Smooth Operators: It’s the lifties’ mountain, they just let us ride it
March 2, 2017
The Maze: The lines that lead up to the lift
The Lobster Trap: The nylon barriers that prevent runway skiers/riders as well as too much snow piling up into the maze.
Bumping a Chair: When a lift operator holds the chair back for a more gentle seating. This is only needed on the “fixed arm” lifts.
Detachable versus Fixed Arm Lifts: Detachable “high-speed quads” have arms that detach from the haul rope and are guided slowly through the loading zone by tires. After loading its passengers, the spring-loaded arm reattaches to the haul rope and away it goes. Fixed-arm lifts never leave the haul rope and travel at one speed round a bull wheel at which point it smacks the back of your legs … sometimes.
Poma: A leading chair lift manufacturer located in the Alps in France who made a number of the Skico lifts.
Chair Marking: Marking a chair to the top attendant that may require extra attention unloading.
The Couch: A lift on the far east side of Aspen Mountain that is a quad but is not detachable and thus not high-speed. The long, slow, often sun-soaked ride earned its nickname, The Couch.
D.T.: Deep Temerity chairlift. The definition of “temerity” is excessive confidence, audacity, so someone or something with “deep temerity” is … insane?
Safety Gate: If a passenger fails to unload, their legs will contact a lightweight bar, line, or pass through a light beam which stops the lift. The lift operator will then help them disembark, reset the safety gate, and initiate the lift restart procedure.
Numbers versus Names: On Ajax and Snowmass, lifties reference lifts by their lift numbers; Buttermilk and Highlands by their names. (Old people on Ajax refer to them by number, as well.)
While each mountain in the Aspen Skiing Co. family has its unique ascent, there is something suspenseful about the trip up Aspen Highlands. The vibe at the gate on Exhibition lift this particular morning is relaxed. It's warm and sunny and The Stones are playing softly in the background. Always a brisk ride up, one sails over the treetops at 1,000 feet per minute, or 11.36 mph. The lift dumps out above the Merry-Go-Round Restaurant and after a quick skier's-right dash around the corner, one arrives at the Loge Peak lift, nestled in a wooded glade. The song "Good Vibes" by Rebellion reverberates loudly, courtesy of an extra speaker perched in the trees. The lift operator is grooving to the beat and the heart rate ticks up as buttocks meet chair. It's quiet again, save for the wind and the intermittent rumble of the towers before the hum of the top terminal arrives. Castle Creek sprawls out in all her glory below; the ridge of the mighty Highland Bowl looms above. Eat your hearts out, O Red Mountain overlords, these top-of-the-lift, corner-office views can't be bought.
We're all so concerned with going down the mountain, we often don't give much pause to the ride up — and the curious long-haired creatures who make sure we get there safely. These are the lift operators and lift attendants — or "lifties," to use mountain parlance — who supply an essential service to the resort. On one hand, you could take away the instructors, the restaurants, the ticket office, even the ski patrol, and technically people could still go skiing. But with no one to run the lifts, except for maybe a few uphillers, the mountains would be empty. On the other hand, what on Earth do the lifties do all day besides press a button and watch people sit and stand?
"We're the most seen, least visible people on the mountain," explains Jesse, an Aspen native who works/DJs the No. 3 Lift (aka Ajax Express). In short, a lot is going on before the first skier/rider arrives on the hill. "The No. 1 thing about this job is safety," notes Buttermilk lift manager Marianne Barrett. Mandated by the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board, each lift and gondola runs through a rigorous safety protocol each morning before the lifts can operate. This includes everything from testing the phones that connects the top and bottom terminals to checking the tires on the detachable high-speed quads and running various tests on the haul rope to make sure it is performing as it should be to making sure the chairs are moving through the zones efficiently so they don't pile up (not to mention monitoring the engine, its power supply, the auxiliary diesel engine, checking the emergency brakes, gears, pulleys, belts and every detail right down to panda bear protocol — or simply keeping track of the big stuffed panda on Buttermilk and making sure it rides the lift alone; only the smaller stuffed panda is allowed to ride with the kids up the chair).
