Omaha, Nebraska, is not exactly the center of the Alpine ski universe. The nearest piste, NebraSki, lies some 15 miles away and hasn't received enough snowfall to open for skiing since 1995. But in a hot and dusty Omaha railroad work yard in the summer of 1936, the world's first chairlift was born.
Averell Harriman, then chairman of Union Pacific Railroad, was building a glamorous ski destination near Ketchum, Idaho. He wanted his guests to be whisked up the mountain by something other than the tows, trams, and other contraptions of the day, so he set his railroad's engineering department to work. Engineer Jim Curran had seen a cable-driven hoist used in Honduras to load bananas from docks onto ships, and he wondered, could the banana hooks be replaced with chairs?
An experimental chair was hung from the side of a truck, which was driven up and down the Union Pacific work yard at various speeds, scooping up and dropping off a volunteer tester on roller skates. By December of 1936 the world's first two chairlifts¿single chairs supported by wooden towers¿rose up Dollar Mountain and Proctor Mountain in Sun Valley. They were an instant hit.
Here's a confession: I love chairlifts. I feel contented on chairlifts¿happy, at ease, at home. I ride them with the feeling I imagine a surfer has, bobbing upright on his board in the water, waiting patiently for a swell.
Today, North America has more than 2,200 chairlifts, and they are as much a part of skiing as skiing itself. Skiers often log as many minutes riding up them as they do actually skiing. Chairlifts are what is most familiar and least discussed, the secret handshake of the society to which we all belong.
At ages nine and seven my big brother and I were set free to ride the chairlifts¿sans parents¿at New Jersey's Mountain Creek Resort (then called Great Gorge). It was the most liberating experience of our young lives. We could go places on our own. We sang songs, bounced the chairs, and dropped snow on people's heads. Riding the lifts seemed both exciting and safe. Life was great.
What do you do on chairlifts? Some skiers scope their next line, tell a joke, make a deal, flirt, think, dream. Others apply sunscreen, hydrate, ingest. One woman I know unpacks an elaborate homemade lunch and eats it¿with ivory chopsticks¿on the chairlift.
You might ride alone, with a pack of pals, with a pack of strangers, or with someone you love. Then again, you might get stuck with a motormouth dork full of bothersome questions or personal details you'd rather not know.
One afternoon in 1995 I was spinning laps on the long fixed grip that runs up the back side of Mt. Rose, Nevada (near Lake Tahoe). Some guy with the same skis as me scooted onto my chair. On the way up, he made small talk about our boards. At the top, I tried to ditch him, but he showed up beside me when I got back on the chair. His name was Ron. Turns out he lived in my neighborhood. We skied all afternoon and somehow moved from talking about skis to talking about relationships. We became friends (skiing, hiking, sailing, partying) and confidants (until he finally wed). Does that happen in elevators? I don't think so.
Every chairlift experience is colored by a familiar sameness: It's a smooth, feet-dangling ride through the sky, immersed in the wind and fresh air, sunshine, and snow. Yet individual machines, like the mountains they grace, deliver experiences that are wholly distinct. The Marte Chair at Las Leñas, Argentina, serves up adventure, swaying over great heights in a treeless, flinty landscape. Mad River Glen's single chair, Old Faithful, built in 1948, travels through ski history. Express quads share their dynamic energy, whirring us through action-packed days. Old fixed grips, like the Blue Chair at Oregon's Mt. Hood Meadows, calm us with a slower mountain pace.
I love Mammoth Mountain's Chair 23. This ridgetop lift is alll about skiing: No big traversing from the top, no long runout to get back, as many as six laps possible an hour¿and plenty of steeps. There's no need for high-speed detachability here; riding up is the only chance I get to catch my breath.
But my feelings for 23 are about more than just the skiing. When I'm riding that lift, I feel I am exactly where I belong. I have found my place on the planet, dangling way up high, drinking in the expansive view of the eastern Sierra, scouting my next heart-pumping, skill-testing run. Calmness courses through me. I am home. I harbor a fantasy of having a wedding processional on Chair 23, veil tossing behind me in the wind as I ride. Love? Definitely.
Maybe there's a chairlift you love for a reason you can't explain but which nonetheless lurks close to the heart of your passion for skiing. You love that chairlift because of something ineffable. You love it just because you do.
But don't bother talking about it to the gang at NebraSki. They won't know what you mean. Their lone chairlift stands dormant now, swaying on a bluff in the wind. "We do paintball out here now," said a spokesman. "It's a lot more fun."