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Swinging Chairs

Fall Line

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Kendall the lift supervisor skied up to the loading ramp at the Firebowl T-bar. He was a big man on skis, red-haired and ruddy.

“Your father called,” he said.

Kendall had just hired me at California’s China Peak, now Sierra Summit. It was 1979. He didn’t know that I was on the lam.

Instead of returning from Christmas break for my second semester of college, I was working as a lift-op with my two best friends from high school. But I hadn’t told my parents, fearful of their response, and now I was overdue at school, happily working the upper-mountain T-bar in Firebowl instead of sitting in class.

On a busy day, Firebowl required one guy to check tickets and control the maze, a second guy to place the T-bars against skiers’ butts and a third guy in the top lift shack to watch for carnage. But on a slow day, one guy could handle both the maze and the T-bar and a second could sit in the crow’s nest. Which meant the third guy could make lap after glorious lap down Firebowl’s slopes. Somehow, I just couldn’t find the time to call home on that first day.

The next day, Kendall skied up again. “Your parents are in the base lodge,” he said.


I skied down to meet with reality. I handed Dad back the tuition check and told Mom I hadn’t joined a suicide cult. I just wanted to ski. I swore to them that I’d go back to school and off they-eventually-went, leaving me a true lift-op, with a pass, a uniform, meal discounts in the day lodge and a paycheck. All that, and I got to ski with Otto, too.

Otto was the head instructor, and he had a masterful flow on skis, strong and playful. And he was married to an instructor with a long blond braid that hit the top of her tight, blue ski pants. We all marveled at his mastery of the skiing world.

One ridiculously deep Sierra powder day, Otto said, “Stay on my tails,” and raced into the trees. Suddenly we were soaring off a cliff, poofing into the powder pillows below. I hadn’t known I could catch such big air and land it.

Another day, two guys rode the T-bar up with big packs and telemark skis. They were heading out of bounds for a three-day tour. I didn’t know you could do that. I didn’t know there was a backcountry.

One night, a local liftie took me to a summer cabin, shuttered for the winter. It was the coldest place imaginable to take off your pants, but she was a mountain girl.

That season, more than 20 years ago, I learned the ways of a ski town. How to carve a ski. How a ski resort works. How great off-season can be.

Today, I still live in a ski town and have a passel of season passes on a string that remains looped around a stairway banister at my house. I’m married to a ski instructor, and I’m still trying to make those sweeping, floating “Otto” turns. No, I’m no longer a lift-op, but I can still relate. When some people see a liftie, they see a cold, miserable guy standing in one place all day in a dead-end job, while the paying customers are out making blissful turns. But I see him in the midst of a life-changing season.A season he had to fight for. A season that will introduce him to the joys of the skiing life-and maybe a skiing wife. He has a season pass, a uniform, meal discounts in the day lodge-and he sleeps so very well at night.

And if he has a good boss, he’ll also make some turns that day with his best friends. He won’t realize it at that time, but they just might be the best turns of his life.