Ajax’s long, cold lift
December 22, 2005
It’s Aspen Mountain’s forgotten lift, tucked quietly alongside the towering Silver Queen Gondola. Hardly any of the mountain’s out-of-town visitors will take its frigid, sluggish ride to the top of Bell Mountain this season. Even Ajax’s official trail map seems to brush off the Bell Mountain chair, labeling it as a special-events lift that operates sparingly. But even though it routinely runs at less than capacity and garners little or no attention, even on the mountain’s most crowded weekends, Skico decided Friday to set the chair in motion.After all, it is a local favorite.”It gives locals another way up the hill and is a popular chair for them,” Aspen Mountain Manager Steve Sewell said. “It doesn’t always make sense to turn it on, but we worry about other things more.”
Sewell acknowledged that operating the chair makes little economic sense. The mountain operations staff aims to open the lift the weekend before each Christmas, when Skico can generate enough revenue to offset the cost of running the lift. But in years past, the company didn’t operate the chair at all. “We started a few years where we didn’t run it at all, but people started saying we had a chair sitting there and it doesn’t look right,” said Sewell, who estimated 100 skiers rode the lift during this holiday weekend. “We compromised and opened it on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.” During years when the lift ran every day, it was common to see four to six riders in a day, Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle said. In the heart of winter, skiers simply choose to take shelter in the gondola or ride the high-speed Ajax Express. The spring, however, offers a glimpse at the lift’s attraction and charm.”You can sit in the sun and watch people skiing on Bell, and it’s a direct way to the bumps,” Hanle said. “You don’t want to ride the gondola when it’s 50 degrees out and you’re skiing hard.”
Sewell insists the chair continues to serve an invaluable purpose. In situations in which unforeseen problems arise with the gondola, the Bell Mountain lift would continue to provide a way up the hill.And it stands as a recognizable symbol linking Aspen’s past and present. “I was riding up with a guest the other day and we were talking how the chair, before the gondola, used to have a line that was a half-hour long,” Sewell said. “There aren’t many people who say ‘Gee, I can’t wait till the chair opens next weekend,’ but there is no question that it has historical significance.”Questions concerning the lift’s future have been a topic of discussion, Sewell acknowledged. While he declined to be specific, Sewell said operating costs are not cheap.
The number of riders on the Bell Mountain chairlift last weekend – arguably one of the Skico’s busiest of the season – will undoubtedly add fuel to the debate. For now, Skico will continue to appease those who have developed an affinity for the lift. For Sewell, smiling faces are sometimes more important than logistics.”We made those 100 people happy,” he said. Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org