Endangered: The Liftie

Nostalgia for the dying art

"Hey buddy, long time no see." PHOTO: Bryan Ralph

“Hey buddy, long time no see.” PHOTO: Bryan Ralph

This story appeared in the November (42.3) issue of POWDER.

With the installation of the world’s first chairlift, in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1936, there emerged the demand for a handler of unique qualifications. The rickety conveyance meant they’d have to be skilled in mechanics, well adapted to the cold, and able to engage in humorous, non-threatening banter with visiting clientele. Just as important would be their strong appreciation for daily trivia, hippie music played at high decibels, and the ability to use a hole puncher.

Surfacing through this primordial stew was the Chairlift Operator, commonly known as the Liftie. For many skiers, this oft-bearded and ponytailed wanderer became their first and only human connection to their chosen resort. With a cheerful greeting and patience for those who couldn’t understand the concept of “alternating lines,” the Liftie fostered a casual and orderly environment. They were different than Ski Instructors, who were annoyingly perfect and way too tan. Scarier still were Ski Patrollers, who roamed the hills like wolves, waiting to attack anyone bold enough to cross a rope or speed in “Slow Skiing” areas.

But the Liftie knew how to reach a skier’s heart. Serenading lengthy queues with tracks from Bob Marley and Led Zeppelin, the Liftie was relatable—a ski bum who simply wanted to ski, not babysit someone on vacation, or work inside slinging drinks, or play with dangerous explosives. On powder days, skiers could sense the excitement in the Liftie’s energy when he or she emphatically punched their tickets. The Liftie fed this wave of excitement, and by doing so helped develop personalities for individual lifts as well as the resort at large.

Over the years, however, technology caught up with both the rickety conveyance and the Liftie. Simple challenges that used to represent character—two-person chairs, center bars, no padding on the seats—were increasingly regarded as too much hassle for a softened populace. As decisions about mountain operations moved from the base area to the boardroom, the purpose of the chairlift, and the Liftie, shifted. The focus went from actual skiing to increased efficiency, higher capacity, and, thus, a bigger return for Shareholders, the most ruthless predator on the mountain.

And so the double chair went to a triple, and then a quad, and then, the once unthinkable, a sixer. The fixed grip became detachable, slowing the loading process for those soft derrieres but increasing uphill speed. But that wasn’t enough. A loading conveyor belt, which placed skiers on a moving ramp as the chair swung around into loading position, became the next best thing to ease the extremely difficult seating process. The Liftie could only stand by and watch, secretly hoping that an unsuspecting skier would reach the end of the moving ramp before the chair could whisk them away, necessitating a dramatic rescue.

Further evidence pointing to their diminished role was the loss of the beloved hole punch. Instead, they became engaged in a game of laser tag, where the Liftie held a giant ray gun to zap a barcode on a ticket. If it didn’t work immediately, the Liftie pulled the trigger machine-gun style directly at the skier’s jugular or genitals trying to score a bull’s-eye while the skier lifted up his jacket or collar and arched his back like a gymnast attempting to help in any way possible, gasping, “Did you get it? How’s this? Do you see it? What about now?”

The solution, it became clear to Shareholders, was to replace the Liftie with machines. No more wickets. No more hole punches. No more music or daily trivia. No more casual banter, and alas, not nearly as much personality.

Instead, skiers now use a small electronic card to trigger a turnstile. It’s like skiing in Disneyland, if only Disneyland had skiing. Widely used in Europe and increasingly adopted by U.S. resorts, it can be efficient for practiced users. But those who put the card next to a phone, an easy mistake, will experience systematic failure. Blocked in front and heckled from behind, the embarrassed skier is compelled to frantically hump the scanner in a futile flail to trip the switch.

Reprieve at long last comes from the Liftie, who uses the remaining power not stripped of his traditional role. This time, the Liftie triggers the turnstile enabling access up the lift and, eventually, the chance to ski over to the dark side of the mountain to an old and neglected fixed-grip double. The chair is painfully slow, the music defeaning, the seat is hard, and it still requires a bump. But, somehow, it feels exactly how it’s supposed to be.

Also on the Endangered Species List: Stretch Pants.

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  • Tom Conroy

    This is just a great piece of writing. I remember an older Vermont Liftie yawning as as I approached the chair, and then saying, “Sorry, it’s not the company.”