Once the lifts are up and running, the main job is to make sure everyone gets on and off safely. The intensity of this duty varies from lift to lift. V.X. (aka Village Express at the bottom of Snowmass) requires no less than 10 lifties at a time to load an endless stream of beginners, whereas Five Trees at Aspen Highlands, which services AVSC, can get as few as 10 riders total. Over on the Silver Queen Gondola, the lifties are busy making sure everyone gets in and out of the cabins safely and comfortably. Maneuvering guests' skies and boards in and out of those slots is an extra little amenity the lifties are happy to do.
“We’re the most seen, least visible people on the mountian.”
"I mean, we have to one-up the service from those jerks at Vail," one such attendant confides shortly after handing the former first lady her skis.
But even on the most lackadaisical of lifts, attention must never waiver for more than a few seconds at a time. One never knows when something might go wrong. Tom, who works at the top of No. 4 (aka The Big Burn at Snowmass), recently had a little girl get her skis stuck. Her parents didn't realize what happened and so he ran out to help her. She was shaken and upset, but he quickly got her all settled, gave her the traditional "everyone falls" pep talk, and finished the deal with a fortuitous Valentine's Day lollipop he had tucked in his parka. "She was so glad to see me," Tom explains. "People don't realize how important customer service is to this job. You can't just be some silent dude in the background. It's really important to be able to get out there and make sure the guests feel safe and have a good time." Or as Marianne, Buttermilk's lift manager describes it, "You have to be personable. You have to be friendly and you can't be afraid to touch people."
Apart from "touching people," (appropriately, of course), the other defining challenge of being a lift operator is the cold. Luckily, Aspen gets a decent amount of sunshine; however, not all lifts get sun, and obviously, it gets damn cold plenty often. On a windy, cloudy day, just try standing out there with no skiing or boarding to get your blood going for eight minutes — much less eight hours — and you can start to imagine how insidious the plunging mercury can be. Put it this way, you will be dancing a gigue faster than you can hum, "The snow is snowing. The wind is blowing."
And then there is the boredom. Things do get slow, which leaves plenty of time to think.
"Yeah, sometimes too much time," laughs Maestro at the Deep Temerity lift. Rex, who works top of No. 9 (aka Sheer Bliss at Snowmass) reads the papers, does the crossword, sudoku, and then throws on a podcast — or four. Light reading and distractions are OK. Burying your nose in a page-turning novel, not OK. Outside, the attendants like to hit snow around, keeping busy with whatever they can — raking, shoveling, building steps.
"You start to master the three-second conversation," explains a different Tom, who works the Scooper Lift on Snowmass.
Another welcome distraction is something called "chair marking." When someone is particularly nervous or had a rough embarkation, the bottom attendant will call up to the top to "mark" the chair. They also will mark particularly creative outfits — and particularly beautiful women.
"It's something to look forward to," blushes one top operator.
For some, it isn't the protocols, the cold, or the occasional boredom that gets to them, it is watching people ski all day. And this is the bittersweet — borderline sadomasochistic — aspect of the job: to be totally immersed, and yet once removed, from the sport that stirs their souls. You get paid to ski 100 days a year, but for most of those days, you are only getting a single run. One liftie admits that on powder days he won't even take it. "It's just too painful to stop."
The powder day is example perfectus of the liftie paradox. What the rest of valley looks forward to with unbridled joy, the liftie anticipates with mixed feelings. "We joke that you learn to hate powder days," explains Jesse on Ajax Express. "But it's still nice to live vicariously." On Ajax, it's a 6:15 a.m. call time to help get all the gondola cabs back onto the haul line. They are removed at night during heavy snowfall so they don't get too weighed down. And then there are a good two hours of shoveling, raking, clearing out the maze (the lift lines), clearing out the lobster traps (the brightly colored gates that keep people from plowing into the crowd, as well as keeps the snow from piling up inside the maze.) Then again, a lot of the lifties get to enjoy a fresh track in the morning. At the very least, a nice ride down at the end of the day, not to mention the positive energy that reverberates from the mountainsides is an intoxicating and not altogether terrible work environment.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the "liftie life" — as it were — is the unique culture that hatches every December at the base of the lifts. What used to be a bunch of ranchers and farmers who wanted to earn some extra money during the winter has evolved over the decades to become a calling in its own right, a sort of sub-subculture of the "ski bum," a collection of mostly 20-something guys and a smattering of women who each imbue their lift or gondola with its own unique charms. The lifties at Summit Express at the base of Buttermilk work under their signature disco ball, loading 4-year-olds along with X Game acrobats who have just flung themselves into the air at similar launch vectors as the private jets 1,000 yards in the distance. Over on "the Couch," one of the slowest rides around, the lifties enjoy its ample sunlight and en suite grill. Over at the Cloud Nine lift, famous for the DJing as much as the lift operating, it's always a joyous affair. The energy is amplified by Cloud Nine Restaurant patrons on their way to drink and dance with abandon.
If there is one leitmotif to the liftie culture — besides its fondess for long, Samson-esque locks and irreverent quotes scribbled on white boards — it is the music. It's something of a late-’80s, classic rock echo chamber, a proclivity for which I was unable to source any particular rhyme or reason. The music is selected by the lifties, whoever feels like plugging in their phone, with only slight management oversight (no heavy swearing, nothing too crass or aggressive.) The music is simply what they like to listen to.
"My playlists happen over time," explains Lewis, who claims "Planet Earth" as home and works the Loge lift. He is particularly passionate about his tunes. Planet Earth? "Yeah, yeah I moved around a lot growing up, but I also like that it puts everyone on the same level." When asked if he includes much top 40 in his playlists he winces, "Um … no." His go-to genres include reggae, classic rock, funk and a bit of disco. "The music a) keeps me going, and b) makes the guests happy."
Perhaps there is no better display of liftie culture than at Customer Appreciation Day, every Wednesday on Highlands. Guests enjoy free parking, free coffee, free muffins and then at high noon precisely, the lifties at Deep Temerity serve up 80 freshly grilled hot dogs to a crowd of ravenously appreciative guests. In the eight years it has been going, four minutes is the record for selling out. The Deep Temerity lift could very well be nicknamed "The Locals’ Lift.” Servicing the Bowl and acres of gorgeous double-diamond terrain, it's no wonder it draws a certain devout fan base. Dave, an Aspen local who moved here in 1962, has been skiing "D.T." seven days a week since it opened, usually eight to 12 runs a day, depending on how many bowl laps. When asked if he skies anywhere else, he responded with zero irony, "Sure, I skied Snowmass once this season."
Almost all the lifts have their regulars and there is a certain family vibe that is created, not only among the lifties but between the guests, as well. One passes by in but a fleeting second, but somehow that little bond can form. Which isn't to say it's all peaches and cream in the liftie world. They spend all morning getting a lift open for a powder day and then get plenty of nasty looks when the snow hasn't been swiped off the chair. Not to mention that there's a hierarchy on the mountain and the lifties are pretty much at the bottom.
"They assume you're a pothead, a lazy ski bum, but a lot actually goes into this job that people don't see," one liftie confesses.
"It's the lowest paid but the most essential," argues Jason Leadman, a lift manager at Highlands.
So does a passing "thank you" lift their spirits?
"I never get sick of hearing the word thank you," Lewis replies, "it's always a nice thing to hear."
Aside from gripes about pay and a respect gap, there is an overwhelming sense of pride, responsibility and joy among the liftie set.
"We work for a pretty badass company. The perks are small, but good," admits Tom on the Big Burn.
His friend Rex just over on Sheer Bliss makes the obvious comparison, "I mean, the name says it all. Great view, great commute. It's very peaceful up here." Granted, at that exact moment it was a whiteout and the wind was howling, but you get the point. Spending time around the lifts, watching chair after chair after chair after chair roll by like waves crashing on a snowy beach, the hypnotic, almost spiritual nature of the job starts to emerge. Indeed, there is something monastic in the life of the liftie. Accepting the position isn't quite a vow of poverty, but not terribly far off. After all, it is a life committed if not to God, than to God's country, and all its pleasures be they ripped, fermented or smoked.
If there is a simple "truth" to the liftie life it was pointed out to me by Fernanda, who is on a J-1 visa from Costa Rica and works the Village Express at Snowmass. For all the hassles and hurdles of the ski vacation, and all the sacrifices of the ski life, it all melts away the moment you rush out in between the chairs. "Everyone is happy when they are getting on the lift," she observes. And that, as they say, is the truth.
David Stillman Meyer is a writer and graphic designer. Reach him at stillman-meyer.com.