In the springtime, if I'm lucky enough to be riding an old chairlift, I find myself questioning the ski-lift revolution of the past 25 years. Who wants to be trapped inside a fancy gondola or rushed up the mountain on some snazzy high-speed six-seater when the sun is out, the air is warm and the ride up is as much afternoon nap as transportation? But then I think back to the ski scene in California in the late 1930s, when I started skiing, and when riding the lift up was usually tougher than skiing down.
Mt. Baldy, Calif., for instance, held a major surprise at the unloading platform. This was not a standard chairlift where foot passengers would stand up then run like blazes down the ramp. This one-of-a-kind chair folded back and pivoted around the passengers. Unfortunately, the howling wind made it impossible for passengers to hear the unloading instructions being shouted by the lift operator. Unable to hear the lift attendant, foot passengers would stand up and move to each side, thinking the chair would pass between them. Instead, the chair would hit them from behind and knock them flat on their faces.
In the late 1930s, Johnny Elvrum bought Snow Valley, Calif., its two ropetows and a "sling lift for less than $1,000. For years, he made more money renting toboggans than he did skis. Groups of seven or eight people would squeeze onto a toboggan and then hurtle towards some very solid object at the bottom. Some of the best laughs in my early films were of sopping-wet, T-shirt-clad, pipe-smoking fathers with kids on their laps almost successfully dodging trees, large rocks and spectators.
Snow Valley's sling lift was another type of thrill altogether. Imagine a steel cable about 15 feet in the air with four wires that held a horizontal 10-foot-long two-by-four. Attached to the dangling board were eight dangling slings made of discarded canvas fire hose. Eight skiers would line up and put the slings over their heads and down around their fannies. Once everyone had paid their 10 cents, a signal would be given to start the lift, and all eight people were supposed to be pulled up the hill, snug in their slings, at the same time.As sure as there are tips on your skis, there would always be a first-time sling-rider on the lift. That person would inevitably fall halfway up and be dragged along until his or her yelps of distress could be heard by the mechanic who was running the ancient automobile engine that powered the lift. He would slip the engine out of gear, and then the seven standing skiers would slide back down the hill until the mechanic jammed on the brake. If the brake worked, the lift would stop instantly, and the seven standing skiers would fall over like dominos.
During and after World War II, skiers headed to Yosemite National Park, where they would take their chances on another unique ski lift. The Up-Ski utilized a pair of boat-shaped sleds hauled by a steel cable. As one sled went up the mountain with skiers in it, the other came down empty as a counterweight. Twenty people at a time would pay 25 cents each to climb into the sled, stand their skis vertically in a ski rack in the center of the sled and be hauled up the hill at about the speed you could have walked up.
One spring day the sled tipped over. Everyone fell or jumped out, but the car engine continued to drag the sled up the hill. When it arrived at the top, it contained only the bottom halves of the skis, as all 20 pairs had been snapped off at the bindings. Not surprisingly, the Up-Ski lift technology quickly moved into retirement.
On second thought, maybe the ski-lift revolution wasn't so bad after all. Now if they would just slow the things down on sunny spring days.