  • JBella

    Sweet article, but any liftie who’s ever worked a detachable lift knows it is way more involved than just standing and watching. It’s an energetic and athletic job that requires dedication and attention! And usually more than one or two lifties are needed to keep the lift turning and people’s hearts in line with the “WAIT HERE” and “LOAD HERE” boards. When it’s busy, there is not a moment to be missed. When it’s not busy, then it’s time for hot laps! Lifties rule the ski area/resort Universe! And, as coined by Derek, a veteran liftie from Taos, Lifties Do It Under the Bullwheel!

    • turkeytraverse

      Wish I could agree with you, where I live the cost of living is too high for the liftie lifers, the old potheads, the deadheads, the ruling class of the old school resorters, to live. Instead we get dumb ass half brained kids who could be replaced by monkeys that consistently have to call our poor lift maint. to do any real work for them. Blehhhh

      • Jd

        Big Sky? The lift maintenance are only as smart as an adult monkey, I live with one, there nothing more than a liftie with a few years experience. He sleeps in the shack while I operate over a million dollars worth of equipment, the least he could do is answer the phone.

    • Chaz Mogul

      apparently you have never worked the triple at big sky

    • Liftie4life

      Spent my last five winters as a liftie in Big Sky and never had more than one of us at each terminal of the lift. If it takes more than one liftie you must be doing something wrong. Detachable lifts are the most boring thing on the mountain to work

  • Dylan

    This is a fucking great article.

  • Grumpy Alum

    Every year the resort rankings come out and list the glitziest, most glamorous resorts of the season. And every year, I’ll keep avoiding them to find somewhere that has slow lifts, deep powder, and no mega-village at the base.

    • Telemama

      Go to Mad River Glen!

  • megunticook

    Lifties are not endangered species in Maine. Esp @ Saddleback. Lifties there still have pony tails. Still blast reggae. Still let pretty ladies cut the singles line. Still load rickety T-bars and aged twofer chairs fer cripesakes. They’re nice to normal peeps and keep the jerks from cutting where they shouldn’t. Long live lifties!!

  • coMet

    At Alta it has employed at least 5 more people per lift at a time. They have the RFID pass which is read by the gate, they look at you on a wide screen TV, on an iPad type reader and look at you. Now that takes 2-3 people. Then there are the lift operators that watch you get on. Alta they do have to be able to count to 10 as well. For each crew there they also have a supervisor watching over them. And now that I think about it they also at times… Have someone that will say front row..

  • Telemana

    Vermont still has lifties. Especially, at MRG!

  • crashtested

    “two-person chairs, center bars, no padding on the seats”

    That’s our main summit chair and really I hope it never changes!!

  • Colorado Liftie

    Speaking as on of those lifties who still bumps chairs. Screw high speeds! You come through my lift and there is music going and Lifties having a good time. Just the way it should be. Everyone these days is too focused on how man laps they can get in a day and how many days in a season. Take your time and you might find something you never knew was there when you where bombing the groomies.

  • Joshua Shepard

    If you want nice slow lifts with a liftie or two at every single one, then go To Bolton Valley, VT. Except be prepared for a couple of the lifts to be more slow than expected. Most places in Vermont still have lifties such as Smuggler’s Notch and a couple lifts at Sugarbush.

  • Rico

    Great article! I remember riding side stepping up the wooden ramp to load the Squaw Peak chair, and if you didn’t survive “the bump”, there was a big, thick, “rope-web” to catch you, which it did for me a couple of times.
    Also, riding the Poma at Sierra Ski Ranch (now Sierra-at-Tahoe) and if you were less then 75lbs, you’d get an extra 10 feet of air for no extra charge as the liftie let go just as you grabbed hold.
    Oh, and the pow lasted more then 1 1/2 hours

  • dad

    MRG’s single and Alpental’s chair 2 will persevere!

  • Emmett Mills

    During a high school race at Mt. Hood Ski Bowl a toothless liftie once directed this remark towards my friend: “You’re in high school and you have a beard? What are you, a pedophile?”

    • LiftieLadyBits

      I’ve been a liftie there off and on for 10 years. Even have Upper Bowl tattooed on my forearm. I bet it was Rick. He’s definitely a lively one.

  • Alex Gelhorn

    This is fucking bang-on. I just did a season at big white and couldn’t agree more with every word of this, although I don’t see why there can’t be a balance of technology and lifties. Have people the to have the banter, make people’s stay more enjoyable make sure the lines run smooth, I don’t know just what I think..

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