It’s a clear night on the mountain and the chairlift sparkles in the moonlight as ice crystals grow along the cables. There’s an ermine hunting behind the mid-station, leaving a patter of tiny footprints on the fresh snow in front of the lift shack. The weekend lifties have a habit of eating crumbly sandwiches as they watch the chair, and the shack mice have grown fat.
The moon is still heavy in the sky when a snowmachine’s racket breaks the silence. One last pounce, the ermine scampers into the trees, holing up for the short daylight hours. Cold hands, frigid breath, a short checklist, the start sequence, some cursing, and the chair hums to life. Frozen pulleys protest and overnight snow billows off the chairs as the lift squeals into motion. Each chair gets a quick sweep and a smack as it comes through the station then is sent swinging back up the mountain as the bullwheel turns.
On the other side of the mountain, the rest of the resort is waking up. Families on vacation stretch sore limbs and head out in search of coffee. The rental shop is buzzing already, haggard techs struggling to keep up with the endless chatter as they calculate DINs and adjust forward pressures. A few explosions punctuate the soundtrack. Patrol is out busting wind lips. Bombs dropped, ‘boo placed, two patrollers tag team the lift line, smacking the tower pads and clearing them of ice. They’re strategic, each clearing every other pole, savoring the turns in between, making the most of a mountain free of the public. They greet the lifty at the bottom with a nod, head back up, maybe there’s a chance to check the North Woods for hazards before lift lines fill. As they unload the chairs all the way down the line sway a little, and the bullwheel turns.
At the base area the belltower chimes, lifts are open, and the bachelor party that barely made it back to their hotel last night pull pillows over their heads and pray it all will stop.
It takes a while for a lift line to form on the fixed-grip double on the back of the ridge. The few locals who are on the hill this holiday weekend head there immediately, cranking out laps in their favorite chutes before things get chopped up. By 10:30 they’re gone, off to boot pack fresher zones, and the visitors have created a short line, snaking around the base shack. One family has never ridden a fixed grip chair before, it swings in fast behind them, the mother will have bruises on the back of her thighs, and her son pops a ski as he’s swooped out of the lift area. The next rider chuckles, grabs it to return at the top. Fog is starting to roll in. At the summit, you can barely see two lift poles up. And the bullwheel turns.
The young couple is just above the mid-station when the chairlift grinds to a halt. A snowboarder at the top didn’t get off in time, is hanging from the chair halfway ‘round the wheel. A few lackadaisical liftys saunter over to extract him. The couple on the chair isn’t dating exactly. Not yet, just skiing together a lot. She’s been meaning to ask him about that, maybe try to kick things up a notch, and she’d just broached that topic when the lift stopped. He’d squealed a little when the chair stopped suddenly, grabbed at the armrest as it swung forward with their momentum. Now he’s confused, and she’s wishing she hadn’t brought it up. Mental calculations: this chair takes 17 minutes top to bottom, how long will we be sitting here? The phone at the mid-station beeps, the chairs grind into motion again. They’ll ride to the top silently. She won’t wait for him this run, or the next, or ever again actually. And the bullwheel turns.
A few chairs down a group of young rippers occupies a cluster of chairs. The cables aren’t far from the snow here, and they’re trying to decide if it’s a bigger drop from the chair to the ground than it is to hit Mid Rock to the sweet spot. The boldest of them is sliding forward on the chair, tensing himself to drop when the lift starts spinning again. He slides back, giggling in nervous relief. Three of them will ski this mountain every winter for the next two decades. For another two, divorces and parental job changes will drag them away. They don’t know it yet, but this is their last day on this hill. Still, the bullwheel turns.
Two chairs behind, an old man back on skis for the first time in a decade. He’s never ridden these shaped skis before, but they’re easy to turn, and the snow is light. Why did he stop skiing in the first place? About to unload; a local legend in the making. His GoPro is charged, and he’s got every turn, every hit planned for his next run. He’ll leave his ACL in the Lakeside Chutes later in the day, only has two lift rides left this winter. Behind him, two men who met in the singles line. They both love Orville Peck, they’ll exchange phone numbers on this ride, will end up traveling the world skiing together. For now, they’re talking about the weather. The whole time, the bullwheel turns.
76 seats filled, 76 lives spinning up the mountain, swaying in a light breeze. At the top they’ll each slide down the exit ramp, maybe skate a little to line up for their next run, buckle boots, adjust goggles and fold back into their surrender to gravity. 152 feet times however many turns each makes in a run. 76 snowy grins at the bottom. Back onto the chair, singles load the inside, keep your tips up, enjoy the ride. Someday this lift will be replaced. Soon more skiers per hour will be able to access these lines, make turns on this terrain. But for now, it’s good enough. The ermine naps in its den in a dead stump. The mice snooze under the floorboards of the mid-station, and through it all, the bullwheel turns.