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Quadraphenia

Deep thoughts
posted: 10/07/2002

The high-speed Challenger quad at Sun Valley is a gift to speed merchants. Rising 3,142 feet in just 11 minutes, the chair provides access to some of the sweetest corduroy anywhere, with a pitch made for haulin' A. Back in 1990, not long after Challenger was installed, a buddy of mine from Ketchum calculated that you could use the lift to notch almost 100,000 vertical feet in a day. In typical fashion, he invited me up for a hammerfest. It would be a huge day: Jackson Hole provides a certificate of accomplishment if you ski 100,000 vertical feet in a week.

The snow was perfect, the grooming impeccable, the radar clear of obstacles, at least until the midweek tourists wandered out in late morning. We made honest arcs from top to bottom, and by noon I was feeling it. By one o'clock my thigh muscles were sizzling. Still, I hunkered through the last 20,000 feet, and at the end of the day, I'd clocked 30 runs and 94,260 feet. It was one of the most amazing things I've ever done on skis. It was also one of the silliest-a confusion of quantity with quality that seems to happen to me all too often.

Quad chairs were relatively new at the time-pounding that much vertical in a day seemed almost absurd-but today really big days are commonplace, and quads are as pervasive as 4:20 references. If we think about high-speed quads at all, it's usually because we're sitting on one that's stopped. And yet, upon reflection I realize they've had a profound impact on skiing and are perhaps as influential as metal edges, grooming, and snowmaking.

At their most elemental, quads have given us more skiing. Just to be clear, more skiing is good. More powder, more hits, more trees, more steeps. If you're an iron man, you can charge all day every day and easily log a million vertical feet before the season's half over. Quads have given us more bang for our buck. It's true that a daily lift ticket can run more than $60, but it buys the potential for far more turns than before. Factor in the dramatic reduction in lift lines, and quads sound like one of the most positive skiing developments in generations.

And yet they have a darker side. High-speed lifts, like so many other technological advances, are a mixed bag. It's true that you get to the top of the hill faster, but so does everyone else. At major resorts, powder days have become powder "hours." I miss the more measured pace of a mountain served by slower lifts. It's cool to ride a slow double on a stormy day and watch a trail reload itself, the flakes covering your tracks by the time you get back to the top. Slower chairs let you look around, absorb the mountain, share moments with your partner, anticipate the next run. It was on slow chairs that I fell in love with the entirety of skiing, not just the motion of it. It was on slow chairs that I learned that skiing takes place in nature, in sometimes wild, uncontrolled weather, and that part of the appeal was feeling at home in conditions where most people run for cover.

The on-hill impact of quads is certainly huge, but their most corrosive influence has come off the hill. Years ago, when the president of Telluride told me what his mountain really needed was more shopping, not more skiing, I felt sick to my stomach. But his words were strikingly prescient. Sun Valley's half-day ticket sales have rocketed since it put in seven high-speed quads, because most tourists don't have the conditioning to log the kind of vertical that those quads offer. Instead, they have money. And now, every afternoon, we have armies of affluent visitors looking for something to do. So, we have a Gap in Whistler and outlet malls in Summit County. We have tubing parks, video arcades, snowshoe tours, and high-end spas.

Of course, that leaves the post-lunch slopes empty for the hardcores, which is good. What's bad is that more people are spending their afternoons not skiing, gradually losing their connection with the sport itself. Resorts wwill argue that the public demands nonskiing amenities, that shopping is the new national sport, and without it they can't compete. They're probably right. But I'm tired of the Great American Omniculture leaching into the mountains. I love our quirky scene, the mix of dirtbags and millionaires united in the quest for deeper snow. I love how different Telluride is from Ketchum or Truckee from Crested Butte. And it breaks my heart to see more and more people acting as if skiing is just another thing to do on your winter vacation. It isn't. It's a way of life.

Fortunately, there are still more high-speed chairs in the mountains than Starbucks stores. The nearest quad is just around the corner. It's going to slow down to let me on, and the thing I love the most will be just 11 or so minutes away. Can you have too much of a good thing? I'm not sure.

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