s no pleasing these people. When Sugar Bowl installed its new Disney Quad last year, one Frowny Frank professed to “missing the rickety old double chair and its spindly towers—despite admitting just sentences earlier that the “lift dramatically improves traffic flow.

News flash: Skiers can’t have it both ways. Either we risk deep-vein thrombosis on old-codger lifts, or we embrace the supercharged carrying capacity (read, crowds) delivered by quads. I choose the latter because the “powder day has gone extinct, anyway. Fat skis make deep-snow competence so widely attainable, stashes get tracked out early everywhere, no matter how slow the chairlifts crawl. Better to join the mosh pit and lay down tracks myself than sit watching others ski.

The slow-lift crowd also likes to argue that relaxing on a chair, talking to people and befriending strangers, represents an integral part of the skiing experience. “Quads and six-packs routinely launch with empty seats as each group hunkers down within itself, complains writer Steve Cohen. “Lost is all chance for conversation between two strangers drawn to the mountains by a common pull. Granted, skiers occupying opposite ends of these four-person sofas may struggle to communicate. But conversations still happen on quads. They just end before they can sputter into awkward pauses. I view this as a positive. Besides, a fast lift doesn’t preclude socializing per se. One can always continue conversations at an on-slope bar, restaurant, or secret glade housing a Jerry Garcia shrine. If you get lonely, do what any normal, red-blooded 21st-centurian would do: Yak on your cell phone.

Luddites often accuse quads of diminishing soul. But a ski area’s soul owes more to the downhill rides than the uphill ones. Look at Aspen Highlands: Eleven years ago, before the foreward-thinking Aspen Skiing Company purchased it, Highlands was a scruffy orphan with a gravel parking lot and chairs that inched up their cables. A fair chunk of Highland Bowl was closed, and it took a good hour to get there. Now, three high-speed quads and a base village later, skiers flash Highlands’ 3,635-foot vertical rise in 17 minutes, then stroll to the G-zones and other fresh stashes in the fully opened bowl. The trappings of the new Highlands—brick courtyards, complimentary coffee, and focaccia sandwiches—don’t mean that much to me, but the lift system, the youngest overall in the country, makes Highlands a markedly better hill to ski.

Besides Alta and Loon, Crystal Mountain in Washington, and Butter-milk, Colorado, will unveil new quads for next season. I’m sure there are more. They can’t all be emissaries of the Dark Side, can they? I don’t think so. Call me naive, but I don’t view new lifts as metaphorical spit on (the ultimate soul skier) Dick Durrance’s grave. I see the installation of speedy detachables as a noble effort to make skiing less inconvenient and more efficient. I can only hope my home mountain soon joins the movement. I dream of an express train where Chair 9 now dawdles—a sleek quad that glides uphill fast and true, just as God and Doppelmayr intended.