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.