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Nothing destroys the morale of a ski town like a lack of snowfall. The sacrifices made to live in the mountains—high rent, small apartments, triple shifts to make ends meet, a dating pool with murky water (at best)— are hard to justify when slopes are dry. The beginning of the season at Aspen, my local hill, was slow to start. By mid-December, we hadn’t yet seen any significant fluff and we skiers were feeling low. Finally, the powder faucet turned on just days before Christmas and kept it coming for two weeks.
Six feet of snow fell in that period, tieing for the deepest December in Aspen in the last 43 years. Our faces hurt from smiling all day and our legs hurt from unending turns. The skiing was great and it was the lift operators, enduring historic amounts of shoveling while the pow days passed them by, who deserve our thanks. Lift operators have one of the most thankless jobs in skiing and it’s high time we skiers recognized them.
Most of us probably don’t realize what it takes to open a ski resort every day. Sure, grooming and snowmaking usually happen under the cover of night, so we don’t see it much. You’ll only chit-chat with a ski patroller on your worst day or when you’re doing something you’re not supposed to. But in addition to all the workers behind the scenes, skiers slide and waddle past lift operators all day long—and we owe them our thanks for the integral role they play in our collective skiing joy.
“When the public shows up, we’ve already done hours of work,” says Topher McNeal, a 7-year veteran liftie at Aspen’s Snowmass. “We’ve been sweeping off chairs, chipping ice, shoveling since before sunrise some days. [Guest] don’t see that.”
His shoveling cohort Dave Miller agrees. “I wish people could see how early we get out here and how hard we work,” says Miller. “People think we just hang out all day. No way! There’s a lot of work to be done.”
It’s true. Once lift operators have shoveled themselves into a sweaty mess, the rest of their day is spent watching everyone enjoy a day on the mountain while they maintain snow and ice removal, manage the lift controls, and try not to freeze their keisters off. (The really good ones also make sure their loading area playlist is dialed to exactly the right vibes.) Lift operators are a key point of contact for the overall guest experience, always ready to answer questions like ‘Which runs are groomed,’ ‘What terrain is skiing the best,’ ‘Will it snow tonight,’ ‘Why did you place the bumps so sporadically,’ or ‘At what elevation do the deer turn into elk,’ and more. “A lot of folks ask, where they can find the gondola to Aspen and they want to argue otherwise when I tell them there is, in fact, no gondola to Aspen,” laughs McNeal.
While occasionally misinformed, disgruntled skiers are few and far between according to my local lifties. Their main gripe pertains to, well, friendliness. “Say hi to us!” Miller says. “I’m amazed that folks don’t even look at us. We’re people too.” And they’re typically diehard skiers to boot. It’s why they put up with the wind and sunburn, the freezing temperatures, the shoveling, and a thin paycheck: Their employment comes with a season ski pass. But on our epic powder days, our sunny afternoons arcing on groomers, our bell-to-bell slush bump wiggle sessions, lift operators get a 30-minute, maybe hour-long ski break at most.
“Seeing everyone skiing and wishing it was you is tough,” says Shaggy, a long-time operator in Aspen. “But having a snowball fight with little smiling kids at your corner office with a million-dollar view is pretty great.”
So the next time you shuffle across the LOAD HERE sign, I encourage you to say—maybe even yell—a big, heartfelt “Thank you!” to the lift operators nearby. (And don’t forget those top ops when you unload.) These essential employees deserve ten pounds of gratitude in a five-pound bag. Without them, we’d all be walking uphill. And unless you’re Cody Townsend, who the hell wants to do that?
“If I can’t ski on a powder day, then I want to help people ski on a powder day,” McNeal told me. “ I love the job because I get to contribute to someone’s happiness, someone’s best day ever. It’s like second-hand stoke.”