Faces of the Pandemic: Making sure the ski lifts keep turning
While there is little doubt about Aspen’s fondness for uphilling, reality is most people wouldn’t enjoy skiing nearly as much without the chairlifts.
In many ways, those lifts serve as the main arteries of a ski town. And without the lifties to keep them moving, the town wouldn’t have much of a pulse.
“It’s really a jack-of-all-trades position and really the lifeblood of a ski resort, as far as I’m concerned,” Andy Elliott said of the lifties. “There are not a whole lot of folks that want to come out to a ski resort if you don’t have chairlifts running.”
Elliott knows the importance of a liftie as well as anyone. As the lift operations manager for Snowmass Ski Area, it’s his job to make sure skiers and snowboarders are fully able to enjoy their time on the mountain by making sure the chairlifts are run as efficiently as possible.
The lift operators, better known as lifties, are at the front line of this operation, and without them there wouldn’t be any chairlifts to get skiers up the slope. This includes the mechanics, who literally maintain the nuts and bolts of the entire system.
“Frankly, the most essential department would be the lift mechanics. If we don’t have the guys that build and maintain the lifts, then we don’t have lifts to run and everything kind of falls like a domino after that,” Elliott said. “The lift operators, they are typically the second ones on the hill right after the mechanics, and they are typically the last ones off the hill after everybody else has gotten off the chairlifts.”
A ski town without lifties is a dreary one, as Aspen found out back in March when the coronavirus pandemic abruptly shut down the mountains for the season. Instead of a final month of glorious spring skiing, COVID-19 sent everyone indoors and the stationary lifts became nothing but reminders of a pre-pandemic world.
Elliott, who hails from Marblehead, Massachusetts, took over his role as lift operations manager in Snowmass back in May, when so much still remained unknown about the novel coronavirus. He’s called the Roaring Fork Valley home since 2011 and has worked his way up the food chain, finally getting the promotion to the top of the liftie hierarchy at an incredibly difficult time.
A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to aspentimes.com/faces-of-the-pandemic
“There were definitely some times it felt a little bit overwhelming. A lot of I’s to dot, a lot of T’s to cross. But the support has been phenomenal from everyone,” Elliott said. “Our ultimate goal at the start of the summer was to get open and stay open. We ended up having the busiest summer we’ve ever had here at the bike park.”
Needing an escape from the confines of COVID quarantine, people flocked to the trails by mountain bike over the summer. But as the pandemic raged on, questions about access to the ski hills during winter became a concern, and Elliott was among those who helped come up with a plan to make it possible.
“Most of our training is online now. Most of our paperwork and documentation we used to do by hand is now all digital, for the most part. The masks, obviously, that’s a new thing for a lot of people,” Elliott said. “The lift lines are definitely a little bit longer, but that’s more the length of the line, not the length of time waiting. You are still looking at under 10 minutes, for the most part, on even a busy day at the Village Express, which is pretty darn good compared to a lot of the other resorts in the state.”
Elliott oversees about 135 employees at Snowmass this winter, down only about 15 or so from a typical ski season. With travel and visa restrictions limiting what is usually a robust international staff, Aspen Skiing Co. turned to the many unemployed locals to fill those positions and keep the lifts moving at a time when people needed it the most.
“It’s a very big job, but I have a very good staff supporting me. Management has been super helpful,” Elliott said. “It’s been a collective effort, and it’s been outstanding.”
Elliott has had to manage the pandemic the same as everyone. He remembers his last turns of the winter back in March and felt the same pain of a season cut much too short. But with the record numbers the Snowmass Bike Park hosted over the summer, there was little doubt about the importance the outdoor world could play in maintaining proper mental health during the pandemic.
Which is why getting the chairlifts back open for the ski season was of such significance, and why the lifties are such a vital piece in maintaining a semblance of normalcy during a trying time in history.
“Just to have the lifts turning, it’s extremely uplifting,” Elliott said. “It was life-changing and definitely reaffirming for why I’m here. I love to ski. It’s what I’m here for ultimately, and I get to live the dream every single day.”
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As much as anyone else, Dr. Greg Balko is tired of the pandemic. The emergency medicine physician and other health care workers on the front lines in Aspen are experiencing the same pandemic fatigue that has wearied many in the face of COVID-19.