As I write this column, it is New Year’s Eve. A time for sentiment. A time to drink more than we should and kiss people we probably shouldn’t. A time to sing “For Auld Lang Syne.” A time to wonder, yet again, exactly what “auld lang syne” means. (Quick translation from the original Scots: “auld lang syne” means “drink whisky and weep.”)
Above all, it’s a time for looking back, a time for nostalgia.
And so, how delightful it is that Aspen Skiing Co. has tossed us three decades back into that dearly beloved past by shutting down the Aspen Mountain gondola.
Yes, yes, I know; mechanical difficulties beyond their control. But still, the bucket’s not running and suddenly, it’s the early 1980s all over again and the ride from Little Nell to the Sundeck takes a good 45 minutes — plenty of time to contemplate what we have gained and what we have lost.
That 45-minute ride starts with a short, pokey trip on the Little Nell Lift, then a much longer, much pokier ride up Lift 5 (and, yes, since we’re going back to the old ways, I’ll call these lifts by their honorable old names, which are numbers) to the top of Bell Mountain. Then, on legs grown stiff and cold, we thrash our way down to Lift 3 and, finally, ride on up to the top of the mountain.
What I have left out, of course, are the lengthy waits in the lift lines at the bottom of 5 and 3. Those lines — particularly at peak season, which is, gee, right now — can seem endless.
But right there, surprisingly enough, comes the first unexpected benefit of our little return to the past: Waiting in lift lines used to be a grand opportunity for a little socializing — particularly the line at 5.
Waiting in line at Lift 5 at the start of the day, you’d get to look around, spot your friends, shout out a greeting, chat a little as you worked your (endlessly slow) way toward the lift. You’d catch up on the local gossip, see who was skiing with a hangover, who was unexpectedly skiing with whom and who was unexpectedly skiing single. (Whoa! There’s that hot cocktail waitress. Shout: “Single!” Get ignored. Again.)
It was a nice, civilized way to start the day.
And there’s another benefit to shutting down the gondola, particularly for us old codgers: You get in a lot less skiing.
Yes, that’s what I said: the benefit of skiing less.
Once upon a time (as all good fairy tales begin) you could ski hard from early morning till the lifts shut down in the late afternoon, with a break for lunch in the middle. Nine in the morning until four in the afternoon, a great full day of exercise and fresh air.
Now, however, with the damnable gondola, you can get in so much skiing in so little time that the all-day scenario seems positively dangerous.
A reasonable top-to-bottom used to take an hour: 45 minutes up and 15 minutes down. Now that’s been cut in half, 15 up and 15 down — and the time savings eliminates that opportunity to catch your breath and let your legs recover between runs.
And for those who scoff at my Old Fart weakness (which is, I admit, certainly scoff-worthy), I urge you to consider the benefits of more mindful skiing.
I’m not talking any New Age “mindfulness” fluff here. It’s just that when you have to invest the better part of an hour to get to the top of the mountain, you tend to pay more attention to how you get down.
A high-speed run, carving GS turns all the way from the Sundeck to Kleenex Corner, is lots of fun, but when you do that — wham! — there you are back at the bottom, with at least 45 minutes ahead of you before you can ski again.
So people start to consider taking their time, making the most of their run, skiing the Face or the Ridge of Bell, or picking their way down some of the challenging runs at the top and then, when they hit Spar, using the time honored maneuver of “milking the Face.” (If you don’t know what that means, ask any Old Codger.)
And shutting down the gondola should toss some people over to the 1A side of the mountain — and if Ruthie’s is too tame, get reacquainted (or just plain acquainted) with Corkscrew or Super 8. Wow! It’s like a whole new mountain!
But really, against all odds, the major benefit of riding the lifts is ... just riding the lifts, those clunky old chair lifts.
Consider that first ride up Lift 5.
You start in shadow, shivering in the flood of cold air that washes down Spar Gulch and then, as the lift swings and clatters upward, you break out into the sunshine and the world is bright again and even, if you’re lucky, warm. (There’s got to be some sort of allegory there: In darkness we are born and into the light we shall go. Or something.)
And then, slowly — yes, slowly for sure — you make your way up the mountain. It’s a period of enforced inactivity, a good time perhaps for conversation or, better yet, quiet contemplation.
Too often these days we overlook the sheer beauty of a lift ride. We’re all in such a clanking hurry to get to the top, sealed in our little gondola buckets, that we forget the beauty of gliding in silence (OK, lurching in semi-silence) through the treetops in the middle of mountains in the middle of winter.
It’s a privilege, people, and shutting down the gondola may help us remember that.
And who knows? Maybe they’ll even cut lift-ticket prices back to pre-gondola levels.
For auld lang syne.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.