As the days of autumn roll on and ski resorts opening days get closer, the anticipation to ski rises to unbearable levels. Eventually, the only thing on every skiers mind is that inevitable moment when the chair lifts finally start spinning. The day when you finally meet up with your skiing friends after a long summer to ski, be social, and come to the realization that winter is finally here. While it is the actual skiing which brings us to the hill in the first place, it's undeniable that the chairlift is something special on its own, even if it's not in the foreground of your thoughts when going out for a day on the slopes. No matter how long you've been a skier, or what skiing means to you, certain chairlifts awake emotions from deep within that bring memories of days past, visions of future goals, endless laps of your favourite terrain, and bonding moments with friends new and old.
A few years back I was riding the Motherload Chair at Red Mountain, BC with an older lady who was on vacation, visiting from somewhere which remains unknown to me. About 10 minutes into the 14 minute ride she starts to complain to me about how slow the speed of the chair was, asking me how I don't go crazy dealing with it on a daily basis. It was hard for me not to take her disdain of the lift as a personal attack, seeing how this particular chair was ranked very high on my list of great chairlifts. An old, slow triple chair, it can take up to a half hour to get to the top if it's running on slow speed (which happens more than anyone would like to admit), it accesses some of the best steep, technical terrain I have come across and I felt like I needed to defend the chair, even as my jacket was getting stained from the oil drips falling as we passed by each tower on our way up. Looking back on that interaction now, I realize it is silly to claim one person’s personal experience more meaningful than another’s. Who am I say what qualifies a chair as good or bad?
There are many iconic lifts in the world, and rightfully so. From the single chair at Mad River Glen to the Aiguille du Midi cable car in Chamonix, certain lifts have a sort of lore around them more akin to things of legend than a mode of transportation. Besides the obvious reasons which make certain lifts the icons that they are, at a personal level, there are many reasons why a lift might resonate with you stronger than others. With a quick Google search, you can find countless articles listing the 'best' chairlifts in the world. With almost all of these lists having the same handful of chairlifts over and over again, you have to wonder if these people have even been to all the places on their list, or if they're just regurgitating the same crap that others have already said in the past. Who are they to define what is best, and if so - why those particular chairs? Ask anyone who spent some time in Whistler and can ski with a decent amount of skill what their favourite chair is. You'll most likely get just as many (if not more) people answering the question with the Crystal Chair over the Peak Chair. Some might even take the question as a time to reflect back and reminisce on chairs of old that have long since been replaced.
There is so much more to a chairlift than simply the terrain it accesses and the view it delivers. When looking back on all the chairs you have ridden in your life, there will be those few that rise to the top of your memory and stand out above the rest. Most likely they are from different times of your life and are held close to your heart for very different reasons. Maybe it was the time you got to ride up Chair 5 at Breckenridge with your favourite pro, or the slow double chair in the back 40 of your local resort on a pow day with just you and your friend getting endless laps with no one else around. When I think about which chairlift means the most to me I always end up back where it all started: the rope tow at the small ski hill where I made my first turns. It has no real name, but simply labelled as "Beginner Area Handle Tow", it will never make it on any list of the best chairlifts in the world, and I surely can't bring it up at the bar when reminiscing with friends after a day of skiing, but deep down, it means the world to me. The first time I made it to the top without losing my grip and falling. That moment when I successfully came to a stop at queue without slamming into the hay bales at the bottom, equipment exploding everywhere. Even when I became good enough to look beyond the bunny hill and start exploring the hill in its entirety, I looked back at the rope tow with a sense of accomplishment. That necessary step with its roller coaster of emotions, a moment of defeat and sorrow followed immediately by joy and success which in the end made me the skier I am today. Without my days on the rope tow, I'm not sure if I would have the same deeply rooted feelings towards what skiing truly means.
There are endless reasons and endless chairlifts, all of them with the potential for things to align in such a way that leaves emotions and memories that will last a lifetime. It is impossible to predict when or where a chairlift might change the way you perceive the simple act of going up a mountain, but when they happen, it's the kind of thing that will stick with you forever. I ask you: What is your favourite chairlift?