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Ski Resort Life

The World’s Scariest Chairlifts, And Why We Can’t Get Enough of Them

Yes, we're talking about the ones that make your nether-parts tingle when you look down, or make your hands go numb from holding on.

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Ever cry on a lift? Get fully puckered on a T-bar? Beg for mommy on a rickety old double with no safety bar? We asked our contributors to help us source the scariest lifts in the world—what makes them so terrifying and why they’ll still ride it (or never will again!).

10 of the Sketchiest Chairlift Rides in Skidom

Roca Jack, Portillo, Chile

None (Photo: Courtesy of Portillo)

This five-person Poma at Ski Portillo shoots you straight up a steep avalanche path at high speeds over rowdy bumps. You’ve got to hold on like you’re riding an angry bull, and if the person next to you gets taken out, don’t look back and try not to run them over with your skis. And of course, you’ll ride it again because it gets you to all the goods—pow laps in el Estadio, corn laps in Primavera, and the bootpack to the Super C Couloir.   Megan Michelson, SKI and Outside contributor

Horseshoe Bowl T-Bar, Breckenridge, Colo.

"It's slow. It's cold. It's as out-dated as Flexon boots and neon headbands. But Breck's T-bar accesses some of the raddest terrain this side of…"
(Photo: Courtesy of Vail Resorts)

Not necessarily scary, per se, but often an interesting experience, especially when riding with or behind a snowboarder. Breck’s Horseshoe Bowl T-Bar takes skiers and boarders 1,230 vertical feet to the Peak 8 summit, up some pretty steep and exposed terrain. Only the first couple hundred feet are protected by trees, so once you’re above treeline, it’s no-holds-barred on windy days. As if T-Bars aren’t already challenging enough for snowboarders—they often litter the sides of the T-Bar track like fallen soldiers at Normandy—add in 50 mph gusts and it can be sheer carnage out there. No wonder my three tween/teen boys can’t get enough. Samantha Berman, SKI Executive Editor

Marte Chairlift, Las Leñas, Argentina

This fixed-grip two-seater, with no bar to pull down, is the highest lift at the resort and takes you to the best steep alpine terrain—but that also means that it has been hit by a few avalanches, making some of the towers crooked. So crooked that if you are sitting on the inside, when you pass the tower you have to make sure your ski tips are facing forward, not in the relaxed “V” they usually go to. Make this mistake, as I did on my first ride, and your ski tip catches on the passing tower. Without a bar and on a jiggling two-seater, this was a lesson I only needed to be taught once. But the chair is worth it, taking you to Las Leñas’ infinite tight couloirs, steep faces, and cliffs of all sizes. Hit this chair on the first bluebird day after it has snowed, you’ll have to be aggressive and throw some elbows with the locals, but it’s the best chair to lap and find untracked runs. Or if you’re done for the day, you can use this chair to get a final long, off-piste run to the base. —Mali Noyes, SKI contributor

Upper Giant Killer Poma, Pico, Vt.

Ask 8-year-old Micah to describe the Upper Giant Killer poma at Pico in Vermont, and he’ll say something like this: “It’s a vertical wall of blue ice ’cause the snow guns at the top leak water straight down the poma track and it doesn’t even matter ’cause the springs on the pomas themselves don’t work so the first time you hit a rock hard chatter mark you’re lifted into the air and you never come down and just swing wildly 7-10 feet off the ground while people who have fallen off higher than you slide, screaming, beneath your skis, never to be seen again.” Ask 47-year-old Micah the same question and he’ll say: “It was probably only, like, 5 feet off the ground.” —Micah Abrams, VP Adventure Sports, Outside 

Chair 1, June Mountain, Calif.

Chair 1 at June Mountain terrifies me, but mostly only going down it. It’s an old double chair with a center bar. (I think it has a safety bar but that adds no sense of security.) When June doesn’t have enough snow (which feels like often, or maybe I’m just always there super-late-season) you ride that lift to the mid-mountain lodge and ski from there. Then at the end of the day, if there’s not enough snow to ski down from the mid-mountain lodge, you have to download Chair 1. They make you take your skis off and put your skis on another lift, so you’re just sitting there on the chair, with your boots on, going face down this steep slope without any snow, and the old rickety chair feels like it might fall off at any moment. I rode down it with my kid a couple of years back and he was screaming in delight like it was a roller coaster ride and I was gripping the center bar like my life depended on it.  —Megan Michelson, SKI and Outside contributor

Madonna Lift, Smugglers’ Notch, Vt.

Smugglers' Notch Access
(Photo: Smugglers’ Notch)

An old double chair that they modified a bit in 2002 to push it into over-drive in order to get lots of people up to the top of Madonna peak, Smuggs’ Madonna Lift takes you through what can be very icy winds all along the upper ridge of Mt. Mansfield. The current ride time is 12 minutes and 45 seconds or so, with 174 chairs, but back in college in the 1990s, when the gear wasn’t what it is today, we swore it took fully 20 minutes, and the prospect of that first ride up at 9 a.m., with the temperature at 0 and the winds at 20 mph, was at times fairly terrifying.  To add to the experience, the towers back then were a bit higher; they didn’t call the drop halfway up Madonna’s face “The Black Hole” for nothing.  Sam Pfeifle, SKI contributor

Upper T-Bar, Cannon Mountain, N.H.

When I was a kid, I was literally dragged up Cannon’s Upper T-Bar. Cannon was—still is—a cold, icy, windblown place above treeline. The Upper T-Bar pulled skiers over 2,000 feet up a steep run that was always fast and icy. People would fall off and hurtle down the narrow T-bar track. Back then, I was knocked off the T-Bar from a seated position to holding on for dear life with outstretched arms, dodging the skiers who spiraled down. I was in tears at the top. I still think about that experience when I’m riding a T-Bar above treeline (like Crested Butte or Breckenridge) and I make sure to hold on tight.  Krista Crabtree, SKI contributorlifts

Main lift, Masik Ryong Ski Area, North Korea

I visited North Korea’s Masik Ryong, the $100 million pet project of leader Kim Jong-Un, a handful of years ago. At the time, it seemed like the main lift out of the base area didn’t have enough lift towers to complete the run, so they made do with what they had. The result was a ride with huge expanses between towers and chairs that had to run so slowly to keep them on the wheels. It took 43 minutes to get to the top. Then, when you went to get off, there was no ramp to help you ski away. It was just a flat landing, so you had to somehow get off the chair and shuffle out of the way without letting your boots get trapped between the chair and the earth. Also, when you went to get on, they MADE you put the bar down instantly, but there wasn’t enough clearance for the footpegs, so they would drag you into the snow, pitch you forward, and you just waited for a leg (yours) to snap. But the reward was exceptional, a winter’s worth of untracked north Asian pow since no one could ski it. Tim Neville, SKI and Outside contributor

Red Dog Chair, Palisades Tahoe, Calif.

Palisade Tahoe‘s Red Dog Chair is where you seriously put the bar down—its intimidating 200-plus foot freefall into the steep ravine below has been raising nerves for over 60 years since it opened before the 1960 Olympics. And this year it’s brand new, after Palisades has invested in an improved high-speed six-seater that will whisk 3,200 queasy folks up every hour. Better yet, this year’s chair has taller towers and, you guessed it, a steeper, scarier drop. 

But the gullies, glades and 2023 FIS World Cup race course under Red Dog are just too seductive, and are critically overlooked when the crowds are preoccupied with Palisade’s upper mountain. This zone is a refuge for powder hunting and competition race turns alike, but Red Dog’s drop height to the terrain below is living rent free in everybody’s head the whole way up. Hold on to your phone and do not shake the chair! —Conor Villines, instructor and SKI contributor

Rope Tow, Shahid Mazar Ski Piste, Afghanistan

Shahid Mazar Ski Piste outside of Bamiyan, at a place called Gombatak, which was just a hill past an industrial area that was almost entirely small shops making handmade goods—like carpenters and woodworkers making doors, other folks forging stuff, things like that. The lift was scary only because it was all they had—rough and very challenging—but I would do almost anything to get on it again, given the situation there now. Basically, the Bamiyan Ski Club had built a rope tow up a north-facing slope using a “Zarang” as a motor. That’s a three-wheel motorcycle of sorts with some cargo-carrying capacity off the back. They ran the rope around one of the rear wheels and then up the slope to another wheel up top. A guy would sit on the handlebars facing uphill and reach behind him to use the throttle. I’m not sure why they did it like this, but the guy would gun it right from the start. There was no easing into it. It was like he was trying to pop a wheelie. So the poor skiers clutching the rope would either be launched up the hill immediately or they’d burn the shit out of their gloves and tumble. It was icy, steep, and very uneven. And yet it was awesome.  —Tim Neville, SKI and Outside contributor

